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The Power of Forgiveness Genesis 50:15-21 and Matthew 18:21-35

Ten years ago on the second Sunday in September, along with countless others I’m sure, I had to preach a sermon which took the events of the previous Tuesday into account in some way or other. A member of the congregation of the church where I was, a young father, had managed to escape from the World Trade Center where he was on business. It heightened my sense of responsibility for saying something that would be meaningful. I think I did okay. I’m sure many of you will have memories that arise from those terrible events. Many will have some connection with those terrible events.

Marker Days
From time to time in the history of our human race, certain days are remembered, perhaps formally observed in different ways. Which days we pick out for special treatment depend on how they might effect us. The days that marked the end of the IIWW in Europe and the Far East (VE & VJ days) might still be very important to members of the older generation. 9/11 as it has come to be called is a cataclysmic day in the lives of the younger generation. From such days flow a changed world, changed perceptions, changed priorities, changed perspectives. Rowan Williams, who was 2 years away from becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, happened to be nearby in New York on that fateful day. I was impressed that a small book written by him as a response was published in the following January. It was entitled Writing in the Dust. In it he called for a period of reflection, buying time for an appropriate response, rather like Christ, writing in the dust after a woman caught in adultery was brought to him for judgement. It would seem that Western powers did not heed his wisdom, because in March 2003 Iraq was invaded, partly as a knee jerk reaction to terrorism – the kind of terrorism that lay behind the al-Qaida inspired attacks of September 2001.

Appropriate Response
Hitting back when attacked is a natural and understandable
response. One can hardly expect the US and its Allies to have done nothing in the face of such huge provocation. We also cannot put the clock back and argue endlessly about what should have happened instead. But now, ten years later, it is right to pause for thought and try to come to grips with the world as it is now. Along with people of other faiths we try to relate our faith to the real world around us and the society in which we have a stake.

What do our Scriptures say?
The Joseph saga in the Hebrew Bible embraces so many different feelings. Almost every emotion experienced in any family is to be found in it – from jealousy to outright hostility, from favouritism to forgiving love. Today’s passage reveals the nature of the true leadership required of Christians – and all people of goodwill – in relation to evil. Is the cycle of hurt and oppression to continue, or will someone break it? When will hitting back cease? In this part of the story there is, what could be called, a power differential. Joseph’s brothers are afraid because he has power over them, and could, presumably, use this to punish them for their treatment of him when he was in their power. But Joseph has learnt to attribute power to God and uses his position to banish fear. God, he says, will use the situation for good. I wonder what the power differentials were in the events of 9/11? I’m sure it is a complex situation which we don’t have time to explore in the scope of a sermon, but this is one way in which we can relate the Bible to the real world. Who holds power and how do they use it? If we have power (whether we realise it or not) what is the most Christ-like way of responding to those within our power? What might be small steps we could take towards asserting or reasserting such an example of leadership that Joseph showed?

The Problem of Forgiveness
When we turn to today’s gospel reading we see again the way in how power can be used or abused. Jesus told a parable which makes us wince. The king could have treated his slave in a similar fashion to the way the slave treated his debtor. The fellow slaves were so outraged by the forgiven slave’s unforgiving behaviour that they went to the king to remonstrate. They knew their appeal would be heard sympathetically because they had seen how he rightly used his power to forgive the debtor. Jesus told this parable as a way of answering Peter’s rather impatient question about the limits of forgiveness. Should forgiveness be limited? It’s a good a thorny question. Are there those who put themselves beyond the possibility of being forgiven?

Forgiveness is a tricky thing because it is not something that comes simply when it is demanded. There has to be a willingness within that is prepared to forgive. Forgiveness lies at the very heart of the Christian faith. We believe that God forgives but first the sinner must repent. True forgiveness only really comes with true repentance. This immediately causes a problem in relation to the events of 9/11. There do not appear to have been any expressions of contrition from the perpetrators and their supporters. Were their crimes so bad that they cannot be forgiven? How then could forgiveness be offered?

If forgiveness is a problem in the Christian faith it also raises very difficult issues in other faiths since their models of forgiveness are very different. Jews and Muslims, for instance, may very clearly wish to assert that only the ‘victims’ may forgive the perpetrators. What’s more restitution needs to be made by the perpetrators to the ‘victims’. However, this is not possible since so many of the victims and some of the perpetrators died. So forgiveness within religious categories may not be possible.

Gospel Forgiveness
The Gospel does provide us with another model of forgiveness. The Christian tradition emphasises the need for repentance, and also, at times, for restitution. For instance Zacchaeus pays back fourfold what he took in taxes. But Jesus’ parable emphasises – and the parable of the Prodigal Son extends further – that there is also free, unmerited forgiveness which is offered up-front. It does not presume repentance or restitution. It recognises that there are sometimes situations which are immensely complex. Such situations may perhaps only be dealt with in ways that appear to be ‘super-human’. Nothing can break the stalemate or the deadlock other than the offer of forgiveness before repentance. Forgiveness in this way makes a new beginning possible. This is not easy territory. Believers mustn’t be made to feel that they have to forgive when they are not ready to do. We cannot expect those whose loved ones were killed on 9/11 to forgive just like that. A forced forgiveness is no forgiveness at all. But the challenge to walk a pathway to forgiveness ‘from the heart’ remains. From time to time we learn of someone who has been badly wronged. A black mother whose son was murdered recently came to the point where she realised that she must and could only forgive. To carry bitterness and resentment would only destroy her in the long run. Withholding forgiveness in a way allows the murderer to continue taking her life from within. Not all can manage this. A vicar whose daughter was killed in the 7/7 underground attacks honestly could not bring herself to the point of forgiveness. Up-front forgiveness is Christ-like but it is not always easy to be so good! Christ prayed as he was nailed to the cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Stephen the first martyr prayed the same for those stoning him.

Today as many remember the events of this day 10 years ago, we continue to hold all those affected in our prayers. We renew our concern for a better world and our commitment, along with so many others of all faiths and none to overcome the enmity that brought about such horrific acts of mass murder. With many others of genuine faith we declare that it is only a warped sense of religion that can bring people to commit acts of terror and violence. As Christians we turn again to our Scriptures for guidance and for ways in which we relate our beliefs to the real world in which we live. Our readings remind us of power and how it should be properly used. We remember in Jesus’ teaching that the power to forgive is the one of the greatest ways in which God relates to the human race and we can relate to each other.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith