As We Forgive Those Who Trespass Against Us

“Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18:33)

Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness are perhaps the most difficult bit to chew in the New Testament. After calling what he took to be Christianity’s teachings on sexuality its most unpopular, C.S. Lewis repented in a later chapter and wondered if it might be the commandment to forgive instead. Forgiveness is one of the most powerful possibilities afforded by Jesus, and also one of the most abused. And on the face of it, it is possibly incoherent. Can there really be an obligation to forgive? Is that what Jesus said or meant?

The obvious power of forgiveness is that it stops the cycle of sin begetting sin. I hurt you, so you hurt me, so I hurt you back, etc. ad inf. In Prolegomena to Charity, Jean-Luc Marion analyses it as the logic of evil by which one eventually destroys oneself. You want to make pain stop at any cost, so you attack whatever is causing it. You try to punish the guilty. But eventually, you find the whole world to be guilty. And you can’t destroy the world, so you destroy yourself. He says that Jesus defeats evil by not perpetuating its logic, by not avenging himself. “As a sheep before its shearers is silent…” I think he’s correct as far as he goes, but is that all?

Whatever forgiveness is, it is not the mere non-resistance of evil. If Jesus was able to stop the logic of evil by not resisting it, that is because of his divinity, the “hook in the worm.” He doesn’t simply decline to redress wrongs; he redresses wrongs by making all things new. My mind goes immediately to victims of domestic or sexual abuse: anger is a normal and probably necessary part of healing. And sometimes it is a very violent anger. And the victim must, MUST take steps to protect himself or herself. If she or he cannot bring herself or himself to desire the full rehabilitation of the abuser, nobody on earth should try to force the matter. But what does Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness mean then? Is it an obligation, or is it something else?

Take the parable of the unforgiving slave (Matthew 18:23-25). The slave owes his master all the money hyperbole can imagine and is hopelessly unable to pay it back. The master takes pity and forgives his debt. But the slave then attempts to collect a petty sum owed him by a fellow slave, and uses the power of the state to send him to debtors prison when he is unable to pay. Hearing of this, the master changes his mind and insists on complete repayment of the original debt, and sends the first slave to prison to be tortured until he can pay it. It’s a troubling story, since it seems to put God in the roll of the slave-owner and debt collector. But I don’t think the point is just that if you won’t let your fellow human beings off the hook for their wrongs against you, that God will extract the just (and infinite) penalty for your (infinite) wrongs. And yet, Jesus does seem to be making forgiveness of others the necessary condition for one’s own forgiveness.

But what does the master do when he releases the slave from his debt? He changes his life. He releases him from the economy of debt (and presumably, from that of slavery). He releases him from the world governed by wrong and retribution. But the slave insists on continuing to live in that world. I’m often tempted to read this parable as meaning that it wasn’t fair for the first slave to attempt forced collection of the small debt owed him when he himself wasn’t being held to his debt. But the parable isn’t about fairness; it’s about mercy, something of an entirely different order. The slave doesn’t fail to be fair, but fails to accept the invitation to a new life lived according to mercy.

Now it should be noted that it is the release from debt that invites and enables the slave to live according to mercy, which should have entailed forgiving the debts owed him. It is likewise, I think, Jesus’ healing us that enables us to live according to the logic of forgiveness rather than vengeance (or even fairness). A great deal of harm has been done by Christians who insist that the victims of injustice must forgive their perpetrators without seeking redress of wrongs. First, because forgiveness is on a different order from fairness, it is meaningless to speak of an obligation to forgive. Second, and perhaps more importantly, forgiveness is meant to heal the hurt, not to hurt the victim more. Forgiveness is enabled by healing, and I’m not sure one can meaningfully forgive without being healed.  

But what does Jesus’ invitation mean when one can neither forgive nor desire to forgive? Perhaps it simply means to desire to be healed. When one has been hurt beyond his or her ability to forgive, one may hope and pray to be healed to the point where forgiveness heals further rather than prolongs and validates the harm. We need not think of it this way when we are hurt, but desiring our own healing and accepting the healing Jesus wants to give us is not just for ourselves. It is for the whole world, including the ones who have wronged us.

Such healing is not a command. It’s not even just an invitation. It’s a promise. That we may be obtain this promise, may God give us grace.