The challenge of forgiveness

Psalm 103:8-13
Matthew 18:21-33

Forgiveness is a funny thing; it warms the heart and cools the sting.

In a week when we’re thinking about forgiveness, it would be impossible not to consider Shamima Begum. Certain sections of the press have clearly painted this in very simplistic terms. She was 15 when she was radicalised, online in her bedroom. Radicalising a minor is nothing more than grooming and abuse. She then spent 4 teenage years being brainwashed in a cult, where she was raped and abused. That she displays some sympathy for her abusers is normal for victims of this kind of abuse. Now, she may well be a danger to security, she may well need to face serious charges in a court of law, but the way the government is responding to her and the levels of abuse she’s suffering, which is different to the hundreds of British men who’ve gone to Syria, is shameful for Christians. There is no better example of the challenge, the complexity, and the need for more forgives and less anger in our world.

Forgiveness is outrageous. We now live in a world where might makes right, a society of myriad victims, and where so many people seem so very angry. In this strange world of 2019, forgiveness seems crazier than ever. I know that I find it very hard to prayer forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us, and I don’t suppose I’m alone in that; but it’s worth remembering that God wants to sort out four own forgiveness of ourselves, before we can be able to forgive others.

Forgiveness could all be so much easier if we were in control, rather than God. Then we could be righteous, reaching out in love to those who had injured and wronged us. But we need to forgive ourselves, and to accept that God forgives us. That takes us out of control. We have no choice but to recognise that God is in control. We don’t create our lives; we are not the sole authors of the stories that constitute our lives. We are characters in God’s story.

If an acquaintance gives you a gift you hadn’t expected, you find you’re in an awkward position. If it’s a gift which, in receiving, you realise that you really want, that you don’t wish to refuse, you feel at a disadvantage. This, after all, is an acquaintance, not a close friend, and this person has given you a gift that you didn’t know you wanted but which you now feel you need. Many of us immediately seek to give something in return because we know that gift giving and receiving is a game of power, and we fear owing the gift giver. God’s love for us is something freely given, and for which we can give nothing in return.

Thomas Edison was working on a crazy contraption called a “light bulb” and it took a whole team of men 24 hours to put just one together. The story goes that when Edison was finished with one light bulb, he gave it to a young boy helper, who nervously carried it up the steps. Step by step he cautiously watched his hands, obviously frightened of dropping such a priceless piece of work. You’ve probably guessed what happened by now; the poor lad dropped the bulb at the top of the steps. It took the entire team of men twenty-four more hours to make another bulb. Finally, tired and ready for a break, Edison was ready to have his bulb carried up the stairs. He gave it to the same young boy who dropped the first one. That’s true forgiveness.

Consider how often Jesus forgives people. They ask to be healed, he forgives them. They ask for an explanation of his teaching, he forgives them. “Who is this who forgives sins?” his critics asked. In forgiving, he showed us that he was of God, and that we are dependent upon God. So, to reach out for forgiveness means that I am not the sole author of my life story. I can’t think of much that goes against the contemporary understanding of our lives more than to ask for forgiveness. So when we pray for forgiveness, we’re asked to come out from behind our facade, to become exposed, vulnerable, empty-handed, to risk reconciliation to the one who has the power to forgive us.

There’s a Spanish story of a father and son who had become estranged. The son ran away, and the father set off to find him. He searched for months to no avail. Finally, in a last desperate effort to find him, the father put an ad in a Madrid newspaper. The ad read: Dear Pedro, meet me in front of this newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your Father. On Saturday 800 Pedros showed up, looking for forgiveness and love from their fathers.

If we’re to be forgiven, then we can truly be forgivers. The one who has experienced forgiveness is the one best able to forgive. Our forgiveness begins as a response to our being forgiven. It’s not so much an act of generosity towards whoever has hurt us, as an act of gratitude toward our forgiving God. So, forgiveness is neither easy nor cheap.

In forgiving us, God is refusing to hold anything against us, refusing to let our sin have the last word in the way the world is moving; and so when we find ourselves challenged to forgive others, it’s not that the injustice we have suffered is inconsequential, because the pain is real, but rather it’s about refusing to let sin have the last word in our story. It’s not about us all trying to be doormats, a new set of victims who, having been slapped on the right cheek, offer the left as well, so that they may be twice victimised. God has no interest in producing victims; the world produces enough. Rather, in being challenging us to forgive others, it’s an invitation to us to turn the world around, to throw a spanner in the eternal wheel of retribution and vengeance: not to silently suffer the hurt, lick our wounds, and lie in wait for the day when we shall at last be able to return the blow that was dealt to us. It’s a challenge to turn things around, to be victors rather than victims.

The courage to forgive one another begins in the humility engendered by the realisation that we have been forgiven. Forgiveness is a gift, a gift that is first offered to us, before we can offer it to others. When Jesus told Peter to forgive seventy-times-seven times, Jesus had already forgiven him seventy-times-seven trillion times. In our forgiving and being forgiven, we are made part of God’s kingdom, a part of God’s defeat of the powers that would otherwise dominate our lives.

If you’ve ever been forgiven by someone, you know the way in which that forgiveness frees you, releases you, in a way that is close to divine. If you have ever forgiven someone who wronged you, you know how such forgiveness is not cheap and how forgiving someone who has wronged you is a way of breaking the hold of that wrong upon your life. Forgiveness is not natural. That’s why it can be so hard.

There’s a story told that when the first missionaries came to Alberta, Canada, they were savagely opposed by a young chief of the Cree Indians named Maskepetoon. But he became a Christian. Shortly afterwards, a member of the Blackfoot tribe killed his father. Maskepetoon rode into the village where the murderer lived, and demanded that he be brought before him. Confronting the guilty man, he said, “You have killed my father, so now you must be my father. You shall ride my best horse and wear my best clothes.” In utter amazement and remorse his enemy exclaimed, “My son, now you have killed me!” He meant, of course, that the hate in his own heart had been completely erased by the forgiveness and kindness of the Indian chief.

The powers that continue to misshape lives through violence were decisively unmasked and defeated in the cross of Christ. There their weakness was forever exposed as they were brought to heel through Christ’s submission to their power. Yet he triumphed through God’s resurrecting him from the dead.

If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator; if our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist; if our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist; if our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer; but our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent us a Saviour.

Shakespeare put like this:
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings,
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings.
It is an attribute to God himself.
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.

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