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September 11, 2005
Such a text for such a day! Who can preach on September 11th apart from the hellish backdrop of this day in 2001? And so this text continues the theme on forgiveness from the previous Sunday’s text. Peter asks how many times we must forgive our brothers (or sisters!). Perhaps seven times will do? In his famous answer, Christ replies, “seventy times seven,” which in this text means an indefinitely great number of times. And Jesus then illustrates the lesson with his parable of the king settling accounts with his servants. One owed him ten thousand talents; a talent was worth 6000 denarii, which would mean his debt was 60,000,000 denarii. The king takes pity on him, and erases the debt. But the slave himself is owed 100 denarii by a fellow servant. He goes to him, demanding payment, and refusing to yield to his cries for mercy—to the contrary, he has him thrown in debtors’ prison. Other servants hear of this, and report it to the king. Outraged, the king reverses his forgiveness of the debt, and “handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.” In conclusion, we are told that God will so deal with us if we do not forgive one another from the heart.
Is this a text we wish to hear on September 11th? We, who are so righteously angry at the terrible deed of terror inflicted upon civilians by Islamic extremists? The deed was certainly egregious, burned into our living memories as the televised sight of an airplane heading intentionally into a tower, burning flames, cries of the trapped, suicidal falls from floors too high for any other escape from fiery death, cell phone good-byes, brave firemen, destruction, terror, profound loss. Surely our best response to such evil is to lash out in revenge upon civilians in other lands to scourge the perpetrators, even as they have scourged us. Forgiveness can have no place against such hellish wrong!
We wish the forgiven servant had owed less than over sixty million denarii. Or perhaps we can argue that the parable doesn’t count; after all, it’s only referring to money, not loss of life. But Jesus’ parables are not so good at letting us off the hook. In the context of the parable the wrong is very great indeed, and the translation into life places the issue of forgiveness into any context of very great wrong.
What are we to do then? Forgive-and-forget is hardly the solution to something like September 11th! Unfortunately for us, biblical forgiveness is never so easy as forgive-and-forget. Rather, biblical forgiveness calls on us to care about the well-being of the transgressor, which includes the care that they reform from murderous hatreds and ways. It is not a condoning care, but a transforming care. The question then is, how is this care best accomplished in the horrors of September 11th? Is capture and killing the most faithful living out of this text?
Many Christians have responded to the situation by trying to understand more about the underlying causes, by seeking a better understanding of Islam, by attempting, as communities of faith, to reach out to Islamic communities of faith in joint condemnations of terrorism. Forgiveness is not ignoring a terrible wrong, but it is participating as much as is possible for us in creating social and global conditions of caring. Certainly such an application of the text is not easy. But taking it seriously will not allow us to do less.
Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki is Professor Emerita, Claremont School of Theology, and the author of several books, including Divinity and Diversity, God Christ Church, and In God's Presence. She is the director of the Whitehead International Film Festival and a co-director of the Center for Process Studies.