Texts: Genesis 50:15-21; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
Our wedding rings are special because they also remind us of Margaret. Margaret was a member of our chaplaincy group in Maine, the summer we met. The rings remind us of her because she made them; one of her hobbies is making jewelry, and very shortly after Stephanie and I began dating, when our entire chaplain group was very excited about our burgeoning romance, she playfully made the offer that she would make us rings if we ever needed them. Three years later, we took her up on that offer.
Margaret attended seminary and joined our chaplain intern training not because she wanted to become a pastor, but because she wanted to better understand and articulate her faith. One of her major projects in the years since we met was fighting a series of bills in New Hampshire that would have expanded the state’s application of the death penalty. As a Quaker, Margaret’s religious conviction has always been that the death penalty is wrong; that taking a life is always evil, and that no crime committed by a person can justify it.
I’ve never met any of Margaret’s daughters, but from what I know of them, they take after their parents. Margaret and Bruce instilled their values in them. Their eldest daughter, Molly, and her husband Dan befriended a young Haitian man named Roody Fleureguste who came to the US as a refugee after the 2010 earthquake. Roody’s brother was a caretaker for some of Molly’s relatives nearby, and he was living with him not far from Molly and Dan’s home. Margaret describes Molly as someone who was always a nurturer, brave and generous and passionate about her work. Molly saw this young man, having fled to a strange country and speaking little English, and reached out to him in welcome. Sadly, before he’d even been there a week, Roody shot and killed Molly.
Molly’s murder severely tested Margaret’s convictions. What I know of her story, I have gleaned from the news coverage of the crime and the sentencing hearing, and from Margaret’s own writings. I have not talked to her about how this has affected her, but she writes beautifully and painfully about the two years of the investigation and trial following Molly’s death. As you might imagine, they are years filled with anger, with frustration, and with unfathomable pain, stirred up again and again by a flawed criminal justice process.
Nevertheless, she remained committed to her core convictions. Shortly after Molly’s murder, when Margaret told a friend she did not want Roody to face the death penalty, her friend responded, “You’re a better person than I am.” But Margaret writes: “I am not. I am self-protective. Revenge is tricky, self-destructive. It doesn’t turn out sweet, seldom plays out the way one thinks it will. Too often family members find the execution of their loved one’s murderer doesn’t bring the hoped-for closure. I don’t want to allow room for revenge to impose its disappointment on me.” As angry as she was, as hurt as she was, she knew revenge would not bring her any sort of closure or relief.
This is the foolishness that Jesus teaches us; the foolishness that, as Paul says, is “wiser than human wisdom.” (1 Cor 1.25) It is so much easier, so much more satisfying to nurse wounds as hatred grows, to desire revenge for revenge’s sake, to cut those who hurt us out of our lives; but the simple fact is that life does not allow that. Broken relationships are never cut off, they simply fester and continue to bleed us dry until they are repaired. Margaret reflects that although she and Roody never knew one another prior to Molly’s death, now they will always be connected: he will always be the person who killed her daughter, and she will always be the mother of a woman whose life he took. Whether they like it or not, they are inseparable now, bound by an act of evil.
So what happens to a relationship like this—or any other—when forgiveness is beyond our reach? Are we in danger of sharing a fate with the unforgiving servant? Is God’s grace not actually limitless, but contingent upon the limits of our own grace? This parable has been misinterpreted for God only knows how long to suggest that anyone unable to forgive someone who sins against them is doomed to hell; but I would argue that in a case like Margaret’s, she is already there.
We miss the point of this parable if we reduce it to a command or a threat. To do so is to join Peter in asking Jesus, “What must I do in order to avoid punishment?” How many times must we forgive? How much? How soon? What are the conditions? Jesus responds to Peter’s question by first telling what the king does: he looks with compassion on his poor servant; he forgives him. I don’t want to give the impression that the king is an allegory for God (he’s not), but this is certainly what God has first done for us: God showed God’s love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5.8) His blood is a physical sign—like my wedding ring—of how far God is willing to go to set us free from our debts. Unlike the king’s grace (which he revoked in anger), God’s grace is ultimate, it always has the last word; it surpasses even life and death.
The promise of this parable is that where our grace ends, God’s begins. Margaret addressed a statement to Roody at his sentencing. In it, she writes:
"When the unthinkable happened God blessed me with a miracle. In other situations I have had to pray hard to be released from a desire to get even. This time I have been granted freedom from vengeance, right from the start. After an experience of this scope, I no longer burn with a desire to see people get what I think they deserve. I’m more willing to let God be the judge.
"I will think and wonder about you, and will pray that you may receive peace in your heart. You would have much painful work for that to happen, but I hope you get there. The world can only benefit from another peaceful heart in its midst."
Because of God’s love for us, we have been forgiven more than we can ever conceive; and it is only by that forgiveness that we may hope to find healing for our broken relationships in our lives. It is only by the grace of God that we may foolishly hope for the light of God’s justice and peace to shine on a weary world full of brokenness; that we may hope for God to deliver us from the torture of vengeance which we inflict upon ourselves and one another, and to bring wholeness. Much like a wedding ring the blood of Christ not only reminds us of God’s grace, it also joins us together into one family of God—for better or worse, whether we like it or not—for all eternity. Jesus’ blood now runs through our veins. What God has joined together, nothing is able to put asunder.