Luke 16:1ff Why Jesus Matters: Forgiveness Rev. Betsy Hogan
If something good is achieved – how much does it matter HOW it’s achieved? The purely Machiavellian response, of course, is that it doesn’t matter at all. The end justifies the means, whatever those means might be, so if something desirable is achieved the fussy little details about exactly HOW it was achieved are declared to have been ipso facto worthwhile. Or even, in service of the goal, righteous or good.
So wrote Machiavelli in The Prince almost exactly 500 years ago, and people have been debating it ever since. And for the most part, at least for those of us who attempt to operate intentionally with a sense of moral compass – a sense that some things are right while other things are wrong -- the capacity to focus entirely on the ‘end’ in a Machiavellian sense, with no concerns for the nature of the means, because if the end’s achieved then all means are justified… It doesn’t come naturally to us. We do care about the means to the end. Our moral compass does make judgments. What means are used to get there, it does matter.
Which means two things. The first is that because ‘how we get there’ matters, I’ve decided to stick with the lectionary cycle of ‘assigned readings’ for this sermon series, in large measure because I think it’ll be an important guard against proof-texting. Which is where I might be tempted to just choose readings that say what I want them to, instead of being guided by the readings to learn what is revealed there.
So that’s the first thing it means, the fact that we DO care what the means are to the end – it’s why I’m sticking with the lectionary and why we just heard that parable.
And the second thing it means, the fact that we DO care what the means are to the end, is that nobody LIKES that parable. Because it’s awful. That Steward who’s dishonest? shrewd? clever? manipulative? However we want to characterize him, he’s a tricky, tricky fellow, he’s not the usual ‘hero of a parable of Jesus’ we might prefer, and the parable itself is distinctly unappealing.
Starting with the Steward who’s about to get fired. We don’t know exactly why he’s about to get fired, but it’s not good, something about dishonest squandering of property – but his getting fired is also not going to be good. Because the only thing he knows how to do is be a Steward. There’s no way he can hack a more physically demanding job – if he loses this position and can’t get a reference for another comparable, he’ll be unemployed and impoverished in no time, and that’s terrifying. He’s staring down desperation and despair. And the only thing he can think of to maybe make his future something other than death by starvation is a little, well, creative accounting.
Only it’s actually not even really that creative since all it IS really is the judicious use of an eraser! Because what the Steward does, essentially, is he goes to various people who owe his boss money – and by the way, TONS of money, like way more than they could ever pay back in a lifetime – and he just erases the amount each of them owes and replaces it with a much smaller amount.
So that now -- all those debtors are super-happy with this nice helpful Steward who’s lifted off some of the burden of their heavy debt, and they’ll probably give him a good reference and when he gets fired he’ll be able to get a new job! It’s perfect! Admittedly, he’s just cheated his boss out of a whole lot of money that theoretically those debtors would’ve paid back, but for the Steward? It’s a brilliant plan.
And so then we wait, on tenterhooks, for how the boss will react. Fury? Violence? Will he be like the good mum after the kid gets caught stealing a candy-bar, and walk that Steward over to each one of those debtors to humbly apologize and promise he’ll never do it again, and now he’ll always be a better boy and never steal anything EVER?
Nope! Wrong answer, three times over. No fury, no violence, and not even a teachable moment about honesty and making things right again after a mistake. Because how the boss reacts to his sneaky, tricky, cheating and manipulative Steward is this – he’s impressed! In fact, he commends the Steward, Jesus says. Not for the sneaky, tricky, cheating and manipulative MEANS to the end – because none of these apparently bother the boss one bit … BECAUSE of the end itself. Which is glorious.
The Steward’s achieved his own goal of securing his own future, sure, but he’s also made each one of those debtors far less in debt, ecstatically happy and eternally grateful… to the boss himself. And that is golden.
