A Pound of Flesh

“It’s not that I can’t forgive,” he said to me. “It’s that I don’t want to forgive. That blinkety-blank so-and-so (actually, the phrasing was both more crude and more angry) doesn’t deserve my forgiveness. At least, not until I get my pound of flesh.”

The term, “pound of flesh” derives from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, 1596. The insistence by Shylock of the payment of Antonio’s flesh is the central plot device of the play. A pound of flesh is something which is owed that is ruthlessly required to be paid back. While the expression can relate to any lawful indebtedness, the figurative use of the phrase really speaks about what is an unreasonable requirement.

In his lovely little book, In the Grip of Grace, Max Lucado relates the story of the family who brought legal suit against the drunk driver responsible for their daughter’s death in a tragic hit and run accident. Part of the settlement included the requirement that the man deliver a cheque for one dollar to the victim’s family every single Friday for a period of eighteen years until the full amount of $936 be paid. Lucado asks at the end of his account, “How much is enough? Is 936 payments enough? When the family receive the final payment, will they be at peace?” Or to put it a different way, when the $936 is finally paid, will that be a sufficient pound of flesh to ease the family’s sorrow and loss?

Most of us find forgiveness difficult, and while we may know intellectually that forgiveness is the only real, workable way by which to find healing and peace of soul, our emotions work by a different logic. Like Shylock, we labour under the mistaken belief that if we can inflict sufficient suffering upon the other person for their mistakes, folly or sin, that our sense of hurt will be alleviated. We cling to the sad conviction that retribution equals justice or that passing back our hurt upon those we blame will somehow facilitate our healing. While Jesus would counsel us to turn a cheek, offer up a cloak and travel the extra mile, we stubbornly demand eyes and teeth and the proverbial pound of flesh, and then wonder why the ache has not left us and the angst and anger still own us.

It’s been said that forgiveness is the ultimate form of justice, because it is the gift we most need in our pain, yet we can only give it to ourselves when we are ready to yield it to those who have hurt us. One other writer called forgiveness the economy of the soul, because only forgiveness saves the expense of anger, the cost of hatred, the waste of spirits.

Not only have I watched people carry for years upon their backs and within their hearts such vast, crippling burdens of unforgiveness, I know I have carried my own fair share of lusting for the pound of flesh from folk who have hurt me. What a waste of time, tears and needless grief. As one of my favourite writers puts it, we may love to savour every toothsome morsel of our self-pity and pain, but ultimately, the skeleton at the feast is ourselves. It is our own soul we devour and our own healing we delay as we busy ourselves stoking the fires of our outrage and the reinforcing to our egos the righteousness of our spiteful demand for the come-uppance of those we would label as our enemies. How God must weep over our vain posturing and pouting all the while we refuse his remedy for our hurt. Wanting the pound of flesh is, I’ve discovered, a cost just not worth paying.

I wonder how many times some of us will read the story of Jesus’ crucifixion until we realize that the Master’s words of forgiveness for his butchers (Luke 23:34), the words of forgiveness by the truly innocent one for all of us who are guilty, remain still the pathway of our last, best and perfect healing.


The Tapestry


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