The lectionary readings for the coming Sunday offer various perspectives on the hardest spiritual practice: forgiving rather than judging. Genesis 50:15-21 narrates the final scene between Joseph and the brothers who had betrayed him. In a place of power, Joseph refuses to use his rank or his history with treacherous siblings to get even. His generosity of heart moves the story of the covenant people forward, and Genesis ends with his benediction upon his estranged family.
The Gospel lesson reflects on Peter’s question about the limits of forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-22). How many times should we forgive? It is an incalculable number, Jesus suggests, to break him (and us) out of legalism. Then Jesus offers the parable of the unforgiving servant to stress the connection between being forgiven and the capacity to forgive.
The Epistle lesson warns against Christians judging others, which usually arises out of refusal to understand another’s cultural identity or behavior. We know that in Roman converts from pagan backgrounds did not share the sensibilities of Jewish believers, and the tendency to judge their diet or worship patterns was tempting (Romans 14:1-12).
The Apostle suggests that we are all under God’s judgment equally, and that we all depend upon divine forgiveness to be formed into the people of God. It is God’s prerogative to pass judgment, not ours; and God revels in mercy much more than we.
When others wound us verbally or physically, we have a propensity to stockpile the hateful words or actions for future use so that we might inflict them with what we ourselves have suffered.
Right now a painful and vexed debate is ensuing over what to do in the face of the atrocities of public beheadings, perpetrated by the Islamic State. It is cruel irony that journalists have died wearing the same garb as those incarcerated at Gitmo. Evening the score, whether by drones or sword, usually only kindles retaliation, and the suffering increases.
Forgiveness seems weak, yet it is the hardest spiritual practice. It requires that we take the voyage of anguish and discovery, as Paul Fiddes suggests, in order that we might understand the position of those who oppose us. Judgment is easier, for it can clearly delineate the “sin” of our opposition and offer measured recompense. Further, we can feel justified in our actions, as lex talionis is the law we understand. Yet, Jesus challenges all of this.
He warned against the refusal to forgive. When we harden our hearts to others, we put ourselves in God’s place—a place God will not relinquish. Judging others, an activity we relish, is not our calling. It is best left to God.
Molly T. Marshall
Central prepares women and men for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.