Blaming the Hungry

23 October 2012

“Jesus was going through a field of grain on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat them.” (Matt. 12:1)

Matthew’s version of this story has one key difference from the other Synoptic Gospels, and that is this remark that the ones picking the grain “were hungry….” Picking grain—harvesting a field—certainly counts as “work,” which is forbidden on the Sabbath. Matthew is playing to a “loophole” in interpreting the Law when he speaks of the disciples’ hunger. As Jesus says elsewhere, the Law is made for human beings, not vice-versa. Preservation of human life is the chief value of the Law so, if the disciples are hungry, they need to eat to preserve their lives.

Are they really dying of starvation, or is Jesus pushing the boundary here? If you follow Mark or Luke, the latter is the case. Matthew “muddies the water” by presenting a legitimate reason for setting aside the prohibition of working on the Sabbath. He then has Jesus cite two precedents for his interpretation of the Law in this case: David and his army eating the offering-bread, and the priests working in the Temple (e.g., slaughtering sacrificial animals). Neither precedent is quite on target, but that is less important than the claim that there can be exceptions to this Sabbath prohibition. In his argument, it is implicit; Jesus makes it explicit in the “punch-line” when he claims that “the human person (or offspring of Adam) is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8). Many Jews would agree with Jesus that it is permissible to pluck the grain if that is the only way one will be able to eat that day, but they would disagree with such a blanket statement that makes it sound like individual humans can decide which Sabbath Laws to observe and which not.

Johannes “Jan” Luyken (1649-1712) etching
from the Bowyer Bible, Bolton, England.
“Works of Mercy: Feeding the Hungry”

Readers tend to overlook the disciples’ hunger or, if they do notice, they “explain” it as I just did. But why are the disciples hungry? The “Pharisees” who object are not said to be hungry. Jesus and the disciples are itinerant; they have no permanent home, so neither do they have any stable means of income. They have been living off the generosity of those who listen to Jesus preach and who are recipients of his healing ministry. If the disciples are hungry, then those who have benefited from Jesus’ ministry are not responding with generosity (cf., Matt. 11:20–24). The well-fed “Pharisees” should be offering to share their tables with the disciples; instead, having no empathy for those are hungry, they castigate them.

How many times have you heard this same attitude toward the poor today? Many people who were born to privilege claim to have “made their own success,” as if none of the advantages of race and economic class play any role in whether one goes to good schools, eats healthy food, or has access to good health care. Those who are receiving unemployment benefits are castigated as “lazy” because they are out of work, when companies actually advertise the fact that they will not consider job applicants who are unemployed. The unemployment rate in NE Ohio has declined by 25% since President Obama took office, but it still hovers around 8%, and for Gulf War veterans the rate is closer to 13% (see American companies rarely are criticized for exporting jobs overseas, but the thousands of Americans they lay off work then are blamed as “loafers” because they have to make use of their unemployment benefits. If the hungry were to pick grain from fields today, they’d be arrested for theft.

A homeless family living in their car.

Homeless people are blamed for being drunks or drug addicts who “deserve” to be homeless; they should just get jobs and stop leeching off the public. In fact, most homeless adults actually are employed, but at minimum wage jobs where they earn too little to afford housing, and over a third of the homeless in American are families with children under the age of ten (, 8).*

Some of my own (white, middle-class, suburban) students have shared with me their stories of family homelessness, when a parent lost his/her job and family finances nose-dived such that they lost their home. These kids were working long hours, while trying to go to college, so they could help their families afford an apartment. That is the face of homelessness in America. The fifty-year-old college-educated woman who has to work seventy hours a week just to barely scrape by, for whom a flat tire makes the difference between whether groceries are affordable or not—that’s the specter of near-homelessness in America today. Messrs. Romney and Ryan have never met the homeless or they would choke on the word “entitlement.” If anyone feels “entitled,” it’s the 1% who control the majority of American wealth and are trying to buy this election.

There is not a single county in the United States where someone working for minimum wage can earn enough to pay fair-market rent for a one-room apartment (Ibid., 5), yet we are expected to believe the economy will be utterly destroyed if the minimum wage were raised. CEOs have incomes over 2000 times that of their employees, and their marginal tax rates are less than those of the companies’ low-paid secretaries, yet we are supposed to believe that their taxes should be cut even more. Aside from being economic suicide, the budget plan proposed by Representative Ryan embodies this punitive approach to the poor in a way that would have been inconceivable to anyone, Republican or Democrat, just a generation ago. The dominant discourse in this country has become “me first” instead of “we together.” If Jesus were in his grave, he’d be rolling over in it.

