Monday, September 18, 2023

To Bind or to Unbind?


Matthew 18:21-35

Proper 19 / Year A

There was an attention-grabbing headline last Monday coinciding with the 22nd anniversary of the terrorist attack on our country: “Planners of 9/11 Offered Pardons.”  As with most headlines, this one was a tad misleading.  Last year, it seems, military prosecutors offered the prisoners not to seek the death penalty if they would sign confessions to their roles in the high-jackings.  The prisoners, who are kept at Guantánamo Bay, attempted to negotiate a sentence which would end their solitary confinement, allow them to eat and pray with together, and give them access to mental and physical healthcare. 

As you might imagine, when word of the negotiations became public, reaction was swift and predictable.  Terry Strada, who was widowed on 9/11, spoke for many when she said, “They deserve no mercy…  They have no remorse.   They would do it again… and [they believe] we deserve what we got when they come over and they terrorized us the way they did…  So why do they deserve any type of mercy now?”  Last Monday, the Biden Administration announced it has ordered the Department of Defense to rescind the offer. 

This morning, Peter approaches Jesus with a question: “How many times should I forgive my brother who sins against me?  Seven times?”  The number seems to be based on account found in the fourth chapter of the book of Genesis when God banishes Cain for murdering his brother.  After a series of curses, God promises the family of anyone who does him harm will suffer for seven generations.  A few verses later, Cain’s great-great grandson, Lamech, fesses up to killing a man who injured him.  He brags God will avenge him for seventy-seven generations.  Perhaps this little detail informs Jesus’ response to Peter; “Seventy times seven.”  Jesus then tells a parable which is a cautionary tale about what happens if we, who have been forgiven by God, do not forgive someone who offends us.

It is a teaching which makes us uncomfortable because we have all experienced hurts and wrongs that are difficult to forgive.  It is tempting to do one of two things with all of this.  Either try to parse seventy times seven and the parable in some way which gives us an outlet.  Or, simply admonish each other to forgive, as if it is like turning on a light switch.  One approach is not faithful, the other is not realistic. 

Kevin used to knock on my front door at all hours of the day and night, always asking for money.  Last summer he asked to borrow my lawn mower because someone was going to pay him to cut their grass.  He had done this two or three times before, but this time he never returned it.  I encountered him several times over the next few weeks and each time he had some kind of story, but the bottom line is I had to lay out over $400 for a new mower.  Oh, and Kevin hasn’t knocked on my door since then. 

Robert also comes by asking for money.  Earlier this summer I told him I would pay him $20 if he would return later in the afternoon and weed for an hour.  He agreed, told me he was hungry, and asked if I would pay him in advance.  I did and he did not come back to fulfill his part of the deal.  He too has avoided knocking on my door since then.  I am not inclined to forgive either, although I easily could if either reappears in my life.   In these two slights I could practice Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness because, in reality, the offenses are aggravating, but not grievous.     

None of us would say the same is true for what Terry Strada has been through.  If she advocated to show mercy to the Guantánamo prisoners, we would all marvel at her ability to forgive.  That she doesn’t, we understand.  Some people describe forgiveness as being similar to a pilgrimage whose progress comes in fits and spurts.  That Jesus, hanging on the Cross, prays for God to forgive those who crucified him shows us the goal of our pilgrimage. 

According to legend, there was a ritual practiced in Africa some time ago called “The Drowning Man Trial”; based on the principle the only way to get over grief is to save a life.  When a person is murdered, the surviving family members enter into a year-long period of grieving while the killer is held in prison.  Then comes the time for trail.  The killer is tied up and thrown into a river as the family of the victim looks on.  They have a choice to make and it is theirs alone.  Either they can let the killer drown and have their justice, but it means they will spend the rest of their lives in mourning.  Or, they can forgo justice, rescue the killer, affirm our common humanity, and begin the process of recovery. 

The Latin word for mercy is eleison, which literally means “to unbind.”  When we refuse to forgive, we bind the one who has wronged us and in a very real sense we remain bound by what we have suffered.  Seeking vengeance and punishment has a way of trapping us in grief and bitterness while the pilgrimage of forgiveness has a way of initiating healing, both for us and for the one who has wronged us.  This, I think, is what Jesus wants to keep in front of us through today’s difficult teaching.