If justice is when we get what we deserve, mercy is when we get better than we deserve. When we sin, we look for mercy. When we’ve been wronged, we look for justice. Mychal Judge, priest and probable saint, used to offer unconditional love to people who felt they were unlovable and unworthy, saying I can love you because God loves you, no matter how screwed up your life is. How often does the reality of justice intersect with our hope for mercy? In life, perhaps not as often as we would like.
When Jesus told today’s parable about the unmerciful servant, he was relating another story of God’s surprising vision for human life. Jesus was expecting his listeners to identify not with the king but with the first servant, oppressed by his massive debt. According to theologian and pastor David Lose, a talent was about 130 lbs. of silver, which would take a laborer about fifteen years to earn. That means the servant owed the king about 150,000 years of labor. This sort of debt is impossible to repay. One denarius, by comparison, was worth about a day’s wage, which meant that the second servant owed the first about a hundred days of labor. That was a significant debt. And – everyone who heard this parable the first time understood the lesson. There is an intersection between the human expectation of interpersonal justice and the salvific reality of God’s acts of universal mercy.
People of faith are supposed to listen for the voice of God through the biblical stories. So what can we make of this? Is the end of the story a warning (telling us Do this, or else)? It is an encouragement (asking us to Remember that all our debts are erased by Christ)? Or is it just a parable about the extraordinary difficulty of genuine forgiveness?
I wonder whether the connection between the two stories of this parable may be a reminder that the ways of God are not bound either by human expectation or natural law. We have already been forgiven. We will be forgiven again. If we want to seek after a relationship with this mysterious and powerful God, we must begin to consider that we are invited to a transformation of our very selves, the way we act and what we anticipate. Because while God is always just, God is also always far more generous than we could dream or hope. Our participation in life with God means that each of us has a role to play in the radical freedom and forgiveness of the beloved community.
Of course, that might demand that we let go of the way we have always done things. Can we let go of punitive justice and embrace restorative justice? Can we decide to let go of our grudges, and to forgive unilaterally without expectation of reciprocity? That would mean that we need to discern new ways to live and work and serve together. And that might require us to restructure the way we live in our families, in our neighborhoods, even in the world.
I am thinking about forgiveness especially in the shadow of the nineteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11. That was a day of sudden and terrible loss, followed by years of war and more loss. Phyllis Rodriguez of New York lost her son Greg that day. She was able to rebuild her life by befriendingAicha el-Wafi, whose son Zacarias Moussaoui had helped to plan the attacks. In an interview with the Forgiveness Project, she spoke a bit about her personal philosophy. “When Greg was killed, I thought, ‘I will never forgive the people who murdered my son,’ but I have come to see forgiveness as more than a word; it’s a context, a process. I don’t forgive the act, but trying to understand why someone has acted in the way they have is part of the process of forgiving. Forgiveness is being able to accept another person for being human and fallible.”
Forgiveness demands that we let go of the possibility of a different past, while it leaves open the possibility of reconciliation in the future, even if that will only unfold after death.
We may want to ask ourselves: in our lives, what is the intersection between the reality of God’s justice and our hope for mercy? And what is our role in the liberating outcome?
There are no simple answers. Forgiveness cannot erase an action or its consequences. Forgiveness changes the rules of engagement. Forgiveness offers us a new context for relationship and can enable us to move forward. I am increasingly convinced that the world is too complex and too dangerous for us to live as we have. It is not enough to separate wrong from right: we need to find a new path, one that frees us from the snares of bitterness and retribution.
David Lose. In the Meantime. September 17, 2017.
Richard Rohr. Restorative Love. September 7, 2020.
The Forgiveness Project.