Shuck and Jive

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Unforgiven--A Sermon

The Unforgiven
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 10, 2010

Gospel of Jesus 7:6-19

Jesus said, “Forgive and you’ll be forgiven.”

And he said, “Father, forgive our debts to the extent we have forgiven those in debt to us.”

This is why Heaven’s imperial rule should be compared to a secular ruler who decided to settle accounts with his slaves. When the process began, this debtor was brought to him who owed ten million dollars. Since he couldn’t pay it back, the ruler ordered him sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, so he could recover his money. At this prospect, the slave fell down and groveled before him:

“Be patient with me, and I’ll repay every cent.”

Because he was compassionate, the master of that slave let him go and canceled the debt.
As soon as he got out, that same fellow collared one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred dollars, and grabbed him by the neck and demanded:

“Pay back what you owe!”

His fellow slave fell down and begged him:

“Be patient with me and I’ll pay you back.”

But he wasn’t interested; instead, he went out and threw him in prison until he paid the debt.
When his fellow slaves realized what had happened, they were terribly distressed and went and reported to their master everything that had taken place. At that point, his master summoned him:

“You wicked slave,” he says to him, “I canceled your entire debt because you begged me. Wasn’t it only fair for you to treat your fellow slave with the same consideration as I treated you?"

And the master was so angry he handed him over to those in charge of punishment until he paid back everything he owed.

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 39, 41. Matthew 6:12-15; 18:23-34; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:37; 11:4.

In 1992 Clint Eastwood directed and starred in the film, Unforgiven. When I first saw it I thought Eastwood was repenting for all his Westerns in which the gunslingers were made into heroes. In Unforgiven, the line between hero and psychopath is blurred.

Eastwood plays retired gunslinger, William Munny, who gave up whiskey and killing and became a pig farmer. He is raising his children as a widower. But his wife is dead. His pigs are sick. Farming is tough. He gets an offer to pursue a bounty.

Some prostitutes in Big Whiskey, Wyoming have offered a $1000 reward for anyone who will take vengeance on two cowboys who disfigured one of them. The local sheriff (played by Gene Hackman) did not administer justice adequately in this case. When the sheriff hears of the bounty he is angry and is determined to make an example of anyone who pursues it.

Clint Eastwood’s character, Will Munny, after at first declining the offer changes his mind and gets one of his old now reformed hired gun buddies, Ned (played by Morgan Freeman) to help him. This is what Will Munny says:
I ain't like that no more. I ain't the same, Ned. Claudia, she straightened me up, cleared me of drinkin' whiskey and all. Just 'cause we're goin' on this killing, that don't mean I'm gonna go back to bein' the way I was. I just need the money, get a new start for them youngsters. Ned, you remember that drover I shot through the mouth and his teeth came out the back of his head? I think about him now and again. He didn't do anything to deserve to get shot, at least nothin' I could remember when I sobered up.
As you can imagine even if you haven’t seen the film, a lot of killing ensues. Munny does go back to the way he was. In fact, we discover that the only way Munny can shoot straight is when he drinks whiskey.

The film won a number of academy awards including Best Picture. It has been called “the eulogy for the American Western.”

Part of the film’s genius is that it messes with our sense of justice.

It is a critique of the Myth of Redemptive Violence. The myth of redemptive violence is a myth that we live by most of the time. We find it played out in film and literature and in the way we determine right and wrong.

The Myth of Redemptive Violence says that violence can be redemptive, and at times it is the only redemptive act against evil. Violence is redemptive when used by the good against the bad.

We are initially on the side of the prostitutes who seek redress both from the crime done to them and from local law enforcement that did not do not justice. And we are on the side of Will Munny who is rather lovable in a weird way. He gave up drinkin’ and gun slingin’ for his wife. He is raising two kids. He is going on just one last job and to the audience it is a just cause, a righteous kill.

He is Clint Eastwood after all. The righteous killer. He was often the Christ figure in his previous films.

We know how these films are supposed to work. The bad guys are ruthless and their ruthlessness builds up. The good guys are beaten down, but finally draw from a well of heroism and righteousness and in a final scene kill the bad guys and we feel good because justice has been done. That is how these movies work.

That is the game.

That is the myth.

And that has been the formula for Clint Eastwood's films. Until this one.

