‘He who exacts vengeance will experience the vengeance of the lord’. That’s what the folk wisdom of Ecclesiasticus says. So why can’t I preach a homily underlining that? Let the parable be Jesus threatening us into forgiveness—making an unforgiving heart an unforgivable sin.
Partly it’s because I don’t want a schizophrenic God who can be moved to write off a million pound debt one moment yet the next is sending for the torturers and sounding pleased about it.
And partly it’s because I’m confused. I’m confused by the religious response to Hurricane Katrina. All sorts of media and internet folks have been fighting over who to blame and naturally God has been copping part of that. Some are saying that natural disasters are in fact acts of God—signs, or warnings, or punishments, or calls to conversion. Others are trying to exonerate God or justify God’s goodness in the face of such tragedy. And of course there are those who just point up the contradiction and foolishness of believing in God at all.
But today, on the anniversary of 9/11, I’m struck by how little of that kind of stuff I remember being around four years ago. Everyone was looking for blame, yes, but it quickly polarised into ‘us’ versus ‘them’—having a real flesh and blood enemy let God off the hook easily as we gratified our ache to punish.
Because the thing about God is you can’t really punish him. All we can do is take back our ball and go off in a huff, muttering.
Our readings today are chosen to hammer home an economy of forgiveness but I have a nagging feeling Jesus is trying to subvert just that.
Four years on from 9/11 we have a problem with forgiveness. When you have someone to blame you can let loose all that is worst in yourself—punishment, retribution, righteous anger, holy crusade. And you can reap all sorts of collateral benefits along the way—jobs for the boys; leverage to curtail liberties; political expansionism; neglect of annoying responsibilities. A strategy of blame has achieved all that and more. It has changed the world. But has it been for the better? Are we safer, freer, happier, holier? Have we forgiven? Forgiveness seems so soppy when there are terrorists out there. Forgiveness seems inappropriate, unwise… irresponsible.
And forgiveness would mean change. We’d have to look at where the terror comes from, and why. We’d have to discover our complicity. We couldn’t live the lives we do any longer.
So maybe Ecclesiasticus has the economy of forgiveness down pat: if we can’t forgive—as individuals or nations—we bring down a hell of torture on the world. We bomb Iraq. We fly planes into office buildings. We blow up buses. We shoot civilians.
But the hurricane complicates it for me. Yes, the politicians are getting blamed—and global warming, social injustice, and simple human folly and malice. But a big question has been whether God is to blame. What kind of God do we have? One who punishes, or one who forgives, or one who does a little of both depending on some great balance sheet?
I think that’s the question Jesus poses too. Are we content to imagine God in our own image—a king with accountants and torturers at his disposal? Or will we take the extra step outside the tit-for-tat economy of debt and obligation into a world of grace?
Can God forgive the unforgiving? Of course! But can we forgive God for forgiving us first?