The Christian capacity to forgive when it’s difficult, speaks to others. God’s mercy received, becomes our mercy, given.
There’s a really quick ‘Just a Minute’ video introduction here
Based on the Bible study post for September 13 with these readings:
Jesus is renowned, even among other religions or none, as the teacher of unconditional, generous love. His summary of the whole of the Old Testament law and prophets, that the strict Jews like the Pharisees got into such a tangle of detail over, was just this: Love God and love others.
Yet in the gospel for Sept 13 He made a reference to something that was the complete opposite. It’s easily missed. But His explanation to Peter about how many times to forgive the same hurt or offence — seventy-seven times, meaning without limit, is a reference to the arrogant Lamech’s statement of personal vengeance. Cain, we remember, was jealous of his brother, so he deceived him and then murdered him. His descendant of five generations later, Lamech, vowed unlimited vengeance to anyone who crossed him.
This is extreme by any standards. And Jesus deftly took it and turned it around in kingdom fashion, and taught extreme grace — the doctrine of unlimited forgiveness of an offence or hurt.
Well, it’s what God did for us in Jesus and His tortured death on a cross. To give up your Son to death, to buy forgiveness and new life for any who would believe in Him, is also pretty extreme. But true.
This sets quite a high expectation of us. But we’re not going down the line of a moralistic homily which preaches that we must do more of this and less of that, warning of the perils of failure.
We start with admitting failure and, in Jesus, we find empowerment to live new lives with new values. We also make the new discovery of the Holy Spirit, helping us do what is humanly impossible.
This week’s story starts with someone who did that. Joseph, when he was seventeen years old, nearly got the treatment that Cain gave Abel. But rather than killing him, his jealous brothers faked his death and took a substantial sum of silver in payment for Joseph as a slave. Slavery and even prison couldn’t keep him — God had bigger plans — and his God-given insight, honesty and ability took him to be second only to Pharaoh, with the power to store grain in years of plenty for the famine God told him would occur. And this was a famine which affected all of that region, and so in time Joseph’s father Jacob and his sons, Joseph’s brothers, made their way to Egypt to beg for grain — and Joseph gave them all they needed. When they recognised him, they were terrified that he would pay them back for their evil deeds of years before. Their ancestor Lamech certainly would have! But Joseph’s memorable words were of a very different tone:
“Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. Genesis 50:19-20.
That was God’s mercy, becoming Joseph’s mercy.
Jesus in the NT gospel reading, Matthew 18:21-35, gave us a story which is a teaching around this. It’s a difficult teaching, which is why people make all sorts of excuses for not doing it . As we have seen, there is no limit to the times we forgive someone who causes us hurt or offence — whether they recognise their fault or not.
In the story, a king’s steward is called in to discuss a colossal debt amounting to billions of pounds. The king is now calling in the debt! There is absolutely no way he can pay it or earn his way out of it (which reminds us that no efforts or good works, charitable giving or religious devotion can make our debt right with God).
So the king does something really unexpected. He writes the entire debt off. No one ever writes off a debt of that magnitude… but he did.
The indebted steward has already set in motion some debt collecting of his own, to pull in from others what he could. A man who owed him the equivalent of three or four months’ wages asked for time to pay — and he flat refused, and had the man put in prison under extortion, to get everything he had.
The king found out about this double-mindedness, and the story ends with the man who had received so great an act of mercy, yet had shown none, taking up the place in prison.
Unforgiveness is a sin! It may be the most common sin that Christians don’t recognise and deal with — and like all sin, it opens us up to the attentions of Satan, our enemy who attacks our minds with fears and confusion and every kind of torture, just like in the story.
The point is, we have a source of love beyond ourselves. It is Holy Spirit love and its source is God the Father Himself. The world may operate on vengeance, but we have the capacity to write off the debts of others — and we are the ones who benefit the most. We are no longer chained to their offence, thinking about it and resenting it all the time. We can be free and it’s entirely our choice to be free. All it takes is the generosity of spirit to forgive without any sense of expecting a response from the other party. We just do it because it is right — because God’s mercy in us, becomes our mercy to others.
Paul takes this teaching into Roman society where the believers, coming from different backgrounds, carried with them their own baggage about what they would eat, and whether they kept holy days or not, and other customs of the old life. They were free, of course, but they weren’t yet able to live like that and they thought everyone should be like them. Be generous and forgive them their foibles, Paul says in so many words, and remember, if you are judging another believer, you are judging a fellow servant of Christ. One day we will all be lining up in front of the same Lord and our pettiness won’t look good, then.
When we say we can’t forgive someone, we are both right and wrong. We may not be able to forgive them, humanly speaking. It would be totally unfair, undeserved… yet, remembering God’s mercy to us (was that deserved? Was that fair?) and His giving of His empowering Spirit the moment we gave our lives to Jesus, yes we can. We can make a choice to do what our emotions really don’t want to do, because it’s not our mercy, but God’s mercy working in us.
And this changes our world, surely if at times slowly, one forgiveness at a time.