Matthew 18: This forgiveness thing is real

Over on the One Year Bible Quaker group, I've posted tomorrow's readings (1/29) with some early Quaker quotes courtesy of the wonderful Quaker Bible Index. It looks to be a good reading: Moses continues to tell the stubborn Pharaoh to "Let my people go," Jesus talks about the wisdom of children and gives his famous parable about camels going through eyes of needles.

But right now I'm still reading 1/28's passages, especially Matthew 18:23-35. I'm struck afresh by Jesus' story of the debtor who is mercifully forgiven a great sum by the King but then goes on to hassle someone who owes him a comparatively trivial amount. When the king heard he summoned the ungrateful debtor and "delivered him to the tormentors." Jesus summed it up "So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses."

This is hard stuff for me. Philosophically I believe forgiveness is a good principle, sure. But on the ground, it's easy to stay up late at night replaying old scenes of betrayal, deciding between friends and not-so-much-friends, and worrying about possible conflicts. But Jesus is really clear that this forgiveness stuff is non-negotiable. It's there in that model prayer he gives us, "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." There's a quid-pro-quo in this: God forgives us for all the many things we've done and all we have to do is forgive one another the little slights of life.

A lot of the New Testament teachings seem to call for us to rise above our small-scale pettiness and individual circumstances to see as Jesus sees. We too should carry the cross and we too should intercede with God to forgive those who know not what they do. Lord, give me strength to put aside my worries and sleepless nights and find the peace that comes with forgiveness.

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Comment by Martin Kelley on 1st mo. 29, 2009 at 9:58am
What strikes me about the story of the debtor and with its echo in the Lord's Prayer is that it's not at all about community. This forgiveness deal is one-on-one with God: I've forgiven your debts and trespasses, so you must now forgive those who trespass against you.

Just before the debtor story in Matthew 18, Jesus does give the formulation that becomes Quaker's understanding of Gospel Order. It's a step by step guide to conflict resolution Quaker style (and of course Christian style). It's one of the most important defining statements on Quaker community, one of the pieces our whole monthly and yearly meeting structure was built upon (see this great piece on Johan M's site), but it too isn't really about community per se. It starts off with this purpose:

How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray. Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.

We live in community because we're committed to keeping us all safe from the perils of the mountainside. This is hard and dangerous work. It's essentially missionary. I think of the misunderstood John Woolman who embarked on dangerous travel (eventually dying) because he wanted to save the souls of his fellow Friends. I've seen time and again where we modern Friends explain away the chronic bad behavior in our members (if I hear one more Friend say "you have to understand, that's how he is" I'll go completely insane). Sometimes we want to maintain the outward facade of community and sometimes we go into psychology mode when what we need to do is be compassionate enough to intervene with the Friend to overcome their demons: the past is the past, now is now, and you need to live up to the Truth. Forgiveness sets the stage for this, clears our own self-interest off the table so we can switch from sheep to shepherd and pull the flock together.
Comment by David Carl on 1st mo. 30, 2009 at 5:32pm
One thing that I find helpful is understanding -- what might the putative forgivee be experiencing? Have I ever behaved that way? What was my motivation at the time?

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