Human nature and human societies run on the idea of retribution: an eye for an eye, if you hurt me then I’ll hurt you. But all of history shows us that fighting fire with fire leaves the whole world burned. The alternative to this cycle of violence is the nonviolent Kingdom of God, where we follow the way of Jesus in loving our enemies. We are spending this season of Lent exploring Dr King’s six principles of nonviolence and Jesus’ parables of God’s nonviolent Kingdom, in an effort to learn how to live nonviolently. The nonviolent way of life challenges our egos as we are confronted with the idea that the world really could change, but only when we are willing to release some of our comfort, safety, and power.
If you are still looking for a Lenten practice this year, I urge you to read Strength to Love by Martin Luther King Jr. It is a book of 15 sermons and essays so you could read three each week for the next five weeks. Dr King refers constantly to Jesus and so you could pair these readings with the passages from the Bible that Dr King references and you would have yourself quite a meaningful Lent. It would be especially meaningful if you did your reading during a time you would usually be scrolling social media.
The first principle is that “Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is active nonviolent resistance to evil.” Last week we talked about taking direct nonviolent action and not just being passive, and we explored Jesus’ parable of the absurdly generous boss who pays all the workers the same daily wage regardless of how long they worked. To act nonviolently, we have to start thinking about the world and fairness in a different way.
The second of Dr King’s principles of nonviolence is “Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding. The end result of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation.” The end result of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation. The end result is not that we feel superior because we did better to someone than they did to us. That’s not humble. The end result is not that we insist someone be totally identified by the worst thing they ever did. That’s not loving.
This is especially important for a church like ours that supports a spiritual support group in the county jail. When we go into that jail, what do we see? Do we see people who are defined by their bad choices? When they come out and come to church with us, will they always be remembered as someone who was in jail? Is that the sum total of their personhood and identity? God says no. Dare we say any different?
The end result of nonviolence is forgiveness and friendship. Dr King says that the only way to get rid of an enemy is by getting rid of enmity. The only nonviolent way to get rid of an enemy is to transform that enemy into a friend. To which most of us, including me, would sanctimoniously nod our heads, until it’s my own situation. Until I’m being asked to respond nonviolently to the person who hurt me, or worse yet, hurt someone I love. That stuff about former inmates having restored identities is fine until it’s someone who is in jail for something that hurt me. You definitely should forgive that person who hurt you, but I’m going to go ahead and hold on to my bitterness for the person who hurt me. They hurt me so badly they don’t deserve forgiveness. They don’t get to be let off the hook. They don’t get to be anyone in the world other than the person who hurt me. Or maybe I’m going to say I forgive them, but I’ll never be in relationship with them again.
Friends, this is hard. Our sacred stories, even Jesus himself, give instructions to us both about accountability in community and about radical forgiveness. Remember what Jesus taught us to pray in his prayer: we can’t expect to be released from something we aren’t willing to release. If we refuse to forgive, we should not expect to feel much freedom. See why this is a teaching for Lent, when we actively consider what it means for us to change the world by releasing some of our comfort, safety, and power? It’s hard! The apostle Paul says that the Kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power, of action.
As we consider how to live nonviolently so as to achieve friendship and understanding with our enemies, let’s read another of the parables of the Kingdom of God from Matthew chapter 18, starting in verse 21. As always we need some context. Just before this story, Jesus has been instructing his disciples on relationships within the Christian community. First we must strive not to lose anyone; the good shepherd goes after the one sheep who has gone astray. But also, if someone is causing pain within the community, we have a process for addressing that, for holding people accountable. We go with one person, then a few others who also witnessed the incident, then if necessary we bring it to the whole community, and someone who is unrepentant should not be given the same trust and access given to insiders. Instead that person should be treated as someone who is living like an outsider, who needs to be won over to the gospel. Not shunned, but won over. Again. Because what we do in community is echoed by what God does among our community.
Let’s pick up the story in verse 21.
Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?”
Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle accounts, they brought to him a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold. Because the servant didn’t have enough to pay it back, the master ordered that he should be sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, and that the proceeds should be used as payment. But the servant fell down, kneeled before him, and said, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ The master had compassion on that servant, released him, and forgave the loan.
“When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred coins. He grabbed him around the throat and said, ‘Pay me back what you owe me.’
“Then his fellow servant fell down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he threw him into prison until he paid back his debt.
