Vengeance or Forgiveness?

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 19
September 17th, 2017
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls

In all my years in the church, I have heard Peter’s question in today’s gospel many, many times.

How many times should I forgive…as many as seven times?

And likewise, I have heard (and even preached) sermons about Jesus’ response of “seventy seven times” being a cipher for limitless forgiveness…just a placeholder number that symbolizes that his followers should forgive an infinite number of times.

Those sermons generally extol the virtues of forgiving and offer suggestions as to how we might become more forgiving beings.

While I still believe that Peter’s question and Jesus’ parabolic response have an orientation of unlimited forgiveness at their core, this week that core began to take on more flesh, and I began to better understand the context in which this scene takes place.

Imagine with me for a minute the world the disciples, and other hearers of Jesus’ words, inhabit.

From the dynasties of the Pharaohs to Caesar’s Rome, power was almost exclusively organized from the top down.

Like a pyramid (no accident these were built in Egypt!) only one can inhabit the peak, while larger numbers of less compensated, and less powerful people populate the lower levels of the social structure.

At each tier of the pyramid, inhabitants gain power and wealth (and move up the ranks) by walking the fine line between providing their superiors with the required output, while keeping and amassing enough wealth for themselves to increase their profile as effective managers, able to influence their superiors and handle larger amounts of responsibility.

Most modern-day economies and militaries are organized in the same fashion…hierarchical chains in which goods and wealth flow up the pyramid and management and punishment flow downward.

I have heard more than a few military friends use the [modified] phrase “Excrement flows downhill” to refer to this state of affairs, and it is one of the most pervasive models of human organization still in existence.

The higher up you go in this model, the more you are expected to contribute to those above you.

For example, if a manager has 10 people accountable to him, and each of those people is required to generate 100,000 euros of business, then the person a level higher on the pyramid, with five managers directly under their supervision would be responsible for those five, plus all those underneath.

In this scenario, the higher level manager would be responsible for 5 million euros, since each of the lower level managers under them were responsible for 1 million euros.

Leaving math aside, this is the world of the parable that Jesus tells in order to answer Peter’s question about the limits of forgiveness.

A king, or emperor, or pharaoh, or president, or CEO, is calling upper management to account for the wealth for which he is responsible… in this case, ten thousand talents, an extremely large amount of money.

In a surprise move, the king forgives the debt of this upper tier manager, for a moment, suspending the normal flow of capital up the pyramid and refusing to exercise the expected punishment for failing to account for such a ludicrous debt.

It is this major reversal that speaks of the large gap between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of heaven.

In the kingdom of heaven, unfathomable forgiveness (or jubilee) flows downhill, fundamentally altering the pyramidal structure of the world’s organization.

When the upper management figure refuses to extend the same forgiveness to his underlings, the king is enraged and retracts the forgiveness he previously offered, leaving the manager to be tortured until the entire debt is paid.

Jesus concludes by saying that “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

God is not easily substituted for the king in this parable, as we have ample evidence that God is not into torturing humanity…the God we have met in Jesus Christ does not keep accounts the way a Pharaoh, Caesar or king might.

But since this parable speaks about the stark differences between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of this world, I believe the torture of which Jesus speaks refers to the natural consequence of what happens when we, by our own free will and contrary to the truth we have witnessed, choose to live by the world’s principles rather than those of God’s reign.

Later on in the Gospel, when the mob comes to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and one of Jesus’ followers (Peter in John’s version) draws a sword to defend him, Jesus says, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

Jesus has come to incarnate and call us into an alternative universe, one in which unexpected and undeserved forgiveness is the rule of law, and greatness is characterized by servanthood rather than by being served.

Punishment, violence, and vengeance are the tools and trade of the pyramid…Jesus’ kingdom offers a clear, albeit much more challenging, structure based on redemption, the power of unconditional love, and limitless forgiveness.

And now to the part of this passage that I never connected before.

Jesus’ response to Peter, “Not seven, but seventy-seven times” is a direct reference to a passage in the fourth chapter of Genesis (Genesis 4:23-24), known as Lamech’s “Song of the Sword.”

Lamech is a descendant of Cain, the son of Adam and Eve who murdered his brother Abel.

Earlier in the chapter, God tells the hearer/reader that for anyone who kills Cain, vengeance will be taken upon that person seven-fold.

Revenge killings were part and parcel of Semitic society in early Biblical times, and God seems to be putting an end to the practice when Cain is thus protected.

Some verses later, the descendant of Cain, Lamech, boasts of killing a man who has wounded him, and then goes on to say, “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.”

In short, Lamech will mete out vengeance for any retaliation resulting from his murder of this young man seventy-seven fold.

It is the first time seventy-seven times appears in the Bible, and though I wasn’t aware of it previously, I am convinced that Jesus’ use of the same number, seventy-seven, is intentional.

Fallen humanity, represented by Cain and Lamech, is trapped in a vicious cycle of vengeance, in which responses to offenses are multiplied, and more and more people die through the rising tide of revenge.

It is over simplifying, but so much of the Old Testament, from Genesis through the Prophets, lays out a series of choices: blessing or curse, Pharoah’s way or God’s way, life or death.

Jesus is claiming today that the blessing, the life, and the kingdom we seek is found not in vengeance (or the sword), not in the pyramidal structures of exploitation that enrich the few to the detriment of the many, but through the radical road of unlimited forgiveness.

It is an intentional refutation of the way things are, the way they have been, and calls us to begin participating in the revolution toward the way things will be in the kingdom of heaven.

On earth as it is in heaven.

Forgive us our debts and trespasses as we forgive those who owe us and trespass against us.

Forgiveness is foundational for the kingdom of heaven, just as vengeance, inequality, and hierarchy are foundational for so many of our fallen human structures.

The great challenge we face today and all the moments of our life, is how to not only choose this alternative kingdom, but to live it out by forgiving acts generated within the recesses of our hearts and souls.

In other words, to behave this way— but from a place of core belief that it is the only way to the freedom, life, and eternity we seek.

No one who has ever tried it, including yours truly, would ever claim that it is easy.

And it bears saying that forgiveness does not mean tolerating abuse, nor condoning injustice.

Forgiveness, however, does release us from the torturous cycle of vengeance, and brings us more into line with the nature of the God we worship, follow and serve.

Find ways to forgive from your heart this week, dear brothers and sisters.

Practice this radical ethic of the kingdom of heaven and steadily march toward the peace God has extended to us in Jesus Christ.

In a world of retaliatory missile tests, escalating terrorism, and economic injustice, it is one of the most revolutionary choices we can make.

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