10 December 2015

John the Baptist and Jesus: Two Approaches to Forgiveness (reprise)

Gospel Reading for Friday, 2nd Week of Advent: Matthew 11:16-19



Recently I watched story of a woman (Eva Moses Kor) who survived the holocaust. She was one of a pair of twins experimented on by Dr Mengele. Both she and her sister (Miriam) survived the camp but her sister's health was ruined and years later she later died from long term complications. Mrs Kor forgave Mengele and did so as part of her own healing. She encouraged others to act similarly so they would no longer be victims in the same way they were without forgiveness and she became to some extent despised by a number of other survivors. What struck me was the fact that Eva had come implicitly to Jesus' own notion of forgiveness and justice (where her own healing is paramount and brings about changes in others and the fabric of reality more than other notions of justice) while others clung to the Jewish teaching which states that amendment and restitution (signs of true repentance but more than this as well) must be made before forgiveness is granted. What also struck me was that she was indeed freer and less a victim in subjective terms than those who refused to forgive saying they had no right, for instance. Further, her forgiveness and freedom freed others (including another doctor at the camp (Dr Hans Munch) who had, until he met Eva and heard of her own stance towards Mengele, been unable to forgive himself) --- though it also pointed up the terrible bondage of either refusal or inability to forgive which other survivors experienced, especially as this became complicated by their newfound anger with Eva.

Tomorrow's Gospel reminds me of this video (and vice versa) because of the close linkage of John Bp and Jesus, and so of two very different (though still-related) approaches to repentance and forgiveness. On the one hand, a strictly ascetic John the Baptist preaches what John Meier describes as a "fierce call to repentance, stiffened with dire warnings of fiery judgment soon to come." (A Marginal Jew, vol 2, pp 148-49) In general John's preaching is dismissed and John himself is treated contemptuously as being mad or possessed by a demon. In the language of the parable John piped a funeral dirge and people refused to mourn.

On the other hand we have Jesus of Nazareth preaching the arrival of the Kingdom of God and offering "an easy, joyous way into [that] Kingdom" by welcoming the religious outcasts and sinners to a place in table fellowship with himself. Meier characterizes the response to THIS call to repentance in terms of the parable, [[With a sudden burst of puritanism, this generation felt that no hallowed prophet sent from God would adopt such a free-wheeling, pleasure-seeking lifestyle, hobnobbing with religious lowlifes and offering assurances of God's forgiveness without demanding the proper process for reintegration into Jewish religious society. How could this Jesus be a true prophet and reformer when he was a glutton and a drunkard, a close companion at meals with people who robbed their fellow Jews . . .or who sinned willfully and heinously, yet refused to repent. . .?]] In other words, in terms of tomorrow's parable Jesus piped a joyful tune, a wedding tune, and people refused to join in the celebration and dismissed Jesus himself as a terrible sinner, worthy of death.

There is wisdom in both approaches to repentance and forgiveness. Both are part of the Judeo-Christian heritage. Both approaches are rejected by "this generation" --- as Jesus calls those who refuse to believe in him. Both lead to greater freedom. But it is Jesus' model which leads to the kind of freedom Eva Moses Kor discovered and which is supposed to mark our own approach to repentance and forgiveness. After all repentance is truly a celebration of God's love and mercy, and these we well know are inexhaustible. Still, entering the celebration is not necessarily easy for us, and we may wonder as some of the other survivors wondered about Eva's forgiveness of Mengele: do we have the right to forgive? Is it wise to act in this way towards someone who has not repented and asked for our forgiveness? Isn't this a form of "cheap grace" so ably castigated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer --- also a victim of the Nazi death machine? (cf The Cost of Discipleship) Where does forgiveness become enabling and does it demean others who have also been harmed? What about tough love: isn't John Bp's approach the better one? Am I really supposed to simply welcome serious sinners into my home? Into our sacred meal? To membership in the Church? To my circle of friends?

And the simple answer to most of these questions is yes, this is what we are called to do. The Kingdom of God is at hand and Jesus' example is the one we follow. It is this example which leads to the freedom of the Kingdom, this example that made Christians of us and will in time transform our world. In particular, it is this example which sets the tone for Advent joy and festivity and allows the future to take hold of our lives and hearts. It is not merely that we have the right to forgive in this way, but that we have been commissioned to do so. It is an expression of our own vocations to embody or incarnate the unconditional mercy of God in Christ.

Most of us will find ourselves caught between the prophetic example of John the Baptist and the Messianic example of Jesus' meal fellowship with sinners. We have great empathy both for the approach of Eva Moses Kor AND those survivors who could not forgive Mengele --- often because they felt that doing so was contrary to justice as spelled out in the Scriptures and elaborated in rabbinical tradition, as well as because it demeaned his victims. We know that "tough love" has a place in our world and that "cheap grace" is more problem than solution. Tomorrow's Gospel underscores our own position between worlds and kingdoms, and it may cause us to recognize that there was a deep suspicion of Jesus' table fellowship which was grounded in more than envy or fear. We may see clearly that the Jewish leadership of Jesus' day had serious and justified concerns about the wisdom of Jesus' actions and praxis. Even so, it is also clear regarding which model of repentance and forgiveness we are to choose, which model represents the freedom of the Kingdom of God, and which model allows us to be Christ for others. As Matthew's version of this parable also affirms, the wisdom of this approach will be found in its fruit --- if only we can be patient and trust in the wisdom of Jesus, the glutton, drunkard, and libertine who consorted with serious sinners.