Last week, we talked about Jesus’ teachings about the pillars of first-century Jewish piety in Matthew 6:1-18. There is one aspect of that teaching, however, that we did not discuss. And we need to talk about it now.
Why do we need to talk about it? We need to talk about it because it is perhaps the most difficult part of Jesus teaching in this section for us to get our heads (and our hearts) around. It is his teaching on forgiveness.
Acknowledging the Problem
We shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus calls his followers to forgive. After all, the impulse to forgive is deeply rooted in the character and actions of God. Throughout Scripture, God reveals himself as one who desires to forgive, and anyone who is a disciple of Jesus has become a recipient of that forgiveness.
Still, we struggle to understand why such an onerous command is laid upon us and how it ought to be lived out in our daily interactions with an incredibly cruel world. Set aside for a moment the obvious soteriological difficulties with saying that God won’t forgive us if we don’t forgive. There is still plenty of reason for us to feel angst about this seemingly inflexible command.
We cry with anger against the injustices that are done to us, imagining that God treats them with callous disregard. Indeed, Jesus’ own words in Matthew 18:21-35 seem to reinforce this impression. More practically, we wonder if there is any way to protect ourselves (to say nothing of vulnerable populations like women, children, and the elderly) from abuse given the seemingly absolute nature of the command to forgive. I agree with Craig Keener’s principle that we should Interpret Matthew’s Gospel in a way that helps the weak, not in a way that hurts them, but faithful readers can be excused if they feel as though there is an imbalance here between the obligations that are placed upon the innocent and those that are placed upon the guilty. And ham-handed appeals to universal sinfulness (cf. Romans 1:18-3:20) do little to address this apparent imbalance.
Finding a Solution
So, how can we address these concerns with theological integrity and pastoral sensitivity? I think that our work should begin by recognizing to whom this teaching is addressed. Jesus isn’t talking here to the public in general, although many people outside his immediate circle are probably overhearing his words. Jesus is talking to his disciples—those who have committed their lives to follow Jesus’ teachings and example and who have trusted him to bring them into proper relationship with God. I’m not saying that forgiveness is a bad idea for people who aren’t Christians. Rather, I am saying that those who follow Jesus understand the theological, soteriological, and eschatological principles that govern the cosmos. They understand the “deep magic” (to borrow language from C. S. Lewis) that animates the grand narrative of history. That understanding helps them make sense of forgiveness and gives them the motivation they need to put it into practice even in difficult circumstances.
Second, did you notice what Jesus said in Matthew 5:23-24? We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about those verses (or about the two verses that follow) when we talked about the initial portions of this sermon, but we need to talk about them now. Before Jesus ever enjoins his followers to forgive, he calls them to make things right with those who may have something against them. Indeed, in vv. 25-26, he even goes so far as to give them practical advice in the event that someone sues them. Far from permitting his followers to get by with hurting their neighbors, Jesus demands that they make amends even before they participate in worship.
This aspect of Jesus’ teaching does at least two things. First, it allays our fears that God does not care about the wrong things that are done to us. God does care, and He wants to see those wrongs addressed. Second, it provides the context for understanding Jesus’ absolute demand to forgive. The presumption is that, when Christ’s followers hurt one another (or anyone else, for that matter), they will be honest about what they have done and try to make things right. And when that happens, the responsibility of the one who was wronged is to recognize her or his own tendency to sin and need for forgiveness and to treat the one who did wrong accordingly.
This way of interpreting Jesus’ demand does not in any way excuse an unforgiving attitude. Nor does it provide enough wiggle room in Jesus’ words for us to demand our pound of flesh from those who wrong us. We need to remember that, in the parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus presumes that some debts cannot be adequately repaid. (Contrary to a lot of preaching that is out there, even the debt owed by the second servant is significant; it merely pales by comparison with the debt owed by the first servant.) But it does help us to work through the complex maze of problems created by human sinfulness in a way that is sensitive to the needs of those who have experienced real injustice and in a way that is faithful to the forceful and yet nuanced teaching of Jesus.
More Work to Do
Even if I have rightly understood the teachings of Jesus on this important topic, there is still more work for us to do, both as individual followers of Jesus and as leaders of congregations. As we have talked about on the blog before, we have to wrestle with the practical questions of how forgiveness should impact relationships going forward. Moreover, we need to think about what we can do to help people have the intellectual and emotional resources that they need to forgive those who hurt them. The way that we handle these issues will not only impact the way that individuals in our churches relate to one another, but it will also impact the health of our marriages, the way we engage issues of crime and punishment, and the expectations that we place on those who lead our churches.