Did the boss have anything to do with it? No he didn’t. But he’s smart enough to see it’s a good thing. He’s smart enough to recognize it’s political gold with all his customers. And because of that? He’s plenty smart enough to commend it. What a clever clever Steward he has, coming up roses like this, and making him come up roses too.
These are unattractive characters who use (or commend) unattractive means with unattractive motives – but the ends they achieve are good. Debts are forgiven, burdens are lifted, and a better and more just future has suddenly become possible. The ends are good. So does it matter how it happened? It may well be really troubling to our good Christian souls that don’t like injustice and unfairness and no consequences for wrongdoing that Jesus is forcing us in this parable to at least consider the possibility that it doesn’t.
But that’s Why Jesus Matters. For this morning’s topic of Forgiveness, as for Christians the decisive disclosure of what God is like, as theologian Marcus Borg puts is, and what God is passionate about. Because what Jesus the person reveals to us in his words and the way he behaved and, yes, even in this parable, about what God is like and what God is passionate about in relation to forgiveness is this: just do it. And the details don’t matter.
That’s a very glib way of putting it. And obviously we’re going to have to unpack it a bit. But as the essential teaching, the distillation of what we hear and see not only in this parable but throughout the gospels, that’s what it amounts to. In all its unreasonable and infuriating glory. Because forgiveness, Jesus says? Just do it. Full stop.
But what does he mean by ‘forgiveness’? In this parable it’s literally about taking an eraser and erasing what’s owed. Just making the debt gone. If someone’s hurt us, and so in all fairness owes us recompense, reparations, making up for it, even just an apology – forgiveness in this parable is just making that debt, that owing, gone. Erasing our need to receive something in order to declare the books re-balanced. And instead, just saying to ourselves, nope: I’ve decided instead that that debt doesn’t exist. I don’t need anything, that’s past, and we start fresh. Like it never happened.
Which is not easy. I mean, even in the parable both the Steward and the boss are looking forward to enjoying the wonderful gratitude of those they’ve forgiven. But what if there wasn’t gratitude? What if one of those debtors didn’t seem to be registering how wonderfully generous of spirit the boss had been? Or worse, what if instead of thinking him wonderfully generous they now think he’s just a pushover? Easy to take advantage of? Aren’t they just going to do it again?
Still, Jesus says. Just do it. And this is where it’s important to look beyond Jesus’ words to the way we see him ACT in the gospels, because that’s where we see over and over and over again how deeply he values the safety and well-being of those around him and especially the most vulnerable – and so that’s how we remember that there can be NOTHING about what Jesus wants to teach us about forgiveness that could EVER involve wanting us to stick around to get hurt again if what we need to do is GET OUT. We are too beloved for that to ever be the point.
This is forgiveness conceived as the goodness we can do. Because it’s the ONLY active goodness we’re in charge of doing in a situation in which we’ve been hurt. We’re not in control of making the goodness of ‘the other person apologizing’ happen, we’re not in control of making the goodness of ‘the other person repaying, repairing, making up for the harm’ happen. The only goodness we have control of making happen in that situation is the goodness of deciding instead that the books are just balanced. We’ve erased the debt so it’s gone, new start, over, done. The person is forgiven. It’s all we’re in charge of in that situation. It’s the goodness we can do.
And you know what? It’s actually weirdly freeing. That Jesus really knew what he was on about, because it’s actually quite freeing. To let go of that need for the debt to be paid – for the harm to be apologized for or made up for or even acknowledged – and instead to just declare the books balanced and close them. Done. Either a fresh start still in relationship or a fresh start very emphatically NOT still in relationship, but either way no more burden of bitterness, no empty space we’re infuriated isn’t being filled. What Jesus is wanting for us with this invitation to forgiveness is exactly that freedom. And he knows quite well it’s “not fair” – a parable about a dishonest Steward could hardly be clearer about it being not fair.
