Seventy-seven Times?!

This Matthew 18 stuff is hard, really hard …

What do you do when your friend gives you a gun? For Roger, this was easy: he used it. And he says that if he had the chance, he’d use it again. Roger’s entire life has become consumed by one unquenchable desire: avenging his daughter’s death. Sarah was out on her bike when she was hit by a drunk driver. She died almost instantly. The driver was sent to prison for manslaughter. But that wasn’t enough for Roger. He borrowed a gun and when the driver was released years later, he shot him, fully intending to kill. Now the tables were turned, and Roger found himself charged with attempted murder, facing the possibility of a similar long prison sentence. I asked him if squeezing the trigger and watching the man collapse in agony made him feel better. “No,” he said, “Only killing him could have made me feel better.”

Thus begins a little book entitled Why forgive? It is full of stories, horrific stories of pain and injustice suffered by ordinary people like you and I. But the book is also full of hope, illustrating vividly the life-giving power of forgiveness, and why “to err is human, to forgive is divine.” Its message is a huge challenge in the face of the world’s horrific injuries inflicted daily by terrorists, armies at war, ethnic conflict, as well as by tragic accidents, disasters and disease, alcohol and drug abuse, family violence, sexual abuse etc. etc.

With the mind of an accountant, adding and subtracting offences and pardon, Peter asks Jesus: “How often do I need to forgive the one who wrongs me?” With the mind of God, in the business of unbridled mercy, Jesus gives an outrageous answer: “Seventy-seven times seven.” In other words, there’s no end to the need to forgive…

The Bible is full of admonishments to forgive those who injure us. We know that – it’s ingrained in our minds. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray “Forgive us our debtors as we forgive those who sin against us.”

We’re good church folk – we know we “should” forgive. We recognize the importance to let go of hurts and resentments. However, most of us are really good at telling others to forgive. When it’s our turn, it can often feel impossible to extend heartfelt forgiveness.
Believe me, recently I had another opportunity to practice this — it was mighty hard. And to be told that we ought to forgive can actually make things worse. We might heap a whole bunch of guilt onto ourselves, simply adding to the anger and vengeful feelings instead of helping them disappear.

Here the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35) has something to teach us. Jesus tells an incredible story of the king who forgave one servant an impossible debt. But then that servant turns around and refuses to forgive a fellow servant who owed him a debt much smaller than the one the king forgave.

At first hearing, the servant’s behaviour is shocking. Why does the servant, having been treated so generously by the king, immediately act so ruthlessly toward his fellow servant? The king is justified in his harsh retaliation. But upon deeper hearing, this parable should make us blush… We often treat one another in similar fashion.

When the forgiven servant hears that his debt is forgiven, he shows no appropriate response. Scripture does not tell us whether he rejoices, whether he gives thanks, whether he celebrates with wife and children who are spared imprisonment. All we learn is that on the way out he refuses … the plea … of a fellow servant. That creates a very serious gap in the story. That gap makes a very important point. The servant clearly has not “experienced” the king’s forgiveness. We already hear that in how he approaches the king. His debt is beyond any reasonable ability to pay — 10,000 talents represents more than the wages of a day labourer for 1,000 years! Yet he says, “I will pay you everything” – how naïve can you get? The servant thinks that he is dealing with the king on the basis of justice. What he receives but never grasps is the king’s mercy.

God is in the forgiveness business, but we have a hard time forgiving each other – and even ourselves. A Chinese proverb describes this human inability to forgive rather bluntly: whoever opts for revenge should dig two graves. God is not stopped from forgiving us because we are unforgiving towards each other. But there is a link between our experience of God’s forgiveness and our capacity to forgive another sister or brother.

Forgiveness is quite different than justice or retribution. That is what Jesus is trying to teach us. The first servant keeps thinking in terms of justice, and fails to realize he has received mercy. Mercy is a divine gift which transforms the heart. God deals with us, not on the scale of justice, but by granting mercy. A heart transformed by God’s gift of mercy is set free to offer mercy to another in turn.

Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu was chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Tutu says to forgive goes beyond unselfishness: “To forgive is a process that does not exclude hate and anger. These emotions are all part of being human.” Tutu  continues, “You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things; the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.” Tutu stresses that, “When I talk of forgiveness, I mean the conviction that you can come out the other side a better person.”

Hatred comes in many forms; the great hatred of 9/11, civil and ethnic conflicts, suicide bombings in major world cities. Apart from world-scale events of evil, there is a lot of small stuff we sweat every day, small stuff needing the healing touch of mercy: We suffer painful family relations. We feel unjustly treated at work.  A friend deserts us, or betrays us. A teacher judges our son or daughter wrongly. A pastor abuses our trust…

We must not take these actions lightly for they affect the health of the world. In the same way, however, we must not take Jesus’ call to forgiveness lightly, for it too affects the health of the world.

One of the first things Anglican priest Dale Lang did after the fatal shooting in a Tabor high school, quite a few years ago now, was to forgive the boy who killed his son. “ If you can’t reach that place of forgiveness, then you’re going to get stuck in that place of anger and bitterness ,” said Lang. Dale Lang still travels the country sharing his tragic experience of loss and his call to mercy. A number of years later similar words were spoken by another father whose son, an RCMP officer, was killed in the Mayerthorpe ambush on a farm: “If I let hatred for my son’s murderer eat my heart, I would become another victim of the shooting,”

God is in the forgiveness business in and through Jesus. In Ephesians 1:7 Paul writes, “In him [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the richness of his grace.” Paul later reminded the Christians at Ephesus, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you.” Paul asks the Romans (14:10), and us: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Why do you despise your sister or brother? We will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”

The last paragraph in the book Why Forgive?  reads as follows: Forgiveness is life-giving power. It frees us from every constraint of the past, and helps us overcome every obstacle. It can heal both the forgiver and the forgiven. In fact, it could change the world if we allowed it to. But too often we stand in its way, not daring to let it flow through us unchecked. With God, we hold the keys to forgiveness in our hands. And we must choose whether or not to use these keys – every day.

With the mind of an accountant we ask: How often did you say, Lord? With the mind of God Jesus answers: Seventy-seven times seven … Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Prairie Encounters

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