Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Forgiveness: Upstate and by the Numbers

In New York City, it is customary to refer to most places outside the city limits as "upstate." Father A. once served a parish in the Bronx, and invited his members to an event at the Wartburg Home for Decrepit Lutherans, in Mt Vernon. It would have taken about fifteen minutes of travel in the church van, but they declined saying, "Oh, pastor, we really don't like to go ... upstate."

By this reckoning, Fr. A. now lives way, way, way "upstate." But New York, where he has spent most of his life, remains his customary point of reference, his home, even if he never lives there again. That's just how these things work.

All of which makes this coming Sunday's sermon a bit of a challenge. It will mark a nice round decade since some lap-dance-loving Saudis flew airplanes into the World Trade Center, killing one of Fr. A.s parishioners and traumatizing dozens more. And, of course, initiating a chain of events which has cost many thousands of lives all over the world.

And here is Jesus again, talking about forgiveness. Rassum-frassum Jesus.

Now, there are plenty of ways around this, and they aren't strictly legalistic. It's not as though the 9/11 conspirators, or any other suicide bombers we know of, actually apologized, or asked for forgiveness. They certainly haven't fallen down weeping before us, like the slave in the Gospel or Joseph's brothers in the first lesson (if you're using the thematic lectionary series). On the contrary, they appear to believe that their evil deeds are in fact good -- the delusion that Luther called "the White Devil." You could argue that, where there is no repentance, there is no forgiveness.

For that matter, St. Paul is clearly talking about the forgiveness and mutual toleration that [should] prevail among members of the same religious community. You could argue, if you really wanted, that all of these lessons depend for their teaching upon a mutual relationship -- the church in Romans, the social hierarchy in St. Matthew, the family in Genesis. You could argue that, where no such relationship exists, "seventy times seven" does not apply.

Sadly, however, we aren't convinced. Of course there is a shared relationship between terrorists and their victims; we are all human beings -- no man is an island, every man's death diminishes me. All homicide is fratricide. And even if my brother is a monster -- even if he never asks for my forgiveness, or any other kind of help; even if he is guilty of such terrible crimes that I myself am required to capture him, prosecute him, convict him and imprison him -- he is still my brother. That's just how it works.

Is the acknowledgment of this ontological relationship the same as forgiveness, in the sense that Jesus talks about it? Probably not. It doesn't get my brother out of jail. But it does forbid me to hate him, to desire his destruction, or to surrender the hope that he will repent. His crime does not give me permission to pretend we are less than brothers.

Anyway, here's a mathematical formula for forgiveness, courtesy of Karl Jacobsen at
The king in our parable is owed 10,000 talents, or about 150,000 years worth of income ...

The slave in our parable is owed 100 denarii. ..

One talent is equal to 5,475 denarii. In the backwards thinking of the king the equation looks like this: T x 10
4< FS; where FS is the life of the forgiven slave, and T is the talent, the wages of sin. In the kingdom of heaven forgiveness is exponentially powerful. Even 10,000 talents worth of guilt and debt are counted as nothing compared to the new life of the forgiven sinner.

In the backwards thinking of the unforgiving servant the equation is reversed when it is applied to someone else: US < d x 10
2; where US is the life of the unforgiven slave, and d is the denarius, the debt the first slave clings to as his right. To put the comparative equation simply, in the eyes of the sinner 100 coins are more precious than the life of another human being; in the eyes of God 54,750,000 coins (the equivalent value of 10,000 talents in denarii) are nothing to be considered next to the fate of the sinner. Forgiveness, as laid out in this parable, is extravagant in the extreme, and more precious by far than the wages of sin.
Wow. We were always bad at math. We can barely manage 70 x 7.

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