Daily Reflection – Shame & Status

Yesterday during Midday Prayer we read together the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor in Matthew’s gospel (18:21-35). The story Jesus tells goes like this. A king wants to settle his debts and he calls in his debtors. A man who owes him a large amount can’t pay, and the king threatens to sell this man, his wife, his children, and all of his possessions in order to collect on the debt. Understandably, the man falls to his knees and begs the king for mercy, and the king grants it to him. Then the man leaves the room and immediately runs into someone who owes him a debt. He seizes this person by the throat, demands payment, refuses to hear any pleas for mercy, and throws his debtor in prison. The king hears about it, summons the man he’d forgiven back into his presence, chastises at him for his lack of generosity, and throws him into prison to be tortured. Jesus ends this parable by saying “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Understandably, those of us who were participating in the prayer service via Zoom were a little upset by this parable. Jesus tells it to make clear that we have an ongoing and absolute responsibility to forgive each other. And maybe the violence in the story is just hyperbole. Did Jesus really advocate torture? It’s a shocking enough thought to freeze the mind in its tracks.

But maybe we should ask why the Unforgiving Debtor is so unforgiving in the first place. He goes directly from groveling in front of someone who has power over him, to strangling someone he has power over himself. When he falls on his knee before the king, he’s reduced to a very low status position. Could it be that his cruelty towards the person who owes money to him is less about the money, and more about an attempt to reclaim status, to say to himself “I am not as weak and powerless as I appeared when I was on my knees weeping before the king.”

Status and forgiveness actually have a lot to do with each other. When we feel that we’ve had a loss of status inflicted on ourselves, we are tempted to feel shame. Someone thinks poorly of us. Could they be right? Does their denigration of our worth mean that we are unworthy overall? No, we say to ourselves, we are worthy, and if other people aren’t willing to acknowledge our worth, we’ll find ways of making them do so. But what if we could forgive the person who made us feel small? What if the Unforgiving Debtor left the throne room, took a breath, and said, “I forgive the king for making me feel that way”? Surely this forgiveness would lead to other moments of forgiveness.

Do some of us resist God’s grace because it makes us feel small? If we’re not in control, and need to rely on God, does that mean that we need to break away from some story that we’ve been telling about ourselves? Maybe part of acknowledging grace is, oddly, a willingness to forgive God, our circumstances, and ourselves. Forgive ourselves for not being perfect. Forgive our circumstances for bringing us to the moment when grace was necessary. Forgive God for giving us grace that affirms what we already suspected – we are not in complete control of our lives and our world, of our feelings and thoughts, of our selves and our loved ones.

At this moment, in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, many of us are feeling out of control. Many of us are grieving, and grief quickly turns to anger. And many of us are reluctant to seek help, because we live in a culture that reduces those who seek help to a low status. Could forgiveness be the anecdote to those feelings of shame that arise when we feel that our status has been lowered? Could our practice of forgiveness allow us to be a community that supports and takes care of each other during a pandemic?

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