But it’s also unbelievably freeing. Because it means the only thing we need to move on is what we’re in charge of. We’ve let go of needing what we CAN’T be in charge of: the other person anteing up. It’s very freeing, this forgiveness.
Not that it isn’t sometimes a work in progress… We can picture the boss in this parable, for example, if one of his former debtors now freed from debt were to start flaunting his newfound wealth. We can picture the boss in this parable maybe becoming really quite fed up with how blatantly the debtor quite clearly hasn’t changed and now he’s even worse because he’s smug on top of it. We might even picture the boss in this parable secretly hoping the fellow’s going to find himself in debt again, and getting ready to play his tiny violin.
But that’s where Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness in a different context in the gospels can be helpful. Because what’s ‘disclosed’, revealed to us, in Jesus about what God is passionate about, about forgiveness, in the Sermon on the Mount to great crowds of listeners instad, is how Jesus specifically frames frames forgiveness not in the context of “debt”, as in this parable, but instead in the context of “you have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye”.
It’s the law of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Older Testament, expressing a very strict fairness principle: if you hurt me, I get to hurt you back at precisely the same level, to achieve equilibrium again. But then Jesus overturns it. Because, No, he says to the crowd. Not an eye for eye. Instead love your enemies, do good to those who hurt you, pray for those who harm you.
So it’s not just ‘no hurting back’ and forgiveness instead of the fairness principle. It’s also forgiveness as a process. Where – yes -- we might have to remind ourselves with alarming regularity and maybe even for quite a little while… not JUST to ‘not hurt them back’ ourselves, but even to not be secretly nurturing the quietly malevolent hope that some day, somehow, when they’re least expecting it… they’ll get what’s coming to them --
But it’s worth it. For the freedom of it. In this case, with the Sermon on the Mount, the freedom from letting someone, as the popular phrase puts it, rent space in your head. So that instead of hauling around a burden of bitterness, needing and waiting for a debt payment we have no control over, instead we’re hauling around a burden of spitefulness. Allowing the other person, in effect, to diminish our basic goodness in that way.
Forgiveness, as Jesus taught about it, it really is all about choosing freedom for ourselves. It actually has very little to do with the person who’s harmed us, except insofar as -- if we remain in relationship with them -- it’s behaving with them with a completely fresh start. In fact, they might never even know they’ve “been forgiven”, because it’s not about them.
It’s about us, God being our helper, letting go of the need for restitution AND letting go of the desire for retribution because both of those are burdens we’re better when we don’t carry. It isn’t even necessarily about forgetting, like forgive and forget. Jesus doesn’t say anything about objectively remembering what harm has been done to us in the past – that’s literally part of our life story that shapes us. What he invites us to let go of is the need in the present for restitution or the desire in the present for retribution. What he invites us into a forgiveness that can close the books on the debt, and hope for good for the other person as a child of God – whether or not we’re interested in being present to see it and engage with them. Which we may or may not be, but that’s a whole different question about personal safety.
Just do it, Jesus says. Don’t get bound up in the fairness-principle. Free yourself from the need for restitution and the desire for retribution… give yourself the freedom of it all being past and not present. He’s always so emphatic. Like it’s not a tremendous emotional challenge. But he means it. Because it’s better. For us.
And if ever we needed proof that he really did mean it, we really only need to recall that one of his last prayers, as he was tortured and dying on the cross, was “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”. Which this week also serves as a crucial reminder to us that forgiveness for harm is first and foremost the sole right and privilege of those directly harmed. It’s an active decision for personal spiritual freedom that bystanders don’t get to steal, don’t get to force, don’t get to badger or shame about. Even on the cross, Jesus claimed forgiveness as an act of personal power and personal freedom – and so embodied It as a gift of personal power and personal freedom in response to personally experienced harm.
Would that it weren’t needed quite so often… But it is. So when you need it, Jesus says to us, claim it. Just do it. Free yourself of the need for restitution and the desire for retribution. Forgive. God being our helper. Amen.