We are manipulated. As the film unfolds we find ourselves rooting for the the good guys to give the bad guys their just reward and then when they finally do, it is so over the top in terms of violence that we feel soul-sick. There are no heroes. No good guys or bad guys. It is mixed up. It isn’t clear. It is just violence. That I think is what the film wants to communicate. The genre of the Western had lost its innocence. The myth of the Western film had died. Unforgiven was its eulogy.

Perhaps not only the American Western but the myth of the American West itself is being turned upside down. Making heroes out of gunslingers who were nothing more than psychopathic killers perhaps wasn’t such a great idea. In the end it is mostly greed and violence.

Will Munny summarized the entire genre:
He didn't do anything to deserve to get shot, at least nothin' I could remember when I sobered up.
This leads us to our parable.

Maybe the parable of the king’s accounting is a eulogy for the myth of redemptive violence.

We know what is supposed to happen. We know the game. The King is supposed to be God and God is good and so whatever God does is right. The parable is simply an illustration of the truism:
Forgive others as God forgives. If we don’t forgive, God won’t forgive us. Let that unforgiving slave be a lesson.
That is how we are supposed to read it. That is how we have read it. That is how the Gospel of Matthew reads it.

Or mis-reads it.

Matthew’s gospel adds a commentary at the end of the parable by putting on the lips of Jesus this warning:
That is what my heavenly Father will do to you, unless you find it in your heart to forgive each one of your brothers and sisters. 18:35
But is that really the character of God? Is God really as fickle as the king in this parable?

In Matthew’s Gospel just before this parable, Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother, seven times? And Jesus says no, seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven. In either case, the exaggeration means,
“Don’t calculate, just forgive.”
That is what we are supposed to do. We are supposed to forgive seventy-seven times. OK, fine.

Then he tells the story of God, the king, God, who only can manage to forgive once. Then he takes it away and actually tortures the poor schlep who he originally forgave.

Now the poor schlep is no saint. After being forgiven a debt of 10,000 talents which should be translated a zillion bazillion dollars, he goes and shakes a guy down for a couple hundred bucks. He is certainly no role model.

But neither is the king.

If God is like the character of this king, then the whole notion of grace and mercy is a sham. I don’t know about you, but if I were to be truly honest there are brothers and sisters who I have not forgiven. I guess God won’t forgive me then. Even if God did forgive me, I can’t count on it, because God could take it back.

This is a religion of terror. This is a religion upon which fundamentalism thrives. That is the religion of empire. God is not about forgiveness but punishment and torture. That is God’s real nature.

This parable is like the film Unforgiven in which the audience is drawn into a cycle of violence. By rooting for and expecting justice through vengeance we find ourselves complicit in the violence that ensues, so hearers of this parable are drawn into a cycle of unforgiveness.

We are impressed that the King would forgive such a huge amount. What a great guy. See the game is good! Then we are disgusted that the man who is forgiven much cannot forgive a little amount. So we are on the side of the slave who was not forgiven and on the side of those slaves who were watching. Like them, we want vengeance. We want redress. We want justice for our fellow slave who was not forgiven.

That is how the game is played.

So as hearers of the parable we cheer as the slaves tell the king what happened. We are expecting justice. The bad guy is going to get his. But then as the king calls the “bad guy” on the carpet and reverses the forgiveness and exchanges it for torture we may find ourselves wondering if we as hearers were rooting for the right thing after all. Has justice been served? Is God’s kingdom a place in which no one is ultimately forgiven but only tortured?
That is what my heavenly Father will do to you, unless you find it in your heart to forgive each one of your brothers and sisters.
As hearers we find ourselves implicit in this. Bernard Brandon Scott writes:
Thus the parable catches everyone in evil, not intentional evil, but implicit, unanticipated, systemic evil. …A wholly other system is needed, a system outside empire, outside honor and shame, outside patron-client, outside royal power. Pp. 106-7.
The God of Jesus is not the king in this parable. The kingdom of God is not the king’s accounting system. God is outside this parable. This parable is a spoof or a critique. Whatever God is and whatever God’s kingdom is, this parable is not it.

Jesus Seminar Fellow, Ed Buetner offered a great illustration for the phrase, “kingdom of God” or “empire of God.” When someone tells you that they went to the school of hard knocks, you know that they aren’t talking about school as we normally think of school.

The school of hard knocks is a metaphor that points to something very different from Elizabethton High or ETSU or any other school we might bring to mind. The school of hard knocks is not a school, even though people might have learned things from the school of hard knocks.

