Is forgiveness a good thing? Most people would automatically say “yes.” But not everybody would. In fact, most people, upon a little reflection, would likely support the idea that there are at least limits to forgiveness. If forgiveness were unlimited, they argue, if you were off the hook every time you do something wrong, then there would be no incentive to be good. This is not at all an abstract argument. It is one we struggle with all the time. Thus, for example, the Attorney General of the United States recently directed U.S. attorneys always to seek the maximum penalty. The reasoning here is, I assume, that being unforgiving and always handing out severe penalties will discourage bad behavior. Similarly, many people, even nearly ten years later, still doubt the wisdom of the bailouts of financial institutions after the crash of 2008. Parents when they invoke “tough love” are saying there are limits to forgiveness.
Yet, forgiveness of some kind is clearly necessary. Consider the point of bankruptcy laws, which can stand as a model for forgiveness in all sorts of situations. Bankruptcy is less a matter of giving somebody a second chance, than it is a matter of relieving a certain kind of pressure, which unless it is relieved can do serious damage. This applies both personally and within the larger economy. People may simply be crushed by too much debt, and, unless it is somehow relieved, they will never recover. Their debtors may have to take pennies on the dollar because of the bankruptcy, but if the situation is allowed to go on, nobody is going to do better, anyhow, including the ones who are owed. It will only get worse for everybody involved. On a larger scale, the same principle applies. Within an economy as a whole, if debt mounts too high, the pressure simply has to be relieved. If it isn’t, the economy is stuck and cannot go forward. Bankruptcy actually allows the economy to grow in certain kinds of circumstances.
The same sort of thing applies to us as moral beings. We owe people things, and people owe us things such as respect, fairness, and due process. The concept of rights, and our understanding of law as a matter of rights, depends upon this simple relation of exchange that exists between people. Within a solid relationship, there is a balance, and what is owed is paid off somehow. But, at times, many times as it turns out, it can get out of balance and there doesn’t seem any way to reestablish balance. This may be the result of an insult that someone just can’t let go by, or it may be the result of a vicious act, or somebody getting really hurt. Lies are particularly damaging. It may be the result of an injury that simply cannot be undone. Thus, there are times in our relations with others that we cannot make right what we owe, and the very fact of owing a debt over time even increases it. We seem to want to collect interest on moral debts. So, unless there is forgiveness, the guilty party, if he feels the guilt, simply cannot go forward. Perhaps the injured party is so angry and hurt that she cannot go on, either. Certainly, the relationship cannot go on. As I think we all know, guilt can be a crushing load. It can weigh like a sack of bricks on your neck, and, unless it is removed, we are stopped dead in our tracks. So, forgiveness is necessary. The debt has to be relieved, if it cannot be paid. Thus, it simply has to be forgiven and not counted any longer. This is true not only for our personal relations, it is true within societies as a whole. Unless the pressure is relieved, the load is not only crushing it can be dangerous. The potential for violence increases dramatically within such situations. Most societies, therefore, try to find, somehow, ways of relieving that kind of moral pressure, just as they have bankruptcy laws to relieve certain kinds of economic pressure that threaten the well-being of all.
So, if one is being philosophical about things, one might well suggest that we need to strike an appropriate balance between providing some kind of incentive to do what is right, even if it is a negative one, such as punishment for failure and the need to forgive debts of all kinds. But, as usual, invoking a balance is easier said than done, I am afraid. Too often, people are quite willing to count on unlimited forgiveness for themselves, even to presume upon it, and then offer tough love and negative incentives for other people. Too often, when it comes to ourselves, we are willing to say that forgiveness is always right, and when it comes to others that it needs to be limited to what is just enough to make things work.
This is the sort of situation, the sort of moral logic that St. Paul faced when he wrote his letter to the Romans. Paul had made himself famous in the ancient Christian world for suggesting that the grace of God in Jesus Christ does not draw lines around who enters into fellowship with God. Gentiles, even though they have been pagans and have done pretty much everything that runs against God’s Law, are welcome. In short, sinners of all sorts, even the dirty ones, are welcome, no preconditions set. To the Law-abiding Jews, that sounded just plain crazy. What point is the Law if you don’t need to keep it? Where is the incentive? Where is the reward for keeping it? Sure, God is willing to forgive. Scriptures have all sorts of ways to make things right again when there has been error. But, each time you still have to return to the Law, and there is some point at which grace should not be invoked. If that weren’t so, why not just do what you want, when you want? In fact, if God likes dishing out grace so much, they retort, why not do some serious sinning so that God will have some really grand opportunities to be gracious? “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” they ask. One hears the sarcasm in their voice.
