Giving Up My Rights

Sunday, 13 September 2020: Matthew 18:21-35

21 Then Peter came and said to [Jesus], “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Today’s Gospel reading continues the conversation and teaching about restoring harmony in the Church, the community tasked with the mission of reconciliation to the world, when peace has been lost due to its members offending and even scandalizing one another. After all, how can the Church work for Christ in the restoration of unity between God and people and with one another if we are at enmity with one another? How can God’s people serve as instruments of unity when we ourselves are divided? The action of forgiveness now takes center stage as a crucial step in the process of reconciliation and restoration. How are we to understand forgiveness then? I know it is not the same as forgetting and sometimes is a gradual process. There is a helpful definition from an anonymous source that has stayed with me over the years: “Forgiveness is me giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me.”

Peter appears to be interested primarily in the limits of forgiveness, what he must do to get by. How many times is one obliged to forgive another’s offenses? Peter wants to do the right thing and most likely thinks his proposal of forgiving seven times is a generous offer, so he must have been surprised by Jesus’ response: “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Matt. 18:22). In other words, there are no limits to our obligation to forgive. I am reminded of others, including myself, who like Peter are prone to the human tendency to rationalize our behaviors and are interested in the minimums of what we must do to get by.

It was my privilege to serve for ten years as the vicar of St. Columba of Iona Church on the White Earth Nation in northwestern Minnesota. St. Columba’s is an historic congregation founded in 1852 by missionary James Lloyd Breck and Enmegahbowh, the first Native American priest in the Episcopal Church. One story that is told of Enmegahbowh is about a time when a man insulted Enmegahbowh’s wife, Biwabikogeshigequay. It seems that Enmegahbowh was torn between Jesus’ injunction to “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39) and defending his wife’s honor. In the end, he held the man down so that his wife could kick him!

My sympathies are certainly with Enmegahbowh’s moral dilemma and the justification of his behavior, but there are more serious rationalizations in the story Jesus tells about “the unforgiving servant.” Human nature being what it is, it is not difficult to identify with the servant in Jesus’ story who was forgiven a debt by the king of millions of dollars! After all, the king could afford to do without that money for he was the richest person in the land. The servant, on the other hand, worked hard for a living and could not afford to forgive a one-hundred-dollar debt. After all, he had a family to feed, clothe, shelter, and send to school. He was barely squeaking by. He really needed the money.

That is usually the way rationalization works. Justification of our actions is an easy trap into which to fall, but if the king in the story represents God, forgiveness becomes a profoundly serious matter in our lives to consider. The Lord’s Prayer expresses the same concept when we pray to the Father: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” In the same vein of thought, Jesus also goes on to say: For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:12;14-15). It sounds like this is more than a good idea and something God demands of us. Yes, if God forgives us the debt we owe to Holy One, then it appears to be a divine expectation that we in turn forgive the debts others owe to us.

Clearly, forgiveness is not an easy task and sometimes feels like an impossibility, but God is on our side in this work. Even a forced willingness-to-begin-to-get-ready-to-think-about forgiving provides a space for God’s assistance and grace. As difficult as it is to forgive others for their wrongs against us, it is a responsibility given us by God to fulfill. If we neglect it, we just might find ourselves on the outside looking in. Today is a good day, then, to ask: “How has God shown me mercy and forgiveness?” and “What debts of mine has God cancelled?” so “Who do I need to give up my right to hurt because they hurt me?”

Michael G. Smith, OblSB, is a bishop of the Episcopal Church, an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and holds a doctorate in preaching.

Rising From the Ashes

For Sunday, August 30, 2020: Matthew 16:21-28

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you." 23 But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

27 "For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."

In the Gospel reading from last week, Jesus praised Peter for his spiritual insight in correctly identifying his rabbi, as “the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Not only that, Jesus declared that Peter’s confession of faith would be the very rock on which the Church would be built, against which even “the powers of death would not prevail” (Matthew 16:16-18). High praise indeed! Today, however, only three verses later, Jesus calls Peter “Satan” and declares him an obstacle, a “stumbling block.” It is confusing. What gives?

There is a canticle we sometimes pray at Morning Prayer from the prophet Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). It was this truth that Peter was demonstrating in setting his mind on human things rather than divine.

Peter was so much opposed to what Jesus was saying that he attempted to correct Jesus in the Christ’s assertion that he must undergo great suffering, be killed, and on the third day be raised. Not only that, Jesus goes on to say that even his followers must deny themselves, take up our crosses, and journey on the path that he walks. Now, like Peter, I welcome the victory, the resurrection part of Jesus’ words, but the denial, suffering, and death that must come before is much less palatable. And yet, it is impossible to deny that pain and suffering and death are normative parts of human life and the world about us. Jesus is saying that Good Friday and Easter Sunday are inseparable; that the agony of the cross precedes the glory of the resurrection; that we can resist suffering or allow it to transform us into the people God wants us to become.

When I was growing up, my family took a trip to Tahlequah, Oklahoma one summer to visit the Tsa-La-Gi outdoor theatre. In those days, the Cherokees staged a play titled Trail of Tears that told the story of their forced removal, their painful, deadly, and disease-ridden journey to a new land, and their rebirth as a people in Oklahoma. The story is compelling, tragic, and a shameful stain on the pages of U.S. history. One thing that stood out for me and something that has stayed with me from that production, was the name of the newspaper the tribe established in their new home. They called it the Cherokee Phoenix. Phoenix. I remember expecting something that sounded more Native American or at least reflected part of their culture, but they chose a creature from Greek mythology to represent their common voice in a new territory. Why? It makes sense. The Phoenix is a mythological bird that is reborn and renewed by rising from the burnt ashes of its predecessor, just as the Cherokee people hoped to do from the ruins of their past. Today they are the largest tribal nation in the United States.

Jesus tells us that if we really want to find our lives, we need to first lose them. Although it is counter-intuitive, when we lose our lives, when we give ourselves in service to God and those hurting in the world, we discover that which truly brings joy and purpose. It is true that God’s ways are not our ways, but the Holy One is able to bring forth rebirth and renewal out of the ashes lingering from the flames of devastated lives. What will you give in return for your life?

Michael G. Smith, OblSB, is a bishop of the Episcopal Church, an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and holds a doctorate in preaching.


The Rt. Rev. Michael Smith is an Assistant Bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, an Assisting Bishop in Navajoland and a former bishop of North Dakota. He is in an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.