ForgivenessPosted: September 18, 2013
GENEROSITY OF FORGIVENESS
The parables of Jesus were not always well understood by his followers. The Parable of the Dishonest Steward is an excellent example. The original story starts in verse one and ends in verse 7. This was Jesus’ rejoinder to his critics who castigated him for his whole sale announcement of the forgiveness of sins. Your sins are forgiven go in peace. The Priests in particular were critical of Jesus’ generosity in forgiveness, because they claimed that while Jesus was free to forgive anyone who had wronged him, he was not free to announce forgiveness of people’s transgressions against God. The only way someone could gain forgiveness for sins against God’s law was to make the trip to Jerusalem and make a sin offering in the Temple. After all, the Priests needed to protect their monopoly over the sin offerings in the Temple.
The journey to the Temple could be long, hard and dangerous. Someone who was sick like many of the people Jesus healed in Galilee could not have undertaken such an arduous passage. In addition many of the people were being pushed off the land, and they were destitute. They could not afford to observe the minutia of the law nor could they afford a sin offering in the Temple. The majority of the poor landless peasants of Galilee had been priced out of forgiveness. So Jesus was offering forgiveness free! What a concept, free forgiveness!
SOMEONE HAS TO PAY
If we stop and think about it Jesus’ approach to forgiveness is still pretty radical. Where guilt and hurt are involved, most of us still have a primitive response that someone has to pay. Someone has to be accountable. We can’t just let people get off scot free.
I’M HURTING HIM MORE THAN HE IS HURTING ME?
But what do we accomplish in trying to extract pain from someone who has hurt us? It’s like the boy who was sitting on a park bench in obvious agony. A man walking by asked him what was wrong. The boy answered, “I’m sitting on a bumble bee.”
“Then why don’t you get up?” the man asked.
The boy replied, “Because I figure that I am hurting him more than he is hurting me!”
HE WHO SEEKS REVENGE SHOULD DIG TWO GRAVES
God can only heal our wounds when we stop trying to inflict pain on the people who hurt us. When we obsess on the wrongs that have been done to us it is like giving those people free rent in our head. Or as the old Chinese proverb proclaims, “he who seeks revenge should dig two graves.”
Like the woman who was bitten by a rabid dog, and it looked like she might die from rabies. The doctor told her to put her final affairs in order. So the woman took pen and paper, and began writing furiously. She wrote and wrote and wrote some more. Finally the doctor said, “That sure is a long will you’re making.”
She snorted, “Will, nothing! I’m making a list of all the people I’m going to bite!”
PRACTICING A GENEROUS FORGIVENESS
So much better that we should practice a generous forgiveness, for when we forgive we open up the possibility that we also might be forgiven. Who among us is so perfect that we have not hurt other people? Who among us is so perfect that God has no complaint against us? Who among us is so perfect? Better we should practice a generous forgiveness like Jesus. When the early church retold the story of Jesus’ passion and death, the center of the narrative were his words from the cross, “forgive them father for they know not what they do.” But how can mere mortals aspire to such a lofty form of forgiveness?
BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI
There is the story told of a miracle that took place on the River Kwai in Western Burma during World War II. Scottish soldiers, forced by their Japanese captors to labor on a jungle railroad, had degenerated into barbarous behavior, but one afternoon something happened. A shovel was missing. The Japanese officer in charge became enraged. He demanded that the missing shovel be produced, or else. When nobody in the squadron budged, the officer pulled out his gun and threatened to kill them all on the spot. It was obvious the officer meant what he had said. Then, finally, one man stepped forward. The officer put away his gun, picked up a shovel, and beat the man to death. When it was over, the survivors picked up the bloody corpse and carried it with them to the second tool check. This time, no shovel was missing. Indeed, there had been a miscount at the first check point.
SACRIFICIAL LOVE HAS TRANSFORMING POWER
The word spread like wildfire through the whole camp. An innocent man had been willing to die to save the others! The incident had a profound effect. The men began to treat each other like brothers. When the victorious Allies swept in, the survivors, human skeletons, lined up in front of their captors (and instead of attacking their captors) insisted: “No more hatred. No more killing. Now what we need is forgiveness.” Sacrificial love has transforming power.
Those prisoners of war practiced extravagant forgiveness. Can we also forgive our enemies who have done far, far less to us? Can we make allowances for the bad habits, the faults, the short comings, the foibles of people in our lives and in the church who irritate us so much? Paul pastored some very naughty churches. Listen to his admonition to the Christians in Colossae: As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
But how do we practice extravagant forgiveness, when someone is actively hurting us or others? Ken Samuel the pastor of Victory United Church of Christ in Stone Mountain wrote a Still Speaking Devotion about vengeance this week.
SYRIA – WHAT TO DO?
People of faith are quite varied in our responses as to how the United States should respond to the atrocities of chemical weapons unleashed on the people of Syria, allegedly under the direction of President Bashar al-Assad.
Some feel strongly that the mass murder in Syria warrants some type of military retaliation, on the part of the U.S. and her allies, that would at least weaken the capacity for any future use of chemical weaponry against citizens. Others believe that anything short of a full commitment to a regime change in Syria will not make much of a difference. Still others contend that as horrendous as the tragedy in Syria is, the United States cannot afford to entangle itself in another foreign conflict, given the urgent problems we face at home with our staggering economy, unsustainable energy, educational dysfunctions and health care confrontations.
VENGEANCE IS MINE SAYS THE LORD
Whether the issue at hand is atrocity in Syria or genocide in Rwanda or slaughter in the Sudan, (or what your neighbor has done to you) there is one moral principle that should guide all of our moral responses. It is the conviction that vengeance does not belong within the purview of human action. Vengeance is a designated function that God reserves exclusively for God’s self.
BUT WHAT ABOUT JUSTICE?
This certainly does not mean that people of faith are to take no responsibility for the execution of justice in the world. It does mean that whatever actions we take to combat and correct socio-political evil must always be tempered with a profound sense of humility and prayer – recognizing that we too are flawed agents operating in a much broader providential process to deliver freedom and justice for all.
ENGAGED BUT NOT ARROGANT
We must certainly win some victories on the way to God’s ultimate vengeance. But let us not use any moral victory or moral cause as a license to assume ultimate vindication. The vengeance of God is what keeps people of faith engaged but not arrogant – both in America and in Syria and all around the globe.
MEANNESS IS ITS OWN REWARD
I’m not sure God is all that interested in vengeance. I believe that in the end love wins. As Gandhi said, an eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind. And I also believe with Martin Luther King, that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Justice will come of its own, and does not require me, or I think even God to participate in any kind of vengeance. Most of the time people who have malevolent intent are undone by their own misdeeds. Stupidity and meanness end up being their own reward.
EXTEND MERCY AND MERCY WILL COME BACK
So be like Jesus and practice an extravagant forgiveness. Amazing grace, forgiveness is free! Free for the asking! Love wins! Like the dishonest steward, if we extend mercy on behalf of God, mercy will come back to us.