There will, no doubt, be many, many connections made by lectionary preachers this Sunday between Matthew 18:21-35 and the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001. It is interesting to note that, at least according to http://textweek.com, there are no alternate Gospel pericopes this week, as there often are. Matthew 18 is it, so I would expect to see the connections abound. But what, really, is the connection? The overarching theme of both Genesis 50:15-21 and Matthew 18:21-35 is clearly undeserved forgiveness. Justice for both Joseph and the King would be to make the brothers and the servant pay what they owe, respectively. And if these were national parables, perhaps justice would be the punchline. But Joseph does not represent Egypt, and the King does not rule a kingdom of this earth. Joseph represents himself, and Jesus is clear: “The Reign of the Heavens is like….”
Both the religious Left and the religious Right are apparently unable to make distinctions. The religious Right will abuse Old Testament texts to show how the justice of God ought to be carried out in this nation; and the religious Left will abuse New Testament texts (and this one is a banner example) to show how the mercy of God ought to be carried out in this nation. Neither seems willing or able to understand that God rules this world in two different ways, with two different purposes, and it all hinges on the fact that this world is divided between those who trust God in Jesus Christ, and those who don’t. The wheat and the weeds will grow together until the end of the age.
The question is, who is to forgive whom? Is this a parable telling the United States, as a nation or government, to “forgive” the 9/11 hijackers or Osama bin Laden? What would that even mean? And whom does that make the fellow servants? Liberal Europeans? The United Nations? “Prophetic” mainline preachers?
It all sounds very pious and religious for Christians to call on the United States to forgive its enemies and decry the “vengeance” that the U.S. took in Iraq or Afghanistan. But that would be a terrible country in which to live, and it would be a far worse theocracy than one governed by Old Testament laws (which, we should remember, were partly enacted to set limits on vengeance in a community). I know it sounds anti-Christian to say that a government “forgiving” its enemies opens such a country up to anarchy and destruction. That sounds like I don’t trust the “grace” of God to do its work. Doesn’t Jesus Himself say to forgive your enemies?
The problem is in that “your.” Whose enemies? Mine. Yours. Not the U.S. Government’s. Not the State’s. The State cannot forgive, just as it cannot preach the Gospel. Nothing could be worse, from a Christian perspective, than the government doing the Church’s job. (Read Michael Burleigh’s two books on the religious pretensions of States, if that doesn’t make sense.) If the government cannot even spend wisely, how would it do with the Gospel? And I don’t trust the Church to do the State’s job, either. I don’t want preachers keeping the civil peace, and I don’t want denominations with prisons. Only individual Christians can forgive, and the Gospel can only be applied individually, thought that same Gospel then binds individuals into the one Body of Christ. Within that Body, the Church, I can only and always put my trust in the Gospel. That’s all there is. Within the boundaries of the State, however, there is no Gospel, only rationally applied justice (which can and does fail).
Back to 9/11: if an individual Christian lost a loved one in the terrorist attacks, without a doubt, this parable applies. Likewise, if individual Christians bear hatred toward the hijackers under the guise of patriotism, they are forsaking their King and denying themselves His forgiveness. But I wonder if an excessive focus on 9/11 by most preachers in most congregations (who were probably not directly impacted ten years ago) can become an easy way out of calling to repentance the individual Christians in that congregation. It would be easy to focus on the tenth anniversary of a single national tragedy and forgiving its perpetrators, while the countless, particular tragedies of hard-hearted unforgiveness go unaddressed. That is the same danger that accompanies preaching against national sins or sins “out there” when those sins are not the sins of the people in the local congregation. It is indeed necessary to warn against the sins of the age, but hatred of those sins can quickly innoculate sinners against hatred of their own flesh and its particular, personally devastating sins.
I will preach forgiveness on Sunday, but it will not be the pseudo-prophecy of calling the United States to forgive her enemies. It will be the same message as always: the mercy of Jesus for each sinner, and the forgiving love for particular neighbors that flows from Jesus’ mercy. The Reign of the Heavens is manifest in Jesus’ Presence with His Church; He has not yet revealed Himself to all people as King of the World. That day will come, but the theocrats of all stripes will not bring it any sooner.