I will be leading a FREE virtual Advent retreat online beginning Nov. 22 entitled, “Nativity Stories.” All are welcome!
I recite the Lord’s Prayer daily, and often the most challenging phrase for me is the second part of “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
Though I’ve received everything I have from a generous and gracious God, it’s hard to let go of grudges and wrongs and the feeling that others owe me something or that somehow I have unfairly missed out.
Or if I pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” I think about how often I impinge on God’s territory by profaning the sacred, by judging or pre-judging others, by invading the space of one of God’s creatures, by polluting God’s property: earth, water, and air; or by playing God—a role which, in all modesty, I play rather well.
To the poor who followed Jesus, “forgive us our debts,” must’ve sounded pretty good. It sounds pretty good to us today, weighed down as we are with loans, credit cards, church pledges, expectations from elderly parents or children of any age or our beloved pets, not to mention Comcast bills.
To the sinners who followed Jesus, “forgive us our trespasses” or “sins” must’ve sounded pretty good. It also sounds pretty good to us today, burdened by moral failings, hurt we’ve inflicted on those we love most, toes we’ve stepped on or boundaries we’ve crossed, injustice we’ve ignored.
Thank God, there’s a lot of forgiveness in the Bible, and, according to Old Testament professor Walter Brueggemann, longtime oracle of Columbia Theological Seminary, forgiveness may involve money, land, power, politics, morality, and religious pretensions.
Religious scruples are what the late-converted apostle Paul often addressed. Paul when he was Saul was a Torah fundamentalist who followed every jot and tittle of the Law of Moses, not simply the Ten Commandments on which it’s based, but all the interpretations, applications, court rulings, and explications of Mosaic Law.
As we know from our own Christian tradition, no one can claim the moral high ground better than a self-righteous legalist, traditionalist, or fundamentalist. As an aside, Brueggemann also points out that no one can claim the moral high ground better than a self-righteous liberal, progressive, non-literalist such as myself. All of us tend to equate God’s views with our own, what Brueggemann calls “the cunning little secret of certitude.”
And that’s the tension in the early church—legalists wanting other Christians to follow the Laws of Moses, including dietary restrictions and Sabbath observance, and others who experience freedom in Christ as to such spiritual beliefs and practices. Paul comes down on the side of freedom in Christ, but urges all Christians to respect and regard one another’s positions. Paul is truly a recovered fundamentalist, but doesn’t twist others’ arms to come to 12-step meetings of Legalists Anonymous.
“Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” Paul rhetorically questions the Romans, and then observes, “It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”
Christians have entered into a covenant with Jesus and with one another that requires the interweaving of our lives, beliefs, and practices. Every strand is needed to create the fabric of our spiritual community, one that hopefully reflects Jesus’ meaning for our neighborhood and for the world.
Discussing the Ten Commandments in his book of essays, The Covenanted Self, Brueggemann affirms that the first three commandments about Yahweh give rise to the other seven, which all have to do with living in community, being good neighbors, and loving the neighbor as oneself.
In awe of God, we are called to, in a sense, privilege the neighbor to be truly neighborly and faithful to God. We are to consider their needs, their beliefs, their practices above our own needs, beliefs, and practices. It’s like what is said about marriage, each partner must give 150%. 50% doesn’t cut it, not even 100%. But if we strive to give 150% we are more likely to make a marriage or a spiritual community work.
That requires forgiveness—forgiving that the other is not all we expected, forgiving mistakes and ignorance and insensitivity, forgiving wrongs and inabilities and limitations. And forgiving ourselves these things as well. We are not perfect people. We are forgiven people.
Our model is Jesus, of whom our Christian tradition says that he emptied himself to be a servant. Jesus emptied himself into the neighbor, Brueggemann asserts, and urges us to “imagine that neighborliness is more important than good economics or good politics or good morality or good orthodoxy.” While accepting that challenge, I would add that truly good economics, politics, morality, or orthodoxy must be based in neighborliness.
In Living Buddha, Living Christ, the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells the story of a woman who invoked the name of the Buddha hundreds of times a day for ten years, but “was still filled with anger and irritation.” Noticing this over the years, a neighbor knocked on her door and called to her. Annoyed, she struck her meditation bell hard to make it clear she was chanting. The neighbor called again and again, and finally the woman shouted, “Can’t you see I’m invoking the name of the Buddha? Why are you bothering me now?”
The neighbor responded, “I only called your name twelve times, and look at how angry you have become. Imagine how angry the Buddha must be after you have been calling his name for ten years!”
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