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.
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
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
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.
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.
© Rev Paul Smith