“When his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply offended. They came and told their master all that happened. His master called the first servant and said, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ His master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners, until he had paid the whole debt.
These are the words of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
This parable about forgiveness in the Kingdom of God comes at the end of a section on how to maintain community, how to maintain friendship and understanding, how to achieve reconciliation and redemption. This is what the Kingdom of God is like.
Debt is a reality, in the ancient world and in ours. In fact, I think financial debt is probably the most relatable metaphor for sin for middle class Americans. We have debt. It’s almost a necessity. We go into debt for good reasons like buying houses and getting education. And we go into debt for stupid reasons, like acquiring stuff in an attempt to fill the ache in our souls. And we go into debt for tragic reasons, like surviving on credit cards when we lose our jobs. We have debt. We know how it feels to owe someone something and worry about whether we are ever going to be able to get out from underneath that weight, don’t we? Sam and I do. This is how Jesus starts a story of the Kingdom of God.
You know what I would like? I would like it if the ruler just gave out as much money as people wanted and never asked for it back. But that’s not how things work. Apparently that’s not even how the Kingdom of God works. There is some kind of obligation here, some kind of expectation, some kind of standard for what is just. And it is that obligation which makes the forgiveness significant. It actually wouldn’t be a significant story if it was just a story of people getting whatever they wanted whenever they wanted it with no sense of what is good for them or for the community. The problem here is not that an obligation exists, that the servant owes something to the ruler and the ruler calls it in. That’s fine. That’s fair.
And yet, when the servant begs for mercy, look what he gets. Although he owes an unrepayable debt, he actually gets more mercy than he asks for. He asks for more time. But instead the ruler forgives the debt entirely. (Please note here, no one else pays the debt on this guy’s behalf. The debt is simply owed to the ruler and the ruler has the prerogative to forgive it and absorb the loss.) The man gets more than he asked for. The forgiveness is more lavish than he even thought to request.
But, when given the opportunity to be lavish in his own situation, to lavishly pay it forward, he refuses. The story indicates that the debt I have acquired for myself far and away exceeds the debts of others to me. And even having been the recipient of unthinkably lavish forgiveness, I sometimes refuse to extend much less lavish forgiveness to others who owe a debt to me. And what is the result? When the word gets back to the ruler that the forgiveness has not been paid forward, the weight of the debt comes back.
Friends, the terrifying message of this story is that our experience of the Kingdom of God is entirely based on our own choices. It is possible for us to be lavishly forgiven and yet not to forgive. And if that happens, God will take us at our word. God will give us what we act like we want. God will follow our lead. If we want to live by the rules of “fairness” and getting what we are owed, God will allow us to live that way, and will treat us in the way we treat others. I’m honestly not at all comfortable with having that much power.
Dr King says that “[the one] who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love” and that “we must love our enemies because only by loving them can we know God and experience of [God’s] holiness.”* We must be nonviolent with others because God has been nonviolent with us. Not because they deserve it, but because we have already been the recipients of lavish forgiveness, of God’s nonviolent response to us, and we must extend the same nonviolent response to other people. Nonviolence and forgiveness open the door for relationship, for friendship and understanding. Dr King says that nonviolence “so stirs the conscience of the opponent that reconciliation becomes a reality.”* When we choose to respond to violence in a nonviolent way, our lives become a public witness to the countercultural way of the Gospel. The whole history of Christianity proves that this way of life is attractive. Some people are really seeking something different from the way of the world. And as committed followers of Jesus it is our privilege and our responsibility to demonstrate with our very bodies what is possible.
Which is why it is so important for us to celebrate Communion together. At this table we acknowledge our unrepayable debt, receive ridiculously lavish forgiveness, and lavishly extend that forgiveness to others. And we commemorate the moment when Jesus demonstrated with his very body what was possible in the world. In this season of Lent, as we learn to live nonviolently, we look to ultimate example, Jesus, who responded nonviolently to the worst and most unjust violence poured out on him. He is our model for what we do and why. He shows us what kind of change is possible when we release some of our comfort, safety, and power. Here at this table, we remember that things can be different.
Which is why we continue to insist that this is the joyful feast of the people of God, where people of all ages, races, and sexes — people in every type of body — come from the north, south, east, and west, and gather at this table with the Risen Christ, who is the host at all our tables.
* Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010) pages 44, 48, & 161.