“Rewarding Criminal Behavior”

~ A Crisis of Forgiveness ~

Matthew 18:21-25/Psalm 103:1-13


Early in my time here at Noe Valley Ministry, I preached a sermon on this passage. I raised the question: Does forgiveness excuse bad behavior? When we are dealing with people who have wronged us or hurt us, doesn’t forgiving them just excuse their bad behavior? I call it “a crisis of forgiveness.” It seems that Jesus expects us to forgive the people in our lives who wrong us.

I talked about personal forgiveness – what we as individuals do when another person does something against us. The issue is raised by impetuous Peter’s audacious question to Jesus, “How many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? As many as seven times?”

Peter’s question is intriguing. If somebody does me wrong why would I need to forgive them seven times? I mean, what’s the point? Either you forgive a person…once…or not at all. Why would I need to forgive a person seven times for one offense? Ah, but maybe Peter isn’t asking about one offense. Maybe he’s asking about a person who has sinned against him seven times. This raises the stakes considerably. Consider this: At work a colleague comes in every morning and greets you with a blatantly sexist remark. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven days in a row he insults you. Do you forgive him today for the same thing he did yesterday? Let’s make it worse.  Behind the scenes your colleague lies about you to your boss so that when it’s time for a promotion you get passed over. And over the course of time she does this seven times. Seven promotions down the drain. Yet, are you expected to forgive her all seven times?

And so a question I raised was: Why should I forgive someone who has done me wrong? Doesn’t forgiving only excuse bad behavior? Getting revenge seems much better. It feels much better. Lots of movies out there based on getting revenge.

So Peter’s suggested answer to his own question seems quite generous. Forgive a brother seven times? Pretty impressive. But Jesus’ response explodes Peter’s forgiveness math. “Seventy times seven!” says Jesus. Outrageous! Then he makes it even more outrageous by telling this parable about an “unmerciful servant” who received forgiveness for his own enormous debt, but then, instead of extending forgiveness for a tiny debt that was owed him, he imprisoned his debtor. And in the telling of this parable Jesus implies that obtaining forgiveness is vitally linked to offering forgiveness.

Well, today I’d like to take this parable out of the realm of interpersonal relations and move it into the realm of our nation’s policies. Particularly, I want to apply Jesus’ story of the unmerciful servant to the issue of immigration reform.

Our immigration system is seriously broken. It is broken for the 12 million undocumented people who currently live in the United States who have no means to fix their status, except be deported – all 12 million! It is broken for the 800,000 young people in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program, the Dreamers. What seemed like a possible fix for their long term status has suddenly blown up and they are in real fear of being rounded up and sent away to a country they’ve never lived in.

Our system is particularly unfair to people from south of our border who have the wherewithal and the work ethic to come up to the United States and work in this labor market. However, they are not allowed to legally because we just won’t let them come. You can’t get a work visa to migrate to the United States if you are a blue-collar independent contractor. These days, the number of H-2A visas for temporary blue-collar migrant labor is ridiculously low. Labor-market analysis indicates there is room in our economy for about 20 million independent contractors doing roofing, carpeting, landscaping, plumbing, farm labor, and similar blue collar temporary jobs. Many of the roughly 12 million undocumented immigrants in our country are employed as independent contractors, filling a legitimate niche in our economy in a brutal labor market that few citizens are willing to enter. A rational solution would be to develop a temporary worker visa for independent contractors which would enable them to travel back and forth across the border. But the prospect for such a pragmatic solution seems impossible in our current political climate. Why is that?

Or to broaden the question: Why can’t immigration reform get done? Democrats and Republicans have been saying we need to do this for decades now. Organizations as disparate as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO agree that we need this. And yet, we are stuck – we’re stuck “real good” as John Cleese would say. What is keeping us stuck?

Well, I think it can be summed up with one word: punishment! In our country there are voices, very loud voices, who need to have all these people punished for breaking the law. They strongly believe that any compromise in reforming our immigration laws that might include amnesty, a path to citizenship, long-term worker status, Dreamers – anything that allows for legalization of their status is, in their eyes, only rewarding criminal behavior. Criminals must be punished and if they are here they are, by virtue of their mere presence, criminals.

