My dad was my first employer. As I recall, I made four dollars an hour to run a roadside vegetable stand from early morning to mid-afternoon six days a week. By the end of my first summer, I had enough money to open a checking account at the First Union Bank in East Bend thus solidifying my economic citizenship. I put the work in and I earned it.
I learned early on the value of earning something. I learned how to take joy in labor and in the earnings it rendered. There were, however, other lessons related to earnings that I picked up along the way. I can remember hearing at home and church the notion that a man must earn another man’s trust. What’s more, when I did something wrong against another person, I was taught that I must earn their forgiveness. As the years have gone by, and as I’ve become better acquainted with Christ, I’ve had to unlearn these lessons.
Beyond the recording of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, the stories of the Gospel center around Christ attempting to teach the disciples a new way of being. On one such occasion in Luke, Christ says, “if you have a mustard seed of faith, you could plant a tree in the middle of the sea.” The disciples smile and nod along. Christ explains what that mustard seed of faith really looks like by issuing the unnatural command to forgive your neighbor over and over and over again (seventy times seven times!). The disciples are dumbfounded and say, “Lord, increase our faith.” Forgiving someone who hasn’t earned that forgiveness with the proper amount of guilt and contrition requires some faith – at least a mustard seed’s worth - likely more for some of us!
The disciples also seem quite slow to fully trust Christ throughout the gospel accounts. In Mark’s telling, the disciples lack of trust is consistently juxtaposed with the trust of mostly nameless women (i.e. the hemorrhaging woman who touches his cloak and is healed (5:25-34); the Syrophoenician woman who makes demands for just “the crumbs” of faith (7:24-37); The Widow who gives all she has, even in her poverty (12:38-44); the brave women who are present throughout the passion and burial and resurrection (14 & 15)). In all the gospel accounts, the disciples struggle to fully trust who Christ says he is and what Christ says he must do. I am left to consider only two possibilities: either Christ was untrustworthy, or the disciples were withholding their trust. Obviously, I assume the latter to be the case, which begs the question: If Christ could not earn the trust of the disciples, is trust really something that can be earned?
When we consider that forgiveness and trust are gifts that another person earns from us, we rob these holy virtues of their supernatural power to transform this world. We make that which Christ gave to us so abundantly and freely, his forgiveness and trust, into something that we deposit, invest, and withhold like daily wages. The moment forgiveness requires apology and guilt, it ceases to be forgiveness. The moment trust requires a demonstrated reliability and assurance that it is a worthy investment, it ceases to be trust. It is little more than an exchange of goods at the local bank.
Giving trust and forgiveness away is not easy. We know that. While the gift is free to the one who receives it, it is anything but free to the one who gives it. God knows that. That’s why it’s so precious.