Forgiveness is at the heart of the good news of the gospel, isn’t it? Last summer I took a Bible class called, “What’s Good About This News?” because I liked the positive emphasis. Our assignment during the two-week course was to prepare three messages on passages from the Gospels that expressed the good news of Jesus Christ. I chose to write about a passage on forgiveness. Then I got a call from my mother with news that devastated me.
A good friend of mine from high school had been murdered by her husband. She was a pastor’s daughter who professed Christ herself and had completed an in-depth discipleship program. She grew up to be a college professor and poet, a mother and grandmother — a beautiful woman who didn’t look old enough to have grandchildren. She was the sort of person who could be popular and still be friends with those who weren’t.
Yet on Sunday, July 4, 2004, her husband followed her car, rammed it with his truck, and shot out the rear window. Glass shattered around the car seat in the back where their grandchild was riding. She managed to evade him and headed for the police station. Yet somehow, he knew where she would go for help. He caught up with her in the station parking lot. She jumped out of the car to go for help and draw his fire away from the baby.
I am struck by the irony of her death falling on Sunday, Independence Day, at a police station. A Christian woman was killed at a place of refuge by someone she had loved for more than 32 years, on a day set aside for healing, rest, and worship. The gun shots were mistaken for fireworks. The cause of death was confused with the celebration of freedom to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.
She wasn’t perfect, but she had been faithful to her marriage for decades and that feat in itself speaks of patience and forgiveness. Over the years she must have forgiven him 77 times and probably 70 times 7 (Matt. 18:21, 22). What’s good about this news? Christian community and Christian marriage are based in choices to forgive others as Christ forgave us. We choose to talk out issues, to negotiate, to try again because Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
With this in mind, I kept reading. Jesus goes on to tell a parable about an unmerciful servant (v. 23–35) and I realized that at the end of this story, the Lord is very UN-forgiving. Perhaps before discussion and forgiveness can happen, the role of the Christian community is to report the abuse and to hold the perpetrator accountable.
In this story, the Lord forgave his servant a large debt, but then that same servant came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a small debt, and seizing him by the throat, he said ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me and I will pay you. But he [the servant who had been forgiven much] refused, then he went and threw him [the one who owed a small debt] into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.
Abuse of power is present in our communities and we will begin to see it if we slow down, open our eyes, and listen for the cries. Good news in Jesus’ story came when the community paid attention to what was going on around them and responded boldly.
The Lord did not permanently condemn or take the life of the ungrateful servant, but neither did he give him cheap grace. And it was not the role of the community to forgive this man. When in the church we are functioning as peers, people with equal power and status who care about each other, “brothers and sisters” in Christ, we are to keep trying to work out our problems. But when anyone is in a relationship of power over another, if the one in power is demanding and merciless, Jesus held up the community that was outraged and reported the abuse as a role model. The Lord heard the cries of the community that defended
Christians rarely consider the power dynamics in forgiveness. Power can be emotional, social, relational, financial, or physical. Often, when a powerful brother grabs another by the throat, literally or figuratively, the church says to the one being strangled, “You’ll just have to forgive your attacker.” But that’s not what the Word of God says.
In the parable of the unforgiving servant, we must look at who the Lord requires to forgive whom. A woman told me that one day she drove up into the driveway and her husband charged out of the house and grabbed her by the throat, right there in the front yard. It would not be good news to tell her she has to forgive her attacker. The good news for the wife would come when the community defended her by reporting her attacker to church and legal authorities, who can then hold him accountable for his actions. The good news comes when those representing the Lord tell the abuser that he must forgive whatever he has against his wife, as Christ has forgiven him, or he will suffer the consequences.
If we fear the abuser and avoid reporting, we undermine justice and pave the way for further evil. Another woman told me how she had been assaulted in many ways by both her husband and her son, and when she told the church authorities they believed her, protected her, and expelled her husband from his position. She is being healed by God’s love as demonstrated by the community of faith.
You know women like this, too. At least one-third of all women, regardless of ethnicity or economic status, have been physically or sexually assaulted by someone they know and trust. Many more endure verbal and financial abuse. Many children, male and female, are also being abused. These people need to hear the good news of the gospel as Jesus told it in this parable on forgiveness.
Some may wonder, but doesn’t the victim need to forgive her abuser? Notice in Matthew 18, Jesus never deals with that. We never hear what happened to the servant with the small debt. We don’t know if he was released or if he had to repay his debt. Other places in Scripture describe forgiveness more as cleansing and healing for mental and spiritual health. Victims may find help there, but that is not the point of this story.
If this passage really bothers you, ask yourself why. Why shift the attention off the abuser in a story where the Lord and the community demand that he pay his debt in full? When the community stands with the victim, the balance of power is restored and the community of Christ is one of equals, with mutual respect for one another. Therein lies the good news. God in Christ forgives our debts as we forgive our debtors.