But he is not in his grave. He is living among us today, in the poor, the unemployed, and the homeless. “‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me'” (Matt 25:40). Poor Americans matter. Which means that housing matters, economic policy matters, and jobs matter. When people need bread, will we give them stones instead?

*For more information on family homelessness, see

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22; NRSV)

The first time I remember hearing this Gospel, I was about nine years old. (I’m sure that is not because it hadn’t been read in my presence before, but rather that I was not very attentive to the readings when I was a younger child.) That Christmas my parents had given me a Missal that included all the Lectionary readings—as well as the Mass prayers—in those days, with Latin on the one side and English on the other—so now I could follow everything that was happening. My translation followed the textual variant in which Jesus tells Peter to forgive “seventy times seven,” and I remember calculating in my head how many times that would be. Of course, now I realize that it is irrelevant whether Jesus said to forgive “77 times” or “490 times.” (Seriously, can you imagine keeping a log where you tote up the number of times you forgive someone?) Not meant literally, the number was exaggerated to prove the point: disciples of Jesus should be willing to forgive those who have wronged them and who have repented of their wrongdoing. That part is pretty easy to see now. Unfortunately, some other misapprehensions of this passage are at least as important to overcome but much more difficult to recognize.

Misunderstanding #1: Forgiveness should be pre-emptive, not waiting for the wrongdoer to repent of the action. The purpose of forgiveness is restoration of the relationship that was violated by the wrong action. The context for this saying of Jesus makes it clear that, if the person who perpetrated the wrong refuses to recognize that it was wrong and/or refuses to take responsibility for it, then there can be no talk of forgiveness. Six verses earlier, Matthew presents Jesus’ instructions for how to deal with one disciple sinning against another: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt 18:15-17; NRSV). Here we see that the wrongdoer who “listens” to the complaint and takes responsibility for it can be reconciled. The one who “refuses to listen,” who continues in denial of responsibility, cannot. Ostracism is the recommended response in the latter case, presumably so the perpetrator will recognize the severity of the offense and choose to restore the relationship by admitting responsibility and asking to be forgiven.

Misunderstanding #2: Forgiveness means acting as if the wrong never happened. On the contrary, forgiveness requires the perpetrator to take responsibility for the action itself and whatever consequences flow from that action. It is one thing for the surviving family members of a murder victim to forgive the murderer; it is a totally different matter to suggest that the murderer should be absolved from serving the legal penalty for that crime or from engaging in compensatory actions toward the survivors. Being “forgiven” requires the willingness to face the consequences of one’s actions. Thus, for example, forgiveness of thieves or embezzlers should include the expectation that they repay what they have stolen. Those who have caused someone physical harm should provide necessary medical treatment so the victim can recover from the injury. If recovery is not possible, then the perpetrator should be expected to provide ongoing support of the victim, including provision for whatever remedial and/or palliative care is medically advisable. Causing a permanent injury incurs a life-long responsibility. After all, if the victim will never again be free of pain, why should the perpetrator be free of responsibility? Accepting forgiveness also means accepting responsibility for any necessary reparations for the wrongdoing.

Misunderstanding #3: “Forgiveness” means the perpetrator can go back to the status quo ante, thinking and behaving in exactly the same ways as before he or she committed the offense. The Evangelist must have realized that some would skew Jesus’ saying in this way, however, because immediately following the saying we find a parable that highlights and corrects this mistake.

