Forgiveness is outrageous. In our society where might makes right, a society of myriad victims, forgiveness seems crazy. Right here is surely where the Lord’s Prayer is most difficult to pray. Perhaps that’s why this is the longest and the most involved petition in the Lord’s Prayer. As usual, it first asks God to do something for us. Then it challenges us to do something for others. The order is important: before there is any talk in the prayer about our forgiving anyone else, we are made to ask for forgiveness ourselves.
Some of us might wish that the prayer said something to God like, “teach us to forgive others, so that we might also be forgiven.” But it doesn’t, because that would put us in control. That would mean that we could be righteous, reaching out in love to those who had injured and wronged us. But the prayer first asks us to ask to be forgiven. 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.
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 forgive us sins, as we forgive those who sin against us, 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.
Like so many other parts of this prayer, it’s in the plural. Forgive us our sins. Many of us often like to think of our sins are a very private matter between us, and God if we must, yet the fact this is prayer, all the way through, is plural, leads me to think that god might be more interested in the sins of the church and the world, than in our personal failings.
The prayer also teaches us that 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, which is what I think we heard in our gospel reading tonight. 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 in challenging us to forgive others, Jesus is not saying that the injustice we have suffered is inconsequential, because the pain is real, but rather, Jesus is refusing to let sin have the last word in our story. Jesus is not trying to produce a race of 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. Jesus has no interest in producing victims; the world produces enough. Rather, in challenging us to forgive, Jesus is inviting 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. Instead it’s a challenge to turn things around, to be victors rather than victims. We can forgive. 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 we have to pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” so often, and why we need to pray it so often.
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.
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.