When Jesus says empire of God he is not talking about empires or God in the way we normally think of empires and God. I think Jesus used empire of God to at once bring to mind Roman Empire and at the same time to spoof it.

When we find a parable in which a king appears to stand for God, it is good to suspect that Jesus is messing with us. It may mean that the real character of God and the kingdom is closer to the opposite.

As Brandon Scott writes:
The parable paints a bleak picture of every effort to organize the world on the model of the empire. Whatever the empire of God might be, it cannot be that. P. 107.
Let’s move from parable to real life.

Let us not forget the obvious.

This parable is about money

It is about stuff and who has the stuff and who controls the stuff and how the stuff is controlled.

In the end, finally by means of torture, the king gets the stuff.

We live in a world of strict accounting like that of the kings and slaves. In that system there are winners and losers, good and bad. We know that the world in which we live, people are piled with debts. Well…they should have known better. Too bad for them.

We know the world in which we live the “too big to fail” banks and corporations and power brokers have their debts forgiven. That is normal. That is the way the world works. Don’t blame the game. Blame the players. The men in their suits and ties and their Harvard MBAs (and Princeton M. Divs) are so smart and so authoritative and they know what is best for all of us.

This past week was educational for me. We had our international peacemaker visit us from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. On one afternoon he spoke at Emmanuel School of Religion. Dr. Elolia and Dr. Perkins set up a tea with international students. A couple of folks were there who live in the U.S. now but are from the Congo.

Our peacemaker, Rev. Mukendi, showed us his presentation and a video of his children and wife and neighbors walking two kilometers to get water from a spring. The women carry 40 pounds of water on their heads, three, four, five, six times a day. They get electricity from a generator. He wasn't complaining about any of this. He was showing us his life..

Rev. Mukendi is not one of the poor ones. He is a big deal in his area. He is like our executive presbyter or synod executive. He has a large church and is responsible for important programs and ministries in the DRC.

At the presentation at Emmanuel School of Religion, one of the guys who live in the U.S. now but is from the Congo said:
“It is possible that all of us here have a piece of the Congo in our pockets.”
He was referring of course to our cell phones. It applies also to our computers. Many of the valuable minerals that make our cell phones fast and cheap are from the DRC. But the people who live in the DRC, who live on top of this wealth, don’t have cell phones or laptops. Some of the wealthier do of course. But most folks don’t even have electricity or running water.

But that is the way the world works, isn’t it?
It is normal.
One wouldn’t think to criticize the system.
It is not the game that is fault, we say, just the players.

I think if Jesus were with us today he might say:
“No, the players are all children of God.
Whether in the Congo, China, West Virginia, Johnson City, or Wyoming.
The players are fine.

Join with me and let's change the game.”


  1. John, you wrote: "The God of Jesus is not the king in this parable. The kingdom of God is not the king’s accounting system. God is outside this parable. This parable is a spoof or a critique. Whatever God is and whatever God’s kingdom is, this parable is not it."

    But when Christ adds the words at the end of the parable, which you also quoted: "That is what my heavenly Father will do to you, unless you find it in your heart to forgive each one of your brothers and sisters."

    Are you actually saying that Christ never said this? If so, by what authority? Are you applying Marcionism and cutting out the parts that you philosophically disagree with? Are you then molding Christ into an anti-Christ of your own making?

    So who should people believe? Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew or John Shuck on his blog?

  2. Stushie,

    C'mon. Whether you agree or not, you at least know about critical methods regarding the gospels.

  3. I really appreciated this sermon. After church, Mr. Dewey and I went to our favorite Mexican restaurant. There I couldn't help but overhear a woman talking to another at a nearby table. It fascinated me, because the women was "comforting" the other over some crisis. She basically told the woman to "buck up" because "Jesus died on the cross, and when they rolled the stone away to reveal His ultimate humiliation, he was gone."

    How that was a comfort, I do not know. How that event was something this woman had to "earn" by ignoring or swallowing her own distress, I also do not know. But it seems to me the "Christ died on a cross for your sins" is the ultimate example of redemptive violence. And it is used, reused, and overused as such.

    Oh, and Stushie - even a heathen like me knows that Jesus didn't write the Gospel of Matthew.

  4. "Are you then molding Christ into an anti-Christ of your own making?"

    And when did you stop beating your wife, Stushie? LOL