Forgive. What? Why?
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 Paco, meet me in front of this newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your Father.
On the Saturday 800 Pacos showed up, looking for forgiveness and love from their fathers.
We all need forgiveness.
For three weeks, I want to concentrate on forgiveness. This week, what is forgiveness and why forgive? Next week, on Social Justice Sunday, forgiveness between nations and peoples; and in two weeks’ time, what do we do when it’s too hard to forgive?
Today, we heard the Parable of the Unjust Steward. This parable is not Jesus’ teaching on small business practice. Please don’t write to Nick Sherry, the Minister for Small Business, or to Bruce Billson, shadow minister for small business, asking either one to implement the business principles found in this parable.
This parable isn’t about managing a small business, but it is about what this rather cartoonish figure of a steward does with his master’s abundance. He spreads it around! Specifically, he forgives debts: ‘Quick,’ he says, ‘let’s adjust your debt downwards. A hundred jugs of olive oil? Make it fifty! A hundred containers of wheat? Let’s call it eighty!’
The steward is very generous indeed with his master’s stuff.
This is a parable about forgiving others. In Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says:
…forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone
indebted to us.
This parable says that it’s always a good time to forgive debts. It’s always a good time to forgive people. It’s always a good time to share God’s forgiving love.
But why should we forgive others? You can find all sorts of good common sense reasons. For example:
Most probably, the anger you feel doesn’t hurt your enemy at all. The great South African leader Nelson Mandela once said: ‘Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for it to kill your enemy’. When we don’t forgive, we don’t hurt the one who wronged us; we hurt ourselves. There are suggestions that unforgiving attitudes increase our chances of developing stress-related disorders, cardiovascular disease and clinical depression, as well as having a greater chance of divorce.
What does it mean to forgive? We can say that ‘forgiveness takes place when the person who was offended and justly angered by the offender bears his own anger, and lets the other go free’ (David Augsburger).
When we do forgive others, we get practice at having compassion for them. We let go of our destructive anger and the consequent damage that anger can bring to us and to others. In fact, forgiving others is part of the journey we take to become more Christlike.
There’s a story of Thomas Edison, who was working on his new invention: the light bulb. It had taken his team twenty four hours to put one together. The story goes that when Edison was finished with one light bulb, he gave it to a young boy, who nervously carried it up the stairs. Step by step he cautiously watched his hands, obviously frightened of dropping such a priceless piece of work. Of course, he dropped the bulb at the top of the stairs. It took the team 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.
In this story, Thomas Edison was ‘offended and justly angered’. Yet instead of taking his anger out on the young boy, Edison bore his anger and let the boy go free. The boy had another chance.
We are inspired by stories of forgiveness. I once met an American from Georgia, who was a minister of the United Methodist Church. His father had been murdered by a young man he was helping. The young man had knocked on the door of this old widower’s apartment late one night, asking for money. When this was refused, he demanded the TV. Finally, he took the TV after beating the old man to death.
This minister and his wife found they could forgive this young man. Perhaps they knew that the minister’s father would want them to forgive him; perhaps they couldn’t pray the Lord’s Prayer without choking on these words: ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’.
Whatever the reason, they went to the father’s murderer in jail and offered their forgiveness, telling him also about the love of God. They had been ‘offended and justly angered’ by what this young man had done; yet they didn’t take out their anger on this young man; instead they worked for his wellbeing.
Stories of people forgiving others are inspirational all right, but they can also be confusing.
If we forgive someone, are we saying what they did doesn’t matter? No, we’re not. We can’t forgive a sin unless we call it a sin. We forgive others because we ourselves have been forgiven. In the words of the beautiful song by Kathryn Scott,
At the foot of the cross
where grace and suffering meet,
you have shown me your love
through the judgement you received.
And you’ve won my heart…
Christ has won our hearts through what he has done for us. He has opened the door to us to become people who forgive. People who make forgiving others a spiritual practice.
Forgiving others is a commitment that we make. It’s a habit—a good habit—that marks a life of friendship with God and with the people we meet. When Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him, he suggests seven times as a reasonable number. After all, there are limits!
But Jesus says there are no limits to forgiveness. He says ‘seventy times seven’. He doesn’t mean that we keep a record of sins until we get to 490. He means that forgiving others must become a habit of the heart. God’s forgiveness is freely offered to all. So also must ours. Christ has won our hearts.
In A Forgiving God in an Unforgiving World, Ron Lee Davis retells the true story of a priest in the Philippines, a much-loved man of God who carried the burden of a secret sin he had committed many years before. He had repented but still had no peace, no sense of God’s forgiveness.
In his parish was a woman who deeply loved God and who claimed to have visions in which she spoke with Christ and he with her. The priest, however, was skeptical. To test her he said, ‘The next time you speak with Christ, I want you to ask him what sin your priest committed while he was in seminary.’ The woman agreed. A few days later the priest asked, ‘Well, did Christ visit you in your dreams?’
‘Yes Father, he did, she replied.
‘And did you ask him what sin I committed in seminary?’
‘Well, what did he say?’
‘He said, “I don’t remember”.’
In Isaiah 43.25, God says:
I, I am He
who blots out your transgressions
for my own sake,
and I will not remember your sins.
God will not remember our sins against us. Sometimes, we hear that we should forgive and forget. How do you do that? Well, you really can’t. But you can choose not to remember someone’s sins against them.
It’s not easy though. Don’t hear me as saying this is simple. It’s a spiritual discipline. It means remembering at all times that we too stand at the foot of the cross. We have received God’s free and undeserved mercy. When we forgive others, we just show the same mercy to them.
In fact, we’re doing what the unjust steward did: we are giving away our master’s stuff. When we forgive, we forgive because of Jesus. When we forgive, we forgive in the name of Jesus even when we don’t think about him. Mercy belongs to the Lord, and when we show it we are giving away God’s stuff.
In a couple of weeks’ time, we’ll talk about the hard cases. What about forgiving someone who shows no remorse or continues to do you harm? Some years ago now, I had great difficulty forgiving a certain person. I can say that I have forgiven him; but I can’t imagine ever having a relationship with him. What about when it seems impossible to forgive? We’ll look at that in two weeks.
To finish, I’d like to lead you in a prayer. It’s the prayer of a Jew, not the prayer of a Christian. It was found in the clothing of a dead child in the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp after World War 2:
remember not only men and women of good will, but also those of ill will.
But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted upon us;
instead, remember the fruits we have borne
because of this suffering –
our fellowship, our loyalty to one another,
our humility, our courage, our generosity,
the greatness of heart that has grown from this trouble.
When our persecutors come to be judged by you,
let all these fruits we have borne be their forgiveness.
What can we say, but ‘Amen’?