Now, Paul, as is to be expected, emphatically replies, “no, not at all.” In fact, I remember my Greek teacher, a mild-mannered scholar if there ever was one, once saying that the words Paul uses -- “me genoito!” – should be translated as “hell, no!” But what is important is why not. For Paul does not try to balance incentive and forgiveness. He does not try to invoke a form of the moral bankruptcy law at all. What he does do is to move well beyond bankruptcy and all the presumptions about debt, moral and otherwise, that we normally use.
How does he do that? What could that even mean? It is very simple. For Paul, grace certainly involves forgiveness. That is how the Gentiles get in, and that is actually how the Jews can keep the Law without it ever becoming a crushing burden. But, for that reason, if forgiveness is all the grace that Christ brings, then he brings nothing new. Everybody, everywhere already understands the principle. Everybody has some form of the bankruptcy law. But God’s grace in Jesus Christ is more than forgiveness. God’s grace goes a lot farther. Yes, it forgives us for our past. But, it then makes us new, in order that we may have a future--a future that is not just a dreary repetition of the cycle of error and forgiveness. It moves us into that future. That is something very different than just forgiveness. That is something a lot more than invoking bankruptcy so that you can start again.
How so? Consider it this way. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once criticized what he called “cheap grace.” Cheap grace as he defined it is the sort of grace that we take for granted. It is grace that we presume upon. It is also only half the grace that God gives. Cheap grace is about forgiveness and only forgiveness. It presumes that what Jesus meant to give is simply forgiveness all the time, at least to us. Now, cheap grace really does give license to continue on a path of destruction. That has social implications, I suppose, but even amongst the relatively well behaved; to presume that forgiveness is always there is pretty much to assume that there is no need to change one’s direction, that one’s direction is just fine. But that is the problem. The direction is the problem, and we keep needing and demanding forgiveness, because we keep repeating the same old dreary mistakes. We keep walking in the same old direction. When that is the case, simply taking the weight off our shoulders, letting us walk faster to a place we really shouldn’t be going, or when we should be headed in a different direction, is actually not a good idea. In that sort of case, forgiveness should be limited. Cheap grace in this case is a matter of always asking for forgiveness but never assuming that we have to change direction.
But, grace as Paul talks about it is something different. Yes, it does lift the weight. It does turn back the clock on our mistakes. It puts us back at zero owed. But it is also something more. It recreates us and sets us in a new direction. It calls us to a new direction and makes us new people who will take that path. It gives us the ability to do something different. For, as Paul points out, by God’s grace, in baptism, we become dead to sin. And, if we have died with Christ to sin, then we too are to walk in the newness of life that Christ brings. So, the reason that it is unthinkable that one should sin all the more to let grace abound, is because the grace Paul is talking about is not simply forgiveness, it is not simply forgiving a debt. Grace, if it is Christ’s grace, is the beginning of a new life. The grace we are given in Christ is a whole new way of being. It is a challenge and a call. To think, then, that the grace Christ offers could ever let us walk in the same old way we always have walked, is to have misunderstood what he is really offering. For he offers not just forgiveness, he offers new being. He offers a challenge, and he issues a call.
That is good news. But it is also hard news. While during the long months in ordinary time the three scripture lessons of the lectionary tend to go their own separate ways; this week two of them actually line up. For if Paul’s point is that grace calls us to something, something great, then that is what the Gospel lesson is also about. Jesus has called the twelve disciples as well as others. He then sends seventy of them out on a mission trip. In doing so, he gives them instructions about what they are to do. He also warns them about how hard it is going to be. In what they are doing, they will be opposed, just as Jesus was. What they say will be divisive. Even their brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers are going to doubt them, and even oppose them. But if they are willing to take up their daily crosses and are willing to give all of their lives, they will find real life, and real life is new life, the result of having reached the goal at the end of walking your pilgrimage in the right direction.
That is how grace works. It isn’t cheap, and in plenty of ways, it makes life harder. It doesn’t let us off the hook, it pushes us to do things, extraordinary things, and that is harder. But the really good news is that grace changes things; it changes us. That is the only way that the cycle of debt and bankruptcy will ever be changed, it is the only way it will be replaced. It is the only way that we will ever escape the repetitive need for forgiveness. For it is as a result of grace that we learn how to count what is valuable in our lives differently. As a result of grace, we learn that the point of life is very different than it was under the old system of debts and forgiveness that we have operated on before.
What is the new system? What is the system of grace and love? It is what is asked for in the simple prayer that is attributed to St. Francis: “...that I may not seek so much to be consoled, as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” That is the sort of moral economy in which nobody ever has to declare bankruptcy. That is the sort of moral economy we are being called to invest ourselves in.