Act I: On the American island of St. John, in the Virgin Islands, where Kim and I have vacationed, there were reports, by a few of the wealthy main landers, of looting, stealing from businesses and even homes, after Hurricane Irene laid waste to this Jewel of the Caribbean. It’s estimated that 80% of all buildings were destroyed. Some described it as, like a war zone. There is still no power, save some generators here and there, and electricity across the island might not be fully restored for months. A handful of hotspots have been created for cell service. But food and water remains the immediate concern. Can looting in a dire situation like this be surprising? Can the thieves be forgiven? If they presented their case to the king, in Jesus’ parable, would they be forgiven?
Act II: On Friday Kim and I went out to dinner with three friends and amidst the enjoyment of it all, Adrian and I were taking pictures around the table on our cell phones. When I took one of Kurt and Nora together, I jerked the camera back just as the shutter sounded, but thought I might have still gotten the picture. Adrian laughed and said, you moved the camera, they’ll be blurry! I refused to believe him, and wouldn’t even look at the picture, to prove, who was right, me or him. Though I did, grudgingly, take another one. Later at home, when I finally decided I could handle the truth, sure enough, it was super fuzzy and unfocused! Maybe I owed him an apology? even though it was such a small thing, and we quickly moved on – a minor hurt, I had felt, and then perpetrated on him, even though he was right! But still – how often do we experience this?!
Act III: On the radio podcast, This American Life, yesterday, there was a really moving story about two estranged brothers, now getting on in years. And while the son and nephew of the two, kept in contact with both of them, they, hadn’t actually spoken to each other as long as he’d known them. The son & nephew, Johnathan, wanted to get to the bottom of it and find out why. Al and Joe each had their own stories, small infractions which weren’t even about the same thing! Now Johnathan’s dad, Al, was getting older and in ill health, and the son was worried they wouldn’t have time to reconcile, before either Al or Joe passed on, and it would be too late.
So his plan was to get them together and create an opportunity for forgiveness – or at least find out what happened between them. At first they had no interest in getting together. Why should they do that? They had settled into their own lives in different east coast cities, and were comfortable in their own separate static situations!
But they didn’t say no, absolutely, so he set up the arrangements. His dad would go to visit his older brother, but would get a motel to stay in with, Jonathan, which was a start, at least. His dad had always found his uncle to be, very funny, as a person, but hard to get along with it. And that first day, the older brother did indeed keep them entertained. He recalled childhood friends they had in common, or not, and the conversation stayed pretty surface level. Johnathan was worried that they needed to go deeper, to actually face the elephant in the room, and that they’d never get there at this rate.
But on the second day, almost by accident, his dad brought up the time their mother, Johnathan’s grandmother, had left their home – for good. Johnathan’s dad, Al, was only 5, and his brother Joe, was 9. Al, always remembered that there was an argument between their parents. His mom left, and later came back, only to take Joe along with her – which Al always took to mean that she loved him more! This was the unforgiveable crime that he had harbored all these years. But, as Joe began to fill in some of the details, it became clear something else was going on. The father had been abusive to his wife their whole marriage, and also to him, the eldest son. Their mother left, after what was the “last straw” for her. But she came back for Joe, not because she loved him more, but only trying to protect him, as she was trying to protect herself, a choice she had to make, on the spur of the moment.
It was not a perfect solution, but that’s what happened. And for the first time, Johnathan’s dad was able to see this pivotal moment in their family history, from his older brother’s perspective. And Johnathan could now see how his dad, throughout his life, had reacting angrily and inappropriately, whenever he had been slighted, or made to feel less-than, because he had felt unlovable. Now, Al’s whole adult life flashed before his very eyes, and he could no longer be angry, couldn’t hold on to his animosity he had had for Joe, all this time.
Being the people they were, there were no hugs, or even tears, at this point. Though I certainly had some, just listening in! But Joe closed his eyes, Johnathan said, and was unusually quiet. And finally, looked at his brother Al while petting his cat in his lap, said, if I was to pass-on, you wouldn’t be able to – and then he looked at his cat and said – take her on at your place, would you? And right away, with a little chuckle, the younger brother said sure, of course I could do that. Later he told his son Johnathan, he planned to call his older brother on his birthday.
Their relationship, had become un-stuck! Johnathan had gotten them to a new, and much better, place, beyond their separation. It was a mutual forgiveness and reconciliation – though no words to that effect were mentioned.
It seems to me, that forgiveness can be a much trickier thing than we give it credit for! If sin is the broken relationships we have between one another, and our separation from God – which is, the biblical definition – then forgiveness is as complicated, as our histories of alienation and estrangement, that we live with every day!
Small hurts may be forgiven unconsciously, like the hurt felt and inflicted over a blurry cell phone picture. Larger infractions, like stealing, may be impossible to forget, and almost as difficult to forgive, especially when the perpetrators are not caught – as was the case with the looting on St. John’s after the hurricane.
And in that case, who’s to say it was not pay back, for the thousands of cuts of injustice, by a mostly white and wealthy homesteading population that controls the wealth, the jobs, and the land, where the indigenous, mostly black population have lived since Dutch slavery days. Certainly, there was the sin of separation between these two populations, even before the hurricane – where the indigenous islanders lived an uneasy existence, of dependence, on the ‘economy of tourism,’ from people like myself. It’s better than overt slavery, but like Jim Crow, is a kind of institutionalized inequality all the same. The hurricane, simply revealed the sin – that is, the separation, more obviously – just as the palm trees on St. John that were defoliated by Irene’s 180mph winds, are now left standing, completely bare. So where is sin amidst the complicated web of separation, here? And what would forgiveness look like?
Most of our lives, are actually lived somewhere between these two extremes of minor, and more obvious, sins. Most of us, I would guess, are much closer to Al and Joe’s lives, who grew apart over time, who lived in a sin of separation that is harder to define exactly, and equally hard to resolve. Their separation was built on an incomplete knowledge, of the life they had lived together, as boys, yet felt and experienced in very different ways. But is actually quite common.
Still, Jesus insists that forgiveness is important. When “Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’” And Peter is trying to be clever here. Seven is the number meaning perfection or completeness. So, Peter is thinking he’s going way above and beyond. But, “Jesus said to him, ‘Not [just] seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’”
77?! For one person – that’s like, infinity! Forgiveness is unending, Jesus seems to say! Maybe this is the loving forgiveness God gives to us? But is it really how much we are to forgive others?
I don’t actually know anyone, that perfect! But I do believe that Jesus is asking us to try. Not just, give it the ol’ college try. But take the first step, because, in the trying, the doing of actual forgiveness and breaking down of separation, we learn what reconciliation means; we learn what relief, from carrying heavy burdens, is! And most of all, we begin to learn that we either, grow in the love of Christ, which is behind forgiveness, or, we continue in the practice of what’s behind the separation of sin – fear and distrust, which can lead to lies, or even to violence.
So, what Jesus is saying, I think, is that the kingdom and realm of God, is paved through forgiveness, based on love.
The followers of Jesus are those who forgive, because they are those who have come to know, God’s forgiveness and love – - - or at least, are like the Jonathan’s of this world, who step up and practice it, before it’s too late, and the much needed forgiveness, we all want and need, is left on the table!