July 28, 2019

Debt Forgiveness

Church of the Advent, Federal Hill • Proper 12c
Jesus said, Forgive us our sins, for we forgive everyone indebted to us…
A key biblical theme concerns God’s efforts to determine guilt or righteousness, summed up in the image of God as the Almighty Judge. In our passage from Genesis today, God takes this role, setting out to see if the Cities of the Plain are as bad as people say. God tells Abraham the plan, but to put it bluntly Abraham is upset, for surely, no matter how bad those cities, there must be some innocent — or even righteous — people among the citizens. And so Abraham appears to test the limits of God’s indignation, winnowing down the collateral losses to what you can count on ten fingers.

However, while Abraham tests the limits of God’s justice, God is testing the limits of Abraham’s mercy. The verses immediately preceding our passage today — omitted by the editors of the Lectionary — reveal God’s agenda. God asks himself, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice...”

So when God presents Abraham with a plan for genocide, it is in part to determine just what sort of patriarch Abraham will be. Will he take the hard line of strict justice and say, “Yes; wipe them out, the whole lot of them,” — or will he adopt a higher justice, and speak up for the possibility that even amongst the worst there may be some worth saving, and that corporate responsibility has its limits? God is not just testing Abraham’s righteousness, but an equally important quality — the quality of mercy.
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And the chief quality of mercy is the ability to forgive. There is no question but that a debt is owed, and justice demands it; but mercy stands by to intercede. And as Jesus taught his disciples, when they asked to learn the skill of prayer, our prayers for forgiveness of our sins against God are answered in direct proportion to the extent we forgive others their sins against ourselves; that mercy is shown to us from above not in proportion to the earnestness of our bidding, but in proportion to how much we show mercy here around us, to those who bid us be merciful.

As Shakespeare eloquently reminds us, mercy is “an attribute to God himself.” Mercy above gazes into the pool of mercy below, and sees a reflection that is immediately recognizable: the image of a loving, forgiving God. This is what God is looking for in testing Abraham, and each of us — that mirrored reflection of God’s own ever-merciful and forgiving loving-kindness.

God sets the example in this — the example of mercy as opposed to the example of justice — by forgiving us, in Christ, when we are so far gone as to be “dead in our trespasses” — and the only way out is for God in Christ to take up our bill of debts, the legal indictment written against us, and nail it to the cross, as the Almighty Judge becomes the Merciful Savior.

In fact, judgment is the one aspect of God — in whose image we are made — that we are instructed not to emulate, in words of one syllable (at least in the KJV), “Judge not lest ye be judged.” We are instead challenged to defer judgment, and to practice its opposite, mercy — not to judge as God judges, but to be merciful as God is merciful. Again, as Shakespeare put it, “Earthly power doth then show likest God’s When mercy seasons justice.” And so we say, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive those indebted to us.”
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There have been a number of forms of debt forgiveness in the news lately, and it is helpful to think of them in this light, standing at the opposite pole from judgment and debt collection, inviting us to show our God-like-ness when we season justice with the savor of divine loving-kindness.

The first of these likely strikes some of us closer to home than others, and on the debit side of the books: the proposal to forgive student debt. This past graduation season, a financially successful Morehouse graduate offered to pay off the graduating class’s debt. Most warmly welcomed this generous gesture, though as with some of the characters in Jesus’ parable of the generous manager, a few who were outside the reach of this generosity, or who had already paid off their debt, felt a bit cheated.

But there is another form of forgiveness that runs even deeper, and resonates with the theme of corporate responsibility that informs the story of the Cities of the Plain. And that is finding a way to repair the deep wound in the American psyche inflicted by the institution of slavery. The popular word for this work is reparations, but that word is — in many minds — unfortunately linked solely with the idea of financial settlement. But as Bishop Sutton has noted so eloquently, and as the Diocesan Convention voted unanimously, reparation for the corporate failing of slavery is not about balancing accounts — as if one could possibly do that. Even were we interested solely in a financial judgement, how could we figure it. How could we total the columns on abduction, forced labor, destroyed families, brutality, and the indignity and insult to humanity that is at the cold heart of slavery… to say nothing of the long heritage of systematic racism, discrimination, segregation, and disproportionate imprisonment, that are the stepchildren of slavery. Justice? You want justice? As the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson himself admitted, “I tremble for my country when reflect that God is just.”

But thank God we know that God is also merciful, and that when the heights of justice are too steep for us to ascend, we can still draw upon the deep pool of mercy available to us through the grace of that same God. We cannot wipe away the sins of the past, but we can work to repair the damage that persists into the present. You cannot unbreak a broken arm, but you can provide medical care to heal it. This is a work of corporate reparation for corporate wrongs — for our church and for our society, for there is no corner of this nation that did not profit from the institution of slavery during the centuries it prevailed, and in the century and a half since its formal end.

We are all called to do our part in that work of repair and restoration, even if only a portion of the people take up that work, even only ten out of a city of ten thousand. Our Bishop and our Diocese have called us to this work of mercy, and we have our Lord’s assurance that it is through such acts of mercy shown to others that we will find mercy shown to us.

We dare not ask for our daily bread while others hunger. We dare not hallow God’s great name, or call for the coming of God’s kingdom, if we do not honor God’s likeness in those whom God names his children, and make the kingdom real among us by letting the world know us to be Christians by our love. We dare not stay tucked up in the security of our lives when the knock comes to the door beseeching help —if we expect the door to open for us when we also knock. God is calling us to mercy, testing us as he tested Abraham, offering us the chance to escape the time of trial that awaits us in the end, by doing what is merciful in the here and now. Lord, may it be so. ✠

— Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

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