Costly Grace: Freedom Through Forgiveness

September 15, 2002

Ian Lawton

Ordinary Sunday 24     Matthew 18.21-35

 

"Peter came and said to Jesus, 'Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?' Jesus said to him, 'Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times…."

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a theologian and Lutheran pastor. He was central in the Protestant church struggle against Nazism. Because of his involvement in the plots to assassinate Hitler he was arrested, imprisoned, and finally executed by hanging at Flossenburg concentration camp in 1945, at the age of 39.

 

The parallels between his own experience and that of Jesus are remarkable. His age, his courage, his death by hanging, the radical nature of his civil resistance, his compassion towards people are all features which bring to mind the life and death of Christ. Bonhoeffer was also known for popularising the phrase 'costly grace', the idea that freedom through forgiveness only ever comes at a cost. No life or death has ever captured the notion of costly grace more powerfully than Jesus'.

 

Bonhoeffer, like Jesus, was a man who had plenty to forgive, or as today's gospel puts it, plenty of accounts to settle. He suffered so profoundly for his beliefs and had plenty of reasons to hate. While in prison he wrote this; "The person who despises another will never be able to make anything of him. Nothing that we despise in the other is entirely absent from ourselves. We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer. The only profitable relationship to others is one of love, and that means the will to hold fellowship with them. God did not despise humanity, but became human for our sake." - Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Letters from Prison, 1945)

 

With these words he pointed to two of the key elements of settling accounts - recognising our own fallibility, and empathy for the other person's suffering. If he was indeed able to get to a point of forgiving his tormentors, that is grace and there would be nothing cheap about it. Forgiveness is not about happy endings. It is not about warm feelings. It is about restoration, and often with less than ideal outcomes. It is often about finding creative means to restoring a situation, especially when the other party is indifferent to your suffering. It is so often about finding a workable compromise. These are some of the themes pointed to in today's gospel text. Again it is a text which challenges our view of God, and our attitude to those who are our neighbours, whether local or global.

 

The most intriguing feature of the gospel for today is the structure that is in place. It is a structure that is built on a view of God as retributive (i.e. God deals with people in the measure which they deal with neighbours), a structure which is so hard to change. It is paternalistic, which means that mercy is shown at the whim of the highest authority. Mercy is given and taken away to maintain control. It is essentially a parable about power. The king controls the servant who then finds another servant to control. It is a vicious cycle. It is a system which like ours, is a hierarchy with a reward and punishment foundation and prison as the ultimate method of social control. However, in the story there is no trial, which is the ultimate in disempowerment. It is a story about a world, like ours, where more often than not there is no happy ending, where the social solutions are not straightforward.

 

Consider one of our contemporary dilemmas; the issue of developing nations and debt repayment. With 70 million people predicted to die from AIDS in the next 20 years, nations will be destroyed because they can't afford basic health systems while their money is channelled into debt repayment. Yet the reason debts are rarely dropped is because the system hasn't been changed; the ideology of benevolence is still firmly in place. Even the dropping of debt might be seen as a paternalistic solution as it leaves poorer nations in dependent relationship with wealthy nations - the debt of gratitude.

 

There is however another option, which is offered seriously by some social change agents. Rather than drop the debt, they say developing nations should simply stop paying the debt. It sounds outrageous. It sounds like flirting with death, as the risk will be withdrawal of poverty reduction money - biting the hand that feeds it. Yet consider the situations in Poland and Bolivia. In the 1980's these two countries refused to pay their debts. Instead, they put the money towards internal development. In time the World Bank did indeed drop their debt. They had shifted the nature of the crisis with surprising and self-empowering tactics. They had taken initiative, they were no longer dependent on the grace of their power lords. They made their case powerfully.

 

I am reminded of Jesus life - his challenge of elitist and oppressive structures, his call for creatively non-violent resistance. I am reminded of the Tao saying, "Give evil nothing to oppose and it will disappear by itself."I am reminded of any number of social justice heroes over the centuries, who acted counter culturally, even illegally, to bring about change.

 

I reflect on the current global situation. The self-righteous bravado coming from the US for so long now must surely have sparked fury. Two opposing forces running headlong into a full-scale showdown, where loss can be the only outcome; again, I wonder about a creative alternative in this situation. I am heartened to see Nelson Mandela, at 84 years of age, calling for a thorough UN investigation into the situation. Again the disarming approach works as it takes the heat out of both tense sides of the dispute.

 

So often the reality is a compromise. I am reminded here of the many victims, even victims of the church, who try so hard to turn their lives around, yet find no liberation as they continually run up against structures which beat them further down with red tape and indifference. Consider your view of God. Contemplate the presence of God not so much in the response of your oppressors, as in the courage you find to seek a way through to liberation.

 

The example that comes to mind is that of the Holocaust. If ever there were people who had too much to forgive it was the Jews in Europe who faced Hitler's attempts at genocide. Friends and family went back and visited historical sites of the slaughter, which you might expect to have been demolished out of respect for those who suffered. Yet they remain and are visited, almost in defiance, by many to this day. Nothing will change the injustice, the tragedy or the pain. God is neither questioned for allowing the Holocaust to happen, nor redeemed by the miraculous survival stories. God is found in the faces of those who return to the site of the destruction and find somewhere within them the courage to move on.

 

The challenge of today's gospel is ultimately a challenge to our view of God. From there we will form an ideology which will inform our opinions and attitudes. We will face our own suffering with courage and seek liberation. It will be a costly grace if it is worth anything. We will acknowledge the suffering of those around us. It will in part help us to understand the suffering inflicted on us. We will understand the nature of systems which abuse. We will stand against their oppression. We will work against their indifference.

 

I finish with a quote from another who knew deep suffering from the Holocaust; "Take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." Elie Wiesel

 

God give us the courage for radical restoration. Empower us to empower others. Give us strength for the loss which is so connected to grace. Give us your heart for the tormented. Costly grace. Amen

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