For some weeks now the questions have been asked. Whose fault is it that we are still in lockdown while the rest of the country has opened up? Whose fault is it that our churches are still closed? We want names – we want jobs – we want someone held accountable. That’s how it goes, doesn’t it? We want offenders punished.
But Jesus said, forgive not seven times, but 70 times seven.
OK, let’s count it up; we must be way beyond that limit now. But if we’re honest, we know when Jesus said “70 times seven” he was using it to mean “always.” You must always forgive. And not only that, with God there is forgiveness of sins whereby he “remembers our sin no more”. So really there just needs to be forgiveness once and then it resets because God, unlike us, can and does forgive and forget.
Have you ever tried to forgive AND forget? When St Paul said – love keeps no record of wrongs – it seems the more you love someone the deeper the hurt and the harder it is to forget. Jesus tells a parable about the wicked slave who is forgiven a huge sum by his master, but then goes out and throws a fellow slave in prison for being owed just a fraction. We hear that the wicked slave then gets his just punishment. As we hear this parable it is easy to respond with – “Good, He deserved that! We might forget that he was punished not because he owed money, but because he didn’t forgive in the same way that he had been forgiven. In fact, the amount he was asked to forgive was pittance compared to what he was forgiven.
Jesus is very serious about forgiveness and we are reminded that it was while WE were yet sinners that Christ died for us. So how can forgiveness be achieved if our hearts are so hurt that we are unable to forgive from the heart – unable to forgive and forget – which is what Jesus demands at the end of this parable when the unmerciful servant was thrown into prison – never to be released. He says: so my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.
It is possible – and what does it look like? What does God’s forgiveness look like for us? God’s forgiveness is about cancelling crippling debt that gives a 2nd chance. It’s not about excusing wrong behaviour but allowing a person to rebuild their life and live again. As Christians we have an opportunity to example that behaviour to the world. And the example that we have as Christians is the knowledge that Jesus from the cross does not ask his Father to avenge his death on us – but forgive them Father.
Sadly we live in a world where that is becoming more and more unlikely and we face the latest phenomenon that is called “Cancel Culture”. What cancel culture is that if a person is discovered to have done something wrong – no matter how long ago it was – then they must be punished for it and their future cancelled – hence “cancel culture”. So instead of looking for a 2nd chance – there is no 2nd chance with cancel culture. There has been many examples of public profiles where people have searched and searched going through years of history to find some dirt on a person and then making it public to shame that person so much that they have to resign. Their future is cancelled.
On the contrary, with God, we see mercy at the heart of his actions. The first servant had an unpayable debt.
But the king is prepared to forgo punishment for the debt. To give the unmerciful servant a 2nd chance – which he is unable to give to a fellow servant.
In our forgiveness what we are doing is forgoing our own need for retribution as the king did and to give a 2nd chance. Forgiveness doesn’t remove the pain we feel but it means we can begin to heal.
Unforgiveness allows the injustice to keep hurting us through anger and unresolved bitterness.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean justice does not need to be carried out but it means we hand it over to God and his justice. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that those causing hurt must not be stopped by our forgiveness of them.
There is something very powerful though when we forgo the right to achieving justice by our own hands. As St Paul says in Romans 12: Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
I particularly find Paul’s comment interesting in that when we forgo repaying evil with evil we “heap burning coals on their head”. That’s not the reason we do it but it is hopefully a teaching moment for them also. But even more so is that when we forego our own vengeance, it allows God to do his work of justice which is not always retribution but a good that can come out of it – as we see with Joseph and his brothers. What they did to Joseph was reprehensible – some might even say – unforgiveable. They sold him as a slave to Egypt and told their father that he was dead causing hurt not just to Joseph but to his father Jacob and brother Benjamin. But when Joseph had the opportunity for revenge he did not take it because God had used his situation to prevent world-wide starvation by elevating Joseph to 2nd in charge in Egypt. So Joseph says to his brothers: Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.
Friends, it is natural to want to blame someone for the situation we are currently in. We wanted to blame Wuhan China for the origin of the coronavirus. We want to blame our Premier for not supervising the quarantine situation. We want to blame the Black Lives Matter protesters. But God directs us a different way.
We don’t like the lockdowns and the lack of liberties we have now. We don’t like that our church doors are shut and our inability to have Holy Communion. We don’t like that weddings and funerals and Baptisms are no longer celebrations as they were. But we have to keep trusting God – that if there is evil behind this – and I’m not saying there is – remember we live in a fallen world. But whatever the source of our situation is – we are not in the place of God.
What anyone or anything else has intended for evil – to do harm – God can and will use for good. We have seen some of that good in that the internet is being flooded with church services online from around the world spreading the gospel faster than any cat video can do. But we have to keep trusting God. And in trusting God then we are forgoing our own need to exact justice. There are many who are hurting – who have lost lives and livelihoods. But that too is an opportunity for us – for the church – to do God’s work in feeding the hungry. The road map out looks confusing and really not all that inspiring for the resumptions of church services but remember – we know the way that we are going because Jesus is the way and the truth and the life.