Increasing Faith in Forgiveness

mulberry_tree_by_vincent_van_goghThe disciples’ demand (not a request) that Jesus increase their faith, (Lk. 17: 5) with a hint of desperation that such a demand entails, seems to come out of nowhere when it begins the Gospel reading. So let us look at the preceding paragraph for some context.

That paragraph begins with Jesus’ ominous warning against being occasions of stumbling (scandals) for any of Jesus’ “little ones.” Unlike the parallels in the other synoptic Gospels, however, this warning is quickly followed by an admonition to rebuke those who cause stumbling but then to forgive them if they are penitent, even if it is seven times a day, which is a lot of forgiving.

So, the disciples aren’t having a problem believing in the Nicene Creed. They are having a problem accepting this demand to be forgiving on such an incredible scale. After all, if one repents seven times a day, how serious is the repentance? Forgiving like that often requires the patience of a saint and not even many of the saints I know anything about are as patient as that. The “faith” at issue here, then, seems best understood in the usual meaning in Jesus’ time which would stress fidelity to Jesus’ teachings and trust in his sanity in the face of such impossible demands. In the same fashion, we can understand “faith” as used in Habakkuk 2:4 as referring to remaining steadfast to Yahweh in the face of the human violence of social injustice in Israel and the violence of the Babylonian invaders. That is, in the face of people who cause much stumbling and need forgiveness almost nonstop.

Unlike the parallels in Matthew and Mark, faith the size of a mustard seed is enough to move this mountain, perhaps the Temple Mount and its sacrificial system, from here to there. But mulberry trees have nothing to do with sacrifice. So why a mulberry tree in this version? A mulberry tree can be nice to have around but it an be a nuisance in some circumstances. When I was growing up, we had a mulberry tree on the edge of our property. The berries were a nice treat but they also stained the driveway a deep purple. Mulberry trees also have complex root systems that spread out a large distance just under the surface and they also send sinker roots deep into the soil. This may be one of the reasons my father used a tree removal service rather than faith to move the tree off from the property.

We an see the mulberry tree as an image of the intractability of the occasions for stumbling that we encounter on a daily basis. The image also stands for the tangle of our anger and frustration over being asked to forgive those who keep making us stumble over and over again. The close coupling of Jesus’ admonitions here suggests that all of us cause others to stumble about as much as we have occasion to forgive others for making us stumble. Faith the size of a mustard seed is enough to pull us out this tangle of scandal and stumbling and yet we have trouble having as much faith as that!

A brief parable follows. We are apt to think the master treating his slaves so harshly stands for God, but Jesus is asking: Whom among you would say to his slave to come sit down for dinner after a hard days’s work? The implication is that we are the ones who would like to have the power to order people about like that. But is that faithfulness to Christ? Looks more like a cause of stumbling to me. Jesus then shifts to the perspective of the slave who must not presume to be worthy of any reward, just as slaves were so considered in his time. In a similar parable in Luke 12, Jesus says that the master is the one who will wait on those slaves who eagerly await his return. In daily life, we often feel that we are slaves of those who cause trouble and so demand much attention and energy on our part and yet are the last to express any gratitude for what we do for them. We tend to resent such slavery and take refuge in vengeful anger and maybe some grudging forgiveness that makes us feel superior. But Jesus places himself in the position of the slave to those who stumble and makes others stumble, so that is where we will find Jesus if we have the faith the size of a mustard seed.

Christian Community (2)

guestsNarthex1In essence, the kingdom Jesus encouraged his followers to enter is based on peace and forgiveness. In his inaugural sermon in Luke, Jesus announced that the kingdom was about bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the Lord’s favor, to use the summary Jesus draws from Isaiah in his inaugural sermon in Luke. The year of the Lord’s favor refers to the Jubilee year, the year that debts were to be forgiven. We should not forget that the petition in the Our Father about asking forgiveness of our sins is also about forgiving our debts. Letting the oppressed go free refers to God’s command to Pharaoh to let God’s people go. This command applies to all of us insofar as we keep even one person in bondage to us in any way, including emotional blackmail. Years ago, at a Benedictine abbots’ workshop, I head a series of conferences on biblical spirituality by Demetrius Dumm, a seasoned monk of St. Vincent’s Archabbey. He said with deep solemnity that he was afraid that at the Judgment, we would each be asked one question and one question only: “Did you let my people go?”

These teachings are the primary blueprint for a community based on Christ, what some call Church, but this community that Jesus clearly tried to form did not happen in his lifetime, as recounted in my earlier post. (See Christian Community (1) This suggests that, important and fundamental as Jesus teachings are, they are no enough to form a community based on these teachings. What did form such a community was Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead. But it was not just the Resurrection itself that formed the community; it was the radical preemptive forgiveness with which Jesus approached his scattered followers. If Jesus had just bashed in the heads of his persecutors, everything would have been the same and we humans would still have no alternative but to cohere through the persecution of a victim. The church was not founded on the teachings of Jesus; the Church was founded by Jesus himself acting on his teachings. In short, Jesus forgave the Church into existence.

Note that Jesus did not forgive individuals and leave them as individuals. Jesus forgave all of us as the community of humanity. Jesus could stand alone against the persecutory crowd. We cannot. Only a community gathered on a radically new principle can counteract the old human community gathered the old way. This is what St. Paul was getting at when he said we have to become members of a new humanity in Christ.

I am not talking about the church as a set of institutions with their paraphernalia of miters, Geneva gowns, pointed steeples and mega buildings. I am talking about people who consciously seek to gather in the radical forgiveness of Jesus, a gathering that precludes the persecutory mechanism as a means of binding people together. This radical act of forgiveness on the part of Jesus was made for all people at all times. This means that everybody everywhere and any time who gathers in forgiveness is within the Church regardless of what ecclesiastical cards one might or might not carry in one’s wallet. Of course, most of us gather through forgiveness some of the time at best. That means that most of us are partly in the Church and partly outside of it. The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds is about the world, the institutional church and each one of us. (See Christ  the Rejected Cornerstone among the Weeds.)

The New Testament word for Church, ekklesia, literally means “calling out of.” In this respect, everybody is in the church because everybody, without exception, is being called out of human community based on persecution and called into human community based on forgiveness. Of course, some people respond to this call and some don’t. Actually, most of us respond to the call some of the time at most. Such is the case of those of us who are members of an organized church and those who wouldn’t go through a church door under any circumstances. Not even as unifying an act as pre-emptive forgiveness by the risen Jesus can avoid causing division for the simple reason that each of us is divided by a choice we have to make day by day. There is much more to a theology of Church than this, but without the attempt to gather in the risen Jesus’ radical forgiveness there is no real church at all.

 Go to Christian Community (3)