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The Meaning of Forgiveness in a Time of War

A Meditation on the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant: Matthew 18:23-35

During times of conflict and war one of the casualties is the ability to see clearly and discern fairly. We tend to view the world in terms of moral absolutes. "They are either with us or against us."  People are seen as either good or evil,  heroes or villains. The problem is, of course, that most of us, and indeed, most human beings do not fall into such neatly defined categories. 

Human nature is messy and complicated. People who sometimes lie or cheat on their wives can at other times act like the heroes who risked their lives trying to rescue others on 9/11. Likewise, those identified as saints or role models in history have serious character flaws that good historians or biographers can readily identify. This may well be one of the main reasons that forgiveness was such an important part of the teaching of Jesus. Still, his emphasis upon forgiveness remains one of the most difficult aspects of his teaching.

Consider the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. In the parable Jesus compares God to a king who forgives his impoverished and indebted servant everything he owes. (In my paraphrase of the parable, I've placed it in a contemporary setting.) In this case the servant's debt amounts to something in the neighborhood of ten million dollars. Moved by the servant's impassioned pleas for mercy, the king simply wipes away that debt in a sweep of the hand.

A Contemporary Paraphrase of the Parable found in Matthew  18:23-35

Unfortunately the servant reacts to that act of mercy without the slightest sensitivity to the plight of another man who owes him something like a thousand dollars. The unforgiving servant seizes his debtor by the throat and bellows: "Pay me what you owe!" But when the poor man cannot come up with the money, he has him thrown in jail. Later the king confronts the unforgiving one: "You wicked servant; I forgave you all your debt, should you not also have demonstrated mercy as I had mercy on you?" In anger the king delivers him to the jailers. And Jesus concludes the parable speaking directly to each of us: "So also my heavenly father will do to everyone of you if you do not forgive your neighbor from your heart."

Now, where does that leave us? It leaves us with the possibility of being thrown into jail not because of having committed any crime or broken any law, but simply because we did not forgive someone who had committed evil against us.

How difficult it is to affirm Christ's teaching about forgiveness, let alone put it into practice. Sure it may sound reasonable that we forgive the human race in general for sins known and unknown, but how do you forgive your best friend for an act of betrayal? How do you forgive your own parents for psychological damage or even abuse inflicted upon you in the earliest years of childhood? How do your forgive your spouse for falling in love with someone else? How do your forgive your children for adopting a way of life that seems completely alien to all the values you have tried to teach? It's easy to forgive in general, but it's almost impossible to forgive a specific wrong that has brought you deep personal pain.

In some cases it seems impossible to forgive once, let alone 70 times 7 as Jesus required.

Yet forgiveness was at the very center of Christ's teaching. It was his principal concern at the very hour of his death. As he hung there bleeding on the cross, with pain as great or greater than any of us will ever experience, he said so directly of those who delighted in his own death: "Father, forgive them, they know not what they are doing."

Now if Christ's teaching on forgiveness is difficult for us to apply in our personal lives, how much more difficult for a group of people, for a whole nation to forgive. Should we forgive the thousands upon thousands of people who cheat on their taxes, resulting in a heavier burden upon those of us who pay our fair share? Should we forgive those who aided and abetted the terrorists who struck the World Trade Center on 9/11?

One of the very first difficulties involved in any attempt to forgive is that forgiveness involves a judgment against the offending party and this judgment may itself be faulty. A while back, during the first Bush administration, a parent upset at the prospect that his son, a soldier who had been sent to fight in the Middle East, might die in combat, wrote to the New York Times. "If my son dies fighting to guarantee this nation a continuing supply of cheap oil, I will have to pray that God forgive you Mr. President, I cannot."

Another difficulty comes in trying to decide what form forgiveness should take. As depicted by Jesus in the New Testament forgiveness is not just a fuzzy feeling; it expresses itself in specific behavior. The canceling of a debt, the pardoning of a crime, the swinging open of the prison doors. That's why Jesus was in so much trouble with the priests and ministers, the lawyers and law enforcement officers of his day. He didn't seem to be very concerned about their problems of law enforcement; he didn't seem to be sensitive to their difficulties in the practical administration of justice. In the world of practical politics we can't let every debt be cancelled; we can't allow every criminal to go unpunished. The simple administration of justice requires enforcement of the law. But that was not Christ's principal concern.

Where the world sees the human family divided between the good and the bad, between the righteous and the sinners, between my team and your team, Jesus saw one family. He saw all of us equally in need of God's mercy, and equally called to the work of mercy.

God's love is not like a wall that separates the law-makers from the law-breakers; God's love is like the sun which shines down upon us all. God's mercy is like the rain which pours down upon law-maker and law-breaker alike. Remember Robert Frost's poem the "Mending Wall?" The poet enters into conversation with his neighbor, at the boundary between their two farms. The harsh New England weather has broken down that wall, and the neighbor is painstakingly putting the stones back in place. When the poet asks his neighbor why he thinks it necessary to rebuild the wall, the man replies: "Good fences make good neighbors." Frost doesn't agree: "Before I built a wall, I'd ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offense. Something there is that doesn't like a wall, that wants it down."

For us, God may be that something or someone who wants the walls to come tumbling down. 

But somehow we keep conspiring to build them up. We're continually torn between God's mercy and our human need to punish, to reprimand, to imprison. We want to contain by force of arms the evil we find in those "terrorists;" we want to lock up the criminals, throw them in jail and throw away the key. And in this imperfect world, for the foreseeable future there may be a need to build some walls. Some forms of retributive justice may be necessary; some systems of mutual defense may be required to preserve order in the world. But we cannot heal the deep wounds within the human family by the force of law alone. We can place a hundred and fifty thousand troops in Iraq; we can place a police officer at every street corner in the land, but we cannot even begin to heal the wounds that afflict us all by force alone. Neither this nation's most powerful weapons, nor the most efficient police force in the world can begin to heal the wounds of the heart. But that is where the real work of healing must begin; and that is where forgiveness plays its part.

You see, when we refuse to forgive, when we harbor our resentment, we place our very lives in danger. In Christ's parable, the king has the unforgiving servant thrown into jail, imprisoned, cut off from life itself. Sigmund Freud tried to express the truth of this parable in the language of modern psychology. Freud compared our journey through life to a long march down an imaginary road. At birth, said Freud, each of us is supplied with a certain number of soldiers that we may deploy when we come across some opponent, some threat to our safety, some enemy real or imagined. When we have a conflict with a neighbor which we cannot resolve, when we hold close to our hearts some anger or resentment, we must station some troops at that point along the road. We must tie up some energy there; and that of course leaves us with fewer resources, fewer troops in facing the next challenge that presents itself. That's why some of us, having marshaled so many of our reserves to fight so many ancient battles have so little energy left for the challenges of the present. At bottom we are asked to forgive not because any of us has such a great supply of charity that we can rise above our differences with our neighbors, but rather because we must let go of our anger and resentment or we shall die. When we clutch our judgments and our accusations close to our hearts, our hearts themselves are poisoned. For our own sakes and for our very salvation we need to pray, pray that we find the grace to forgive in our neighbors what God has already forgiven in us. Thanks be to God for a mercy strong enough and bold enough to set us free.

For an alternative view of forgiveness see:
Repentance And Forgiveness
an article in CrossCurrents 
by David R. Blumenthal


Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.