For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart. (Matt 18:23-35; NRSV)

In the parable, the subject is forgiveness of debts, but the interpretive tradition also applies the paradigm to moral failings. The tremendous disparity between the two debts highlights the point that Jesus’ concern is not only monetary but also attitudinal: the first slave owed 10,000 talents, whereas the second owed only 100 denarii. That’s a little obscure to contemporary readers, so it is worth spelling out in more detail. One talent was equivalent to approximately 6,000 denarii, so 10,000 talents equals 60,000,000 denarii—60,000 times the second debt. One denarius was the average pay for a day laborer. If one presumes a six-day work-week, with approximately fifty work-weeks in each year, it would take twenty years to earn one talent. The first debtor promises to “pay [the master] everything,” but that would require 200,000 years for a day laborer, and meanwhile the person would have nothing to use for living expenses. Presumably this first debtor has better employment and/or investment opportunities than a simple laborer, yet his promise to the lord remains dubious at best. On the other hand, the second debtor’s promise to pay the 100 denarii, if given the chance, comes across as both sincere and reasonable. Yet the first debtor, who should have been overwhelmingly grateful for having escaped life in the mines or workhouse, instead is miserly and cruel with the second debtor. The dénouement of the story explicates that vindictiveness is the wrong response to forgiveness. The one who is forgiven is expected to show generosity and compassion toward others—in this example, forgiving another’s debts in return for having one’s own debts forgiven. Indeed, the parable suggests that forgiveness can—and perhaps ought to—be retracted if the forgiven one does not exhibit a more compassionate attitude and more generous behavior than beforehand.

Thus, the popular secular motto “forgive and forget” represents at best a very skewed understanding of Jesus’ true teaching. As Dietrich Bonhœffer insisted, such a notion of “cheap grace” is an abomination, a denial of the sacrifice of Christ. On the contrary, Christian “forgiveness” is a sort of shorthand for the overall process of conversion of a sinner, which includes at least four phases: (a) recognizing that one has sinned; (b) taking responsibility for the sin and its consequences; (c) attempting to restore the violated relationship by making any necessary reparations, and (d) changing one’s patterns of behavior to ensure that one will not commit the same offense in the future. Only then can there be true reconciliation between sinner and victim, and thereby the whole church. In earlier times, the process for the Sacrament of Reconciliation exemplified this perspective: confession came first; a penance was imposed; then that penance had to be completed before the sinner returned to receive absolution; the resolution part of the “Act of Contrition” gives voice to one’s commitment to behavioral change, although hopefully the penance is designed actually to practice it and begin to form new habits of mind and heart.

Misunderstanding #4: Forgiveness requires the victim to treat the perpetrator the same way as before the injury. I see this as the most dangerous of the common misconceptions of forgiveness, for it causes the death or serious injury of hundreds of thousands of women every year—women who are sent home to abusive husbands whom their pastor tells them they must “forgive.” Forgiveness does not mean accepting abuse or putting oneself back into a situation where such abuse might recur. Forgiveness requires recognition of the abuse and confrontation of the abuser. It also demands proof of real behavioral change—not just good intentions—before a relationship can be restored. Abusers, like alcoholics, are never “cured”; but they may enter a “recovery” phase, at which point forgiveness can take place. Even so, given the statistically high risk of relapse, this instance of forgiveness typically ought not to include the victim returning to live under the same roof with the abuser. Forgiveness does not “turn back the clock” for the one who forgives any more than it does for the one forgiven.

Lessons? What should we take away from this saying of Jesus about “how many times” to forgive? Firstly, that the question itself is wrong-headed, for it displays a miserly attitude toward forgiveness that runs counter to the gratitude that should be our response to the grace God has poured out upon us. Underlying Peter’s question, however, is a perfectly reasonable concern for guidelines concerning when and how to “forgive.” (In other words, what are the dynamics of forgiveness?) So, the second point we should learn from this set of passages is that true forgiveness does not come “cheap”; it requires repentance, responsibility, restitution, and an active resolution to change. Thirdly, forgiveness requires “conversion of life” on the part of the one forgiven, and might be withdrawn if that life-change is not clearly manifested. Fourthly, forgiveness reconciles the wrongdoer and the victim, but the result is a new relationship between them, not simply a return to the previous patterns. Finally, we must strive to recognize and counteract the ways Jesus’ saying on forgiveness gets twisted to exonerate those who perpetrate injustice and to re-victimize those who suffer at their hands. Gospel forgiveness is truly “good news”: the lowly win. True forgiveness benefits everyone, victim and perpetrator, but the victim must come first.

[This post is a revised version of Sheila E. McGinn, “How [Often] Should I Forgive?” in Catholic Asian News (March 2011): 19-23.]

The Bible According to McGinn

People, places, and other points of interest relating to the Biblical texts

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