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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Forgiving until the 12th of Never (A24O)

When we get to gospel pericopes like the one today, we really need to put on our discernment caps. The author of 2nd Timothy says, "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work." Today, we'd want to add, "but not all of scripture is equally useful, probably including 2 Timothy 1."

It's the problem we run into between Jesus's admonition to forgive "seventy-seven times" when it rubs up against that parable in which the master forgives once, but not twice—a problem at least if we are not attuned to parables, and the fact that the master is not God, and that Jesus probably did not add the ending to the parable, which refutes the more shocking (and therefore probably more true) admonition to forgive always.

At any rate, seventy-seven, as Jesus uses it, is not a "rational" number, one that he expected Peter to keep a count of. It might refer, by contrast, to Lamech's (the thrice-great grandson of Cain, in Genesis 4:17-26) boast about the violent revenge which he embraces: "If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times." Footnote in the NABRE says that the language is exactly the same. But Jesus is using the number in contrast to Lamech's, and he means something like we would mean when we say "a kajillion times" or "eleventy infinity" or "until the twelfth of never." It's not a number. It means "always," "without number." And Jesus would not teach this to us unless it were his own way of life, and unless he believed that his Father acted the same way.

So how do we read this parable that begins with forgiveness but ends with retribution and violence? First, it's important to understand that what we read when we read any part of the bible is not something dictated mystically to an author and then infallibly transmitted and translated into every language for every ear. We are reading the last edited version of one manuscript, one among several, and one that has been edited over many years, decades, even (centuries, in the case of some of the Hebrew scriptures). During that time, the text has passed through different understandings of Christianity, different historical circumstances, prejudices, and even belief about Christ. As the years passed through the siege and destruction of Jerusalem and the gospel spread through the
Frederik de Klerk and Nelson Mandela
Mediterranean region, there was some "push back" on the radical gospel of Jesus, on forgiveness, enemy love, and equality in the kingdom, and there was pushback on the radical Pauline doctrines as well, as regards his preaching about slavery, hierarchy, the equality of genders, and even "victory," one of the pillars of Roman civil religion. It is the "normalcy of Roman culture" encroaching on the message of the gospel, along with, occasionally, anti-Jewish rhetoric in the wake of the destruction of the temple and the "poaching" of Gentile converts by Paul, that contributed to this shift in the rhetoric of the gospel and the later letters attributed to Paul. As Dominic Crossan has it in How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian,
...Paul was saying that just as Christ was executed and was thereby dead by Rome, so Christians were baptized and thereby dead to Rome. They were dead, specifically, to Rome’s four supreme values of patriarchy, slavery, hierarchy, and victory— especially violent victory on which those other three values depended.
Crossan, John Dominic. How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation (p. 206). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. 
So there are those secular influences on the gospel, what Crossan calls a rhythm of assertion and subversion: Paul and Jesus make radical assertions about God, but people, already "infected" by the deep influence of culture and empire, almost without realizing it, dilute and subvert that message as it is passed on, in a kind of game of "revelation telephone."

There is also the nature of parables that we need to contend with. Unless we're warned from this, we tend to see parables not as parables but as allegories. In this case, we would see the servant being forgiven as, say, someone who offended us, and the master as God. So that person who "done us wrong" gets it in the end, because someone, maybe an angel, will rat him out to God and God will torture that person for all eternity. But the story is not an allegory. It's a parable, a much more complex kind of fable, and furthermore, it is in all probability edited and transformed from what Jesus originally told. Let's see what can be made of what we have before us. One thought comes to mind in the light of last week's instruction about how to live in the community of Christ. Fraternal correction demands that we go to the offender, one-on-one, and if necessary, in a group, to point out the fault and seek repentance and redress. But in this story, the fellow slaves immediately go to the highest authority and want, what? Justice? Now the whole story into which we've bought, a story of a master's mercy and the forgiveness of debt, is turned upside down. The other servants have, in effect, acted like the first servant did: they see "sin" and demand punishment. Now, as Bernard Brandon Scott says in his book Hear Then the Parable, (p. 278):
By bringing vengeance on the servant, the fellow servants (and the hearer) have left their own situation in jeopardy. The demand for "like for like," for apparent justice, has left them exposed. If a king can take back his forgiveness, who is safe?
Interestingly, Scott also sees in the parable another lure for Jewish listeners in the punishment rendered  upon the first servant which included the imprisonment of his family. This would have given the original Jewish hearers a sense of outrage and superiority over Greek "justice," because this would not be allowed in Jewish legal settlements. Even more surprise, then, when the master's overturns his own merciful ruling; even more chaos is unleashed upon the world.

The psalm this weekend says what we know to be true, what we trust to be true for everyone, what has been true from the beginning: "The Lord is kind and merciful." In my setting from Do Not Fear to Hope published by OCP, I opted for James Montgomery's beautiful metric paraphrase in the verses:
You will not always chide,
You will with patience wait,
Your wrath is ever slow to rise, and ready to abate.
You pardon all our sins,
Prolong our feeble breath,
And heal our infirmities, and ransom us from death. 
I think we need to hear Sunday's gospel in the context of Matthew's (and Jesus's) great teaching about life in the reign of God, the Sermon on the Mount. It is there that we find the Lord's Prayer, with its words that we pray together as a family across space and time, "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." Driving that prayer home, Jesus admonishes us to "love your enemies, do good to those who hate you," not because it's easy, but because it's natural, it's what God has created us to do and be, in God's own image and likeness, because God "lets the rain fall and the sun shine on good and bad alike." Most convincing of all is the actual practice of Jesus, once we get past what Crossan calls the "subversion" of Jesus's non-violent message in certain passages of Matthew that are self-contradictory to the teaching of the Lord in the Sermon on the Mount. In the end, he forgave all of his enemies and his friends who betrayed him. When he was raised from the dead, there was not a movement toward vengeance or retribution or even an icy "I told you so." The "Forgiving Victim" comes back among us still vulnerable, still encouraging us to love, giving us a mission to preach repentance (i.e., "turning around" from the empire of violence toward the empire of God) to all nations.

My experience of the forgiveness of others, both in my greatest failings and in those who have taught me to see, acknowledge, and adjust my behavior for character flaws and learned habits of aggression that might help me compensate for inadequacy and fear, have begun to teach me compassion, to slow down, to not internalize other people's hostility but to try to understand it. Forgiveness teaches forgiveness. It empowers forgiveness, just as all loving actions and behaviors empower love in the recipient. Forgiveness and love are acts of creation, and so are acts of God. They are what we are made for. Nothing should keep us from mindfulness of love and forgiveness, not even a few bible verses that might imply something to the contrary.

What we're singing Sunday at St. Anne in Barrington:
Gathering: Change Our Hearts (we have to get ready to hear this today!)
Penitential Rite (Kendzia)
Psalm 103: The Lord Is Kind (we'll use my setting and Jeanne Cotter's at different masses)
Gospel Acclamation: Mass of St. Aidan
Presentation of Gifts: Be Perfect
Eucharistic Acclamations: Mass of Joy and Peace (Alonso)
Lamb of God: Mass of St. Aidan
Communion: Faithful Family ("Ubi Caritas" verses, reinforcing our Paschal repertoire)
Recessional: We Are Called