“Forgiveness: The Currency of Grace”
Genesis 50:15-21 and Luke 16:1-13
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
15 When Joseph’s brothers realized that their father was now dead, they said, “What if Joseph bears a grudge against us, and wants to pay us back seriously for all of the terrible things we did to him?”16 So they approached Joseph and said, “Your father gave orders before he died, telling us, 17 ‘This is what you should say to Joseph. “Please, forgive your brothers’ sins and misdeeds, for they did terrible things to you. Now, please forgive the sins of the servants of your father’s God.”’” Joseph wept when they spoke to him.
18 His brothers wept too, fell down in front of him, and said, “We’re here as your slaves.”
19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I God? 20 You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as he’s doing today.21 Now, don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your children.”
So he put them at ease and spoke reassuringly to them. (Genesis 50:15-21 CEB)
Jesus also said to the disciples, “A certain rich man heard that his household manager was wasting his estate. 2 He called the manager in and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give me a report of your administration because you can no longer serve as my manager.’
3 “The household manager said to himself, What will I do now that my master is firing me as his manager? I’m not strong enough to dig and too proud to beg. 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I am removed from my management position, people will welcome me into their houses.
5 “One by one, the manager sent for each person who owed his master money. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He said, ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil.’ The manager said to him, ‘Take your contract, sit down quickly, and write four hundred fifty gallons.’ 7 Then the manager said to another, ‘How much do you owe?’ He said, ‘One thousand bushels of wheat.’ He said, ‘Take your contract and write eight hundred.’
8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he acted cleverly. People who belong to this world are more clever in dealing with their peers than are people who belong to the light. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to make friends for yourselves so that when it’s gone, you will be welcomed into the eternal homes.
10 “Whoever is faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who is dishonest with little is also dishonest with much. 11 If you haven’t been faithful with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 If you haven’t been faithful with someone else’s property, who will give you your own? 13 No household servant can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Luke 16:1-13 CEB)
“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
Presbyterians are one of the few denominations to use the economic metaphor of debts when confessing forgiveness. And while “trespasses” and “sins” may be more widely used, “debts” associates with biblical references like “You cannot serve God and wealth,” (Luke 16:13b) and “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:25)
Whatever word one uses in the Lord’s Prayer, forgiveness is a demanding and complicating spiritual discipline. Even to consider releasing someone from our indignation or from our desire for retribution can throw us into confusion. Resentment can be as seductive as it is destructive, and all too often, we decide who we are by whom we oppose.
For one semester in high school, I was in the band, and our band director, though a fine musician, seemed emotionally stuck in middle school. After having engaged in some petty revenge drama with another high school band, our director, tried to teach us, and I quote, “You know you’re mature when you can hold a grudge.” In revealing his immaturity, that band director also revealed that forgiveness was not in his vocabulary.
Beyond the childishness of merely holding grudges lie much more serious issues, such as how to forgive someone who seems unrepentant, and how to forgive when a wound is too fresh or too deep.
While those struggles are real, I also think that we’ve hand-cuffed ourselves with deep misunderstandings of forgiveness. If Jesus teaches us anything, he teaches us that to forgive is not to stop holding each other accountable. To forgive is to participate in God’s order-restoring economy of grace.
The law of entropy states that all systems devolve into disorder—for political and economic systems that means the disorder of injustice, inequity, and violence. Disorder is also a hobgoblin for most religious institutions because, as our own Book of Order says, human beings have a “tendency to[ward] idolatry and tyranny.” In healthy spiritual traditions, forgiveness is the correcting, the healing of entropy’s disarray. True forgiveness restores equity, justice, and peace within the Creation.
Many Christians find the parable of the dishonest manager Jesus’ most troubling parable. In the story, a manager forgives a portion of the debts that two debtors owed the same rich man. And through this “forgiveness,” the manager seeks to secure future favors for himself. Now, mutual back scratching is hardly uncommon. It’s just that forgiving debts in order to secure indebtedness is not forgiveness at all. It’s a graceless ploy to create a relationship of control and manipulation. As such it does nothing more than to participate in the rich man’schaos-breeding economy of scarcity.
