The idea prevalent among Christians and Jews is that humans are infected with original sin, the result of Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden. How sin is addressed varies between Jews and Christians, the former dealing with sin through animal sacrifice (the ancient historical practice) and the latter through accepting Jesus’ atonement after the crucifixion and resurrection.
Let’s turn to Paul, who offers a key thought: “So then, each of us will be accountable to God” (Romans 14:12). Earlier in Romans, Paul wrote about not passing judgment on one another based on how we interpret the Christian life (e.g., what foods to eat, which day is the Sabbath, etc). Sadly, most people have either ignored this advice or they just don’t want to act and think better. Although we can’t prevent conflict, we can always strive to better manage ourselves and situations. Get ready, ‘cause we’re ready to make an abrupt shift to a different passage.
Today’s selection from Matthew has people forgiving—or not—the financial “sins” of others. Enter the case of an anonymous slave, let’s call him “Ralph,” who petitioned his master for forgiveness and who subsequently was forgiven. Ralph was then asked to forgive the debt of a fellow slave. Ralph refused to forgive the debt of the other slave and, when the master found out about it, Ralph was thrown into prison, constituting the spiritual equivalent of going to hell. Ouch!
Is forgiveness as straight-forward as it first appears? The usual way that theologians parse the sin-sacrifice-forgiveness trail invites some provocative discussion. In Matthew, forgiveness involves not animal sacrifice but Jesus’ paying of our sin debt. Central to Jesus’ innovative Gospel is this idea of forgiveness, one requiring a supreme, final sacrifice, namely that of his death rather than of countless animals. Apparently, God had changed from the Old Testament practice of ethnic & animal-based redemption. In other words, the New Testament claims that there is now a universal, faith-based access to salvation that doesn’t require either “Jewishness” or animals.
The sin-salvation-forgiveness equation is central and bears repeating. The claim is that all humans must ask for eternal salvation (forgiveness of sins) by having faith in Jesus’ sacrificial death and subsequent resurrection. Forgiveness in this sense is conditional not upon the ethnicity or worthiness of the individual(s) asking for it but rather upon the sincerity of the conscious request of those seeking it.
A second-order of forgiveness involves people forgiving one another for sins less than what God only can forgive (e.g., original sin back in the Garden of Eden) A potential complication involves cheap forgiveness, what some people cite as superficiality or a “fast-food” approach to forgiveness. We hear people all the time giving one-sided forgiveness that is not asked for by the person or persons who are being forgiven. Does this cheapen forgiveness? Does this rob the person who needs forgiveness of their responsibility to seek it? Some folks announce that they have forgiven such and such a person without the forgiven person knowing or caring about such a proclamation. The forgiven person may even be dead. Does any of this rouse concern about a possible abuse of or weakening of forgiveness?
Some folks argue that original sin and God’s dealings with Adam and Eve don’t reflect reality. Regardless of your views about ancient history, we experience the pervasive human sins that we inflict on one another. That is, sin is real enough now, no matter where or when it originated. Lest we digress, let me ask you something. Do you want to feel good? Try the great sensation of being forgiven. God invites us to build spiritual strength through the struggle of asking for, receiving, and extending forgiveness. We admit that we are challenged by certain conditions of forgiveness. Like most of our struggles, we can grow stronger through engagement with challenge and uncertainties.