Unfortunately many of these voices are Christians. And, if that’s the case, then they are Christians who deny the truth of this parable Jesus tells. For it is in their ranting and raving about criminal “illegal aliens” that they are epitomizing the very attitude of the unmerciful servant who, having been released from a huge debt, goes out and squeezes his fellow human for the little he is owed. Evidently they don’t really believe that Jesus “paid it all” and, thus, live their lives with gratitude and mercy and forgiveness. They seem to believe that by virtue of their self-righteous virtue they deserve their forgiven debt. But not those people – they are criminals and must be punished.

If God has forgiven the 10,000 talents, which in today’s dollars would be several million dollars, we are called to forgive the pittance, 100 denarii or a days wage, that others might owe. Indeed, Jesus makes it quite clear that the one is dependent on the other. If we aren’t willing to forgive the debt of others than God won’t forgive our debt. Instead, by mercy, by the practice of forgiveness, we are to stop relying on retributive or judgmental justice – making people pay their debt – and rely on restorative justice. In God’s economy, we are to cease being concerned with making sure that everyone else gets what they deserve and instead concern ourselves with making sure everyone else gets what they need.

Yes, we need to be safe. Yes, some people need to go to prison to be kept from harming others. But once there they should receive the best social and psychological rehabilitation they can for the safety of their communities. But punishing people just for the sake of punishing them – retributive justice – is not really God’s way. When we as a society make retributive justice our practice we are standing against God’s justice of mercy and forgiveness.

Jesus makes it very clear in his parable that I cannot accept the forgiveness of my debt without accepting his forgiveness of every other human being simultaneously. Unfortunately, many Christians in our country are behaving exactly like the unmerciful servant, going around and finding other servants to jack up and collect debt. You see, it’s not that only Christians receive God’s grace and everyone else doesn’t. Christians are supposed to have accepted the fact that everyone receives God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness.

Now, I understand that immigration issues are complex – a secure border, 12 million people here, an economy that so heavily relies on their services, and on and on. Immigration reform is not easy. But it certainly is impossible unless we can remove the moralistic judgment that so accompanies the debate. Remove the moralistic, retributive punishment angle and maybe we can find some viable solutions.

Let’s go back to the idea of temporary worker visas. Morgan Guyton is a United Methodist campus minister in New Orleans and has devoted much of his life to this issue. He suggests that we could develop a temporary worker visa for independent contractors which would enable them to travel back and forth across the border according to the ebb and flow of the job market. These visas would need to be issued in significant numbers, like maybe 10 million (not the just 75,000 that is the current practice). Currently undocumented workers cannot go back home (or it’s very expensive to do it illegally). That fact incentivizes emigrating their families to the United States, getting their families across the border. With a temporary worker visa, workers could migrate back and forth while the family remains in their home country where the cost of living is incredibly less and the culture is familiar. A temporary worker visa would dis-incentivize emigration by making seasonal migration possible.

Guyton doesn’t know if this is the perfect solution, but it’s the best he can come up with after decades of studying the issue. But the reason he can even think in these terms is because he refuses to moralize immigration. His approach doesn’t see entering our country without authorization as a moral failing whether it’s to find work or to flee the drug cartels.

Again, let me say that a non-moralistic, non-retributive approach to justice doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t discipline our children or file lawsuits against crooks that cheat us or put people who harm other people in jail. But we should do these things for pragmatic reasons, not out of a need for vengeance. Punishment for the sake of punishment has no place in Christian ethics if God’s redemptive work really does absorb all the punishment for the world’s sins.

Yes, immigration reform is a formidable issue. But however the issue is framed, it’s not about just “forgiving” people who broke the law, it is not about “rewarding criminal behavior.” Instead, it’s about coming up with an immigration system that honestly addresses the economic realities of our world, with grace and mercy.

Our psalm reading today reminds us of God’s grace and mercy, of God’s restorative, and not retributive, approach to justice.

How you love justice, Adonai!

You are always on the side of the oppressed.

You are tender and compassionate – slow to anger, and always loving;

Your indignation doesn’t endure forever, and your anger lasts for only a short time.

You never treat us as our sins deserve; you don’t repay us in kind for the injustices we do.

According to God’s standard of justice our nation is doing a serious injustice to our neighbors from south of the border. As God’s people may we reflect God’s nature: to always be on the side of the oppressed, slow to anger, and always loving. May we live and work from within God’s amazing grace. May we forgive even as we have been forgiven. Amen.



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