Genuine forgiveness, however, is the very currency of grace. It’s about recognizing, re-membering, and re-living the grace of God as revealed in Jesus. And it’s the re-living part that tests and yet truly delivers us.
Because embodying forgiveness can be so difficult, many find it much easier simply to focus on personal sins than to pick up the heavy cross of forgiving others. That’s one reason that Christian theology, especially since the days of Constantine, has revolved around the theme of frightening people into individual repentance. Confess your sins so that you escape hell and go to heaven! Isn’t that easier than learning to forgive ourselves and our neighbors so that we live into a communal awareness of and participation in the here-and-now realm of God where our most relevant profession of faith is not reciting creeds but living in prophetic community in and for the world?
As we wrestle with this parable, let’s also consider the art of parable itself. A biblical scholar named Robert Funk said something very interesting about parables. He began by saying that myth creates the world in which we live. And by “myth” he didn’t simply mean fabricated stories of gods and goddesses. Myths are the densely symbolic and deeply true narratives of heroes, villains, tricksters, and lovers that shed light on the deepest innerworkings of the human heart, and, therefore, of human community. If myth creates world, said Funk, “parable undercuts world; parable brings not peace but a sword…Whatever we have come to expect, as a result of our myths, parable erodes, satirizes, explodes.”1
So, when the disciples ask Jesus why he teaches in parables, he says, So that “‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’” (Mt. 13:13) Jesus uses parables as a way of transforming the world by reversing the entropy, by redeeming our visions of and expectations within the world.
When the “dishonest manager” disburses assets that he does not own, he does so as an act of self-preservation. And while the rich man commends the manager as a kindred spirit, he still fires the manager, because that’s what one does in disordered economies of merit, quid pro quo, and retaliation. It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.
Wrapping up the parable, Jesus says, “Make friends by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
I think that statement confuses us because a nuance gets lost in translation. In verse 4, when the manager plans to manipulate friends to “welcome [him] into their homes,” the Greek word for home is oikos, which refers to a household. In verse 9, when Jesus speaks of “eternal homes,” the Greek word for home is skénas, which means, paradoxically, “tents.” Scott Bader-Saye says that the parable hinges on these two words. “Jesus does not promise ‘homes’ but ‘tents,’” says Bayer-Saye. “Jesus does not promise to provide what the [dishonest manager] sought, [namely] the stable abode of those who have possessions and security. Rather, Jesus promises the unstable abode of the wanderer, the refugee, and the pilgrim, whose mobility requires the dispossession of goods.
“Perhaps,” says Scott Bader-Saye, “the Jesus who told this parable calls us to dissipate wealth as the [dishonest manager] did, but in order to be dispossessed of the desire [to make others indebted to us].” he calls that being “freed by…[the] holy squandering…[of] the possessions that possess [us].”2
If we run with the notion that the currency of grace is forgiveness, then maybe, dishonest wealth becomes our own extravagant disbursement of forgiveness, even when it’s not ours to offer, even when it makes no sense to offer it.
Jesus’ reminds us that the grace of forgiveness is a gift from God—something we cannot earn and do not own. And in the mystifying economy of God, the more of this transforming currency we spend, that is to say, the more forgiveness we give, the more we’ll have, and the more there is for everyone.
When extending forgiveness is still too much to bear, that probably means one thing. It probably means that we must first squander a whole fortune of forgiveness on ourselves. When we forgive ourselves, when we forgive our past, the tent flaps open, and we find ourselves being restored to community.
And that means that we’re never without a place to call home.
1John Dominic Crossan, The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story, Polebridge Press, 1988, p. xi.
2See Scott Bader-Saye, “Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2010, p. 94&96.