"Boundaries, Forgiveness, And Tension" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer
February 26, 2023
Matthew 18: 21-35
Perhaps the most famous photo to come out of the Vietnam War is of a young, naked girl running down a road. Holding her arms away from her body, you can see that her skin’s scorched and her mouth is open, screaming. Other barefoot children are running with her and behind her are soldiers and an ominous cloud that obscures the background.
“The man who coordinated the raid on this child's village in June 1971 was a 24-year old U.S. Army helicopter pilot and operations officer named John Plummer. The day after the raid…Plummer saw the photo in the military newspaper ‘Stars and Stripes’ and was devastated.”
When interviewed about the photo in the years after the war Plummer said, “‘It just knocked me to my knees and that was when I knew I could never talk about this.’ The guilt over the raid had become a lonely torment. He suffered periodic nightmares that included the scene from the photo, accompanied by the sounds of children screaming.”
Thankfully the girl in the photo, Pham Thi Kim Phuc, survived her injuries. She went through 17 operations, eventually relocated to Toronto, and became a goodwill ambassador for UNESCO. It was in this role that she and Plummer reconnected in 1996. Kim was speaking at a Veteran’s Day event near Plummer’s home. Plummer saw that she would be there and decided to attend which allowed him to hear Kim say, "If I could talk face-to-face with the pilot who dropped the bombs, I would tell him we could not change history, but we should try to do good things for the present..."
Sitting in the audience Plummer wrote Kim a note saying, "I am that man," and asked an officer to give it to her. Then when her speech was over Plummer made his way through the crowd so that they were face-to-face. “‘She just opened her arms to me,’ Plummer recounted. ‘I fell into her arms sobbing. All I could say is, "I'm so sorry, I'm just so sorry.’ ‘It's all right,’ Kim responded. "I forgive. I forgive."”
Robert Karen, the author who recorded this story for his book The Forgiving Self, goes on to say that a few months after this meeting he saw a photo of Plummer and Kim together, “their heads touching, almost cheek to cheek, his arm around her, both smiling with an almost incongruous delight, as if he had never ordered the raid that left her body scarred and in permanent paid and he did not live with recurrent nightmares.” Four years after the photo was taken when the author called John Plummer “Kim had just been to visit.”
Religious folks have long known the power of forgiveness, both the need for it and the giving of it. In the past few years, science has begun to catch up with religious concepts with studies being done on the concept of forgiveness. Unsurprisingly the results show that holding on to anger increases your chances of a heart attack as well as cancer, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and other illnesses. Forgiveness boosts your self-esteem and lowers your blood pressure and heart rate. It helps you sleep better at night and boosts a positive change in your attitude. Studies have also found that forgiveness can positively impact anxiety and depression and help you feel better about yourself.
In today’s verses from Matthew, we hear Jesus respond to Peter’s question about forgiveness. Good old Peter! He thinks he’s being generous with his offer of forgiving someone seven times as “the contemporary orthodox thought on the matter was that a person should forgive his brother three times.” And of course, Jesus offers the infamous response, “Not seven times, but 77 times,” or in some translations “70 times 7.”
Such a response is enough to be getting on with, but it’s important to know that this forgiveness equation comes directly after Jesus’ instructions about managing conflict and disagreements within a community. I didn’t have Carol Ann read these verses so here’s what Jesus says starting in verse fifteen,
“This is what you do if one of your brothers or sisters sins against you: go to him, in private, and tell him just what you perceive the wrong to be. If he listens to you, you’ve won a brother. But sometimes he will not listen. And if he does not listen, go back, taking a friend or two friends with you (for, as we have learned in Deuteronomy, every matter of communal import should be testified to by two or three witnesses). Then, if your brother or sister still refuses to heed, you are to share what you know with the entire church; and if your brother or sister still refuses to listen to the entire church, you are to cast out your unrepentant sibling and consider him no different from outsiders and tax collectors.
Isn’t it interesting that right before he describes this exhaustive sort of forgiveness Jesus gives instructions about handling disagreements? Isn’t it interesting to hear Jesus describe boundless forgiveness immediately after he says there are times when you have to ask people to leave the community? Isn’t it interesting? And exhausting? And uncomfortable to consider having to confront someone you care about and have gone to church with for 15 years?
Y’all have been on the Hospitality Commission together for years! You have shared knowledge about the importance of getting a piece of Page Adkins pie before potluck dinners because they go so quickly. You ride to Book Club together. You’ve been Care Group Leaders and are part of the unofficial Sunday School Class that meets in Renee’s office every week. When you say you’re praying for each other you actually mean it. And now you’re not only supposed to confront this other person about how their actions have hurt you, Jesus expects you to forgive them 77 times if necessary? It’s enough to make anyone’s head swim!
And as if that weren’t enough Jesus tells this parable of a king wanting to settle up with his servants. The first servant we encounter owes the master ten thousand talents in Greek. Now, I’m sure you’re all totally familiar with talents as a form of currency, but just to make sure we understand how massive an amount of money this is, 1 talent equals 15 years' wages. Even with a minimum wage job that’s over a million dollars and some scholars suggest the servant might have owed the king billions of dollars. In the end, the exact number isn’t what’s important. Rather what matters is that the servant owes his master an amount of money so astronomical he’ll never be able to repay it.
The master decides to sell the servant and his family to recoup some of what he’s owed. It won’t be the full amount, but it’s something. The master is swayed, however, by the servant’s plea for more time. Then in an example of immense generosity the master doesn’t just give the servant more time, he forgives the debt entirely. A response that is totally at odds with the same servant’s behavior toward his fellow. This second servant owes the first servant 100 denarii. 1 denarin is equal to a day's wage, making 100 denarii around a third of a year’s salary. A fair amount of money to be sure, but a mere drop in the bucket compared to what the first servant just had forgiven.
But the first servant isn’t done with his fellow as he physically assaults him, refuses the listen to the same plea he just made himself, and has the second servant thrown in prison until the debt is repaid. Clearly, he learned nothing from the master’s generosity, which comes to a quick end when the master hears of the servant’s hypocritical response. The master is rightly furious and hands the servant over to the guard responsible for torturing prisoners until he pays his whole, enormous debt.
Jesus ends by saying that God will do the same as the master if we do not forgive our siblings from our hearts. Now, figuring out what and how we owe God is complex, requires a lot of deconstructing, and isn’t a theological hill we have time for today. But I do want to point out that the lesson of the parable is not that God will look to see if I’ve forgiven others and then make a decision about what I owe. Rather it’s that God forgives the servant’s loan first and then reconsiders in response to the servant’s stinginess.
It’s not a pleasant picture, this moving from fairness to unearned, extravagant compassion, and back to fairness that veers into being incredibly harsh. Particularly when we’re thinking of God. I don’t like thinking of a God who punishes people or has anything to do with torture. It goes against the loving, embracing, compassionate Creator I spend most of my time talking about.
And yet I was raised by parents who loved me enough to tell me “no.” I was raised by parents who loved me enough to give me boundaries. They loved me enough to give me the space to make mistakes, they supported me even in my failures, and when I stepped over the line or pushed a boundary too far there were consequences. That’s what loving parents do. And sometimes the most loving thing we can say to each other is “no.” Why would we expect God to be any different?
Most of you will remember the shooting near Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 2006. Charlie Roberts barricaded himself in an Amish schoolhouse, killed 5 children, wounded several others, and then killed himself. What you might not know is that not only did more than 40 Amish people attend Charlie’s funeral, and that Charlie’s mother Terri developed a relationship with the community after the tragedy.
The most injured of the survivors is a young woman named Rosanna. Her injuries were to her head so among other medical needs she’s wheelchair-bound and lives with seizures. Terri asked and was given permission by Rosanna’s family to help with her care once a week, reading to and bathing the young woman her son so gravely injured. Speaking about all that’s happened in a StoryCorp interview Terri said, "I will never forget the devastation caused by my son…But one of the fathers the other night, he said, 'None of us would have ever chosen this. But the relationships that we have built through it, you can't put a price on that.' And their choice to allow life to move forward was quite a healing balm for us…”
My friends, there’s no simple or comfortable path to forgiveness. It’s not an easy thing to accomplish. Neither is dealing with conflict in our community simple or comfortable. And despite how much I believe in the plan Jesus lays out of confronting each other, then coming back with 2 other people, and then finally having a conversation in front of the whole church, the thought of implementing such a system makes me wildly uncomfortable. Not because of the tension of telling someone they’ve hurt my feelings, but more because this is a safe place for so many of us. This is the “last-chance” church. This is the church for those of us who’ve been hurt by the church. I can’t imagine asking someone to leave our community.
And yet, the difficult but important news this morning is that Jesus gives us such boundaries for our communities. There have to be lines in the sand we will not cross. There must be choices and behaviors we will not tolerate. We must be willing to tell each other “no” because it’s the most loving thing to do. But coming right on the heels of those boundaries, that lack of toleration, that loving “no” is forgiveness. We are called to be communities and people who forgive over and over again. Who forgive extravagantly. Who don’t just give second chances but 77th chances. Notice, I’m not saying forgiving and forgetting. For our community to thrive we must be mindful of our past both individually and corporately.
It’s a fine line to walk, to be sure. Perhaps that’s why Jesus gives us multiple steps to deal with disagreements in our community and tells us to forgive so many times. He knows we need the practice! And Lord knows developing boundaries but balancing that with forgiveness can cause tension, but I think living into that tension is absolutely worthwhile for this special place.
Boundaries, forgiveness, and living in the tension that exists between the two - we owe it to ourselves and to our Creator to take on the challenge.