I love children because I learn so much from them. They are a reminder of how we should perceive the world. Allow me to give you an example. Children are so much better at receiving gifts than are adults. We either feel overwhelmed, or unworthy of the freely given gifts that bless us. Some people might even feel suspicious or that now they owe something to the gift giver. Adults are better givers than receivers. But children love receiving and accepting gifts with great enthusiasm. A gift that children are good at offering and accepting is the gift of forgiveness. A four year old in Jr. Kindergarten might get into a heated battle over who gets to play with a certain toy. Tears and blows might even ensue. But after a truce is called, and apologies are offered, or sometimes enforced, in a short time all is forgiven and play time continues.
There are no thoughts of revenge, no nurturing of anger, no dreams of retaliation. The confrontation is simply over with and done. The wrong was deeply felt, but the new reality is that we will start over and stay together.
Not so with adults. For adults extending or accepting forgiveness is an even more difficult concept to embrace and embody than accepting gifts and grace. When learning to receive a gift, no matter how difficult, at least we gain something; a gift certificate to a restaurant or a spa, a new item of jewellery, or whatever the gift may be. But learning how to extend or receive forgiveness always costs us something. It costs us our anger, our right to revenge, our high road to hatred. Offering forgiveness forces us to retract our claws and recall our true cause, the cause of Christ and His kingdom.
The call to forgiveness calls us to hear what drives our heart. Are we driven by love? Are we driven by service? Are we driven by shalom? Are we driven by a need to always be right? Are we driven by a need for superiority? Are we driven by guilt? Or are we driven by grace?
An old Chinese proverb offered some wise advice. “The person who seeks revenge should dig two graves.” An attitude of unforgiveness is ultimately an unfogiving death sentence. Keeping and maintaining an unforgiving attitude, an entrenched stance of vengeance