article for Sept 11, 2011

In this Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 18: 21-35) parable, Jesus took the “quid pro quo” of the Our Father (“…forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”) a step deeper.

In the story, a king was threatening to sell a servant and his whole family into slavery since he could not pay his debt. On this, the ten year anniversary of our nation’s collective wound, the felt experience of children, parents and grandparents being ripped out of a family is tragically vivid. This king in Jesus’ parable, willing to tear a family apart and sell them, was a brutal man. The parable went on to explain that the king finally exercised some compassion after some weeping and begging on the part of his servant.

If you were the servant who was reprieved, how much would you trust the compassion of a man who had just threatened to sell you, and your kids? If someone, anyone, owed you money, would you be tempted to desperately track down every last dime of it so that you could get out from under the fragile mercy of the king, who had recently threatened to tear apart your family’s lives?

The story recounted how the servant found someone who owed him and began to beat him. Shocked by their colleague’s harsh and desperate behavior, they reported his misdeeds to the boss, who proceeded to “go Medieval” on the servant in the depths of a torture chamber. At no point in Jesus’ story was there any hint that the king was sorry for how he had set up his employees for discord and failure.

Have you ever observed this kind of non-reflective leadership style that sabotages people? A man I once knew was troubled that his twelve-year-old had begun speaking disrespectfully to his parents. During a family session, it was abundantly clear that this same father spoke with contempt and disrespect to his own wife in front of his children. Like the king in this Sunday’s Gospel, he had set his son up for failure through his own bad example. And yet, like the character in this Gospel, he was totally unaware of his own contribution to his son’s disrespectful behavior.

Each of us has a workplace example of a boss who set an emotional tone that rippled out into the workforce. Having motivated employees through fear and intimidation, the emotionally unaware boss is shocked when his employees cannot pull together and function as a team when confronted with a challenge.

If you have ever been in a position of leadership with children, see if this example sounds familiar. When one of my kids is self-righteously telling on a sibling who has wronged him or her, I try to put on the wise voice of King Solomon as I ask a variation of the same question, “What’d you do just before she did what she did?” If I stick with this question long enough, more often than not, a moment of humility will follow.

In this Sunday’s readings, Jesus recognized that we adults have a lot in common with my tattle-tale kids. It is supremely easy to locate an instance of how someone has “trespassed against us.” What is profoundly challenging is to replay the incident to remember what we were doing just before our antagonist (i.e. spouse, parent, friend, colleague, boss, community member) did what they did. If we are honest we often discover that we contributed to the problem in some significant way.

This Sunday’s Gospel parable, invited us to examine those situations where someone trespassed against us. As we locate one of those moments, can we be self-reflective (unlike the cruel king) and take responsibility for how we contributed to the snag that ended up causing so much discomfort. A benefit to owning our side of the situation is that it usually makes forgiving the other far easier.

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