In last week’s Gospel, Peter asked Jesus: "Lord, will we have to forgive… seven times?” And Jesus told him, “Seventy times seven.”
It’s one of the things that separates Christians from other world religions. We are called to forgive others without exception, without condition.
We wouldn’t be able forgive in this way without remembering how we ourselves have been forgiven—how often God has forgiven us—how many often God has given us the grace to turn around and look for God to help us get on the right path.
Our experience of God’s forgiveness makes it both possible—and necessary—for us to extend that mercy to others, even those we consider enemies of God, enemies of peace, enemies of all that is good.
This Monday people around the world will be observing the International Day of Peace. It is hard to think about peace in a time of pandemic, in a time of planetary crisis, in a time of such great divisiveness that many of us have begun to wonder how we will ever come together again.
We are not called to make peace with evil. But we are better able to address evil, and what it is doing to us and the world, and especially the most vulnerable in this world, if we are able to forgive the evil-doer while combatting the evil that has been done, and that is being done.
For Christians, forgiveness comes down, one way or another, to dying to self. Dying to a past –and a future—that has been taken from us. Dying to the expectation that if we are good, we will naturally prosper. Dying to the immature faith that told us, when we were kids, that believing in God will keep all tragedy and trouble away from us.
Forgiveness means dying especially to the self that wants to control and manage, and yes, fix those we forgive as a condition for forgiving them. Forgiveness for the Christian means that we die to that self and start living the resurrection life. The resurrection life puts us on the path to reconciliation.
Forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing. Reconciliation is part of the Christian hope. Sometimes that hope cannot be realized in a healthy way in this lifetime.
Reconciliation happens in God’s time—which may be in this lifetime, or the next. It may not be possible to be reconciled in this lifetime with people who have abused us, especially if the threat of abuse continues. It may not be possible to be reconciled with people or institutions who have done irreparable harm to us or our families except in God’s time. But the hope of resurrection is that it will happen one day.
Today's Gospel takes us into the realm of reconciliation with a story that makes us ponder the connection between justice and reconciliation.
The master has been sending workers to the fields all day, with the promise that they will be paid a day’s wage for their work. When the workers line up to be paid, they all get paid the same amount—even the last workers the master hired, the ones who didn’t even break a sweat before it was time to quit.
The complaints start coming in as soon as the workers see what everyone else has been paid. The Master has kept his promise to pay a day’s wages, which the workers had to have agreed to before they went out into the fields to work. But the ones who had gone out early in the day, who had sweated all day in the fields, are incensed. You can almost see them holding up their money in one hand and pointing with the other as they cry out to the Master: Those people got paid as much as we did—for doing less!
For the workers to be reconciled with the master, they were going to have to forgive the master, weren’t they? They were going to have to forgive the master for being merciful in a way they thought was unjust.
It seems odd to talk about forgiving God. For surely the master in the parable is God. Most of us don’t think we need to forgive God, and many of us feel it’s not our place. “Who are we to forgive God, anyway?” But if God’s mercy to others is separating us from God, it means we have to be honest and say, yes, we must forgive God, too. And that’s what today’s Gospel is inviting us to do.
We are being invited to go into the heart of God, and to be reconciled with God as God is, not as we would have God be. The parable dramatizes the challenge all of us face in reconciling with God when we suffer injustice, including the unfairness that comes with being born the way we are, the unfairness that comes with every tragic act or circumstance we and our loved ones experience, the unfairness that evil itself displays.
It’s a challenge that turns out to be too much for many people. People reject God for many reasons, but often, you’ll find at the root of it, it’s because life isn’t fair. It’s a challenge even for those of us who persist in our faith. We keep God at a distance, lest we be disappointed when it seems that God is taking an awfully long time coming to our help. It’s easier in some ways to forget God than to forgive God.
The psalmist says somewhere that God knows our inmost thoughts. Surely God understands. God sent Jesus to reconcile God’s people to God. This was after centuries of disaster, war, and suffering at the hands of enemies. The message that comes through all of Paul’s letters is that through the power of the resurrection we can all be reconciled with God. Through the power of Jesus’ resurrection, we have already have been reconciled with God—and God has been reconciled with us—no matter how dark the road may seem at times.
There is another twist in this week’s Gospel that deserves our attention today. Not too long ago, someone I know shared a disabled person’s interpretation of the parable of the workers.
Disabled people, she said, are always the last chosen for just about any task. What God does in the parable was to rectify that injustice. When the master says, “Aren’t I allowed to do what I choose with what is mine?” the allusion is not just to the wages, but the workers everyone else considers inferior to the task.
So maybe it really isn’t about forgiving God for being too generous. Maybe it really isn’t about forgiving God for not giving us what we think is our just reward.
Maybe it’s about watching God, over and over again, giving all God has to the last ones chosen, whether they be people in wheelchairs or people suffering from a mental illness; people who come from another country or speak another language; people who are stigmatized and passed over and neglected for any number of reasons, including our own desire—in any situation—to be among the first chosen.
Maybe forgiving God starts with noticing how God’s plentiful redemption defies the laws of privilege and hierarchy.
Maybe forgiving God starts with paying attention to how God always makes the last first and the first last, and praying to be reconciled with this God, and no other.
The path of peace takes us on a journey of forgiveness and reconciliation that challenges us at every step to stop making God into our own image, and to begin making peace with the God who IS.
When we put our hope and trust in this God, we will find new joy in our faith and the way we live it out. We will know God’s peace even when there is no peace, even when wars and rumors of war keep trying to distract us from the work of love, love of God, and love of neighbor.
Our God is with us in all of this, urging us on, and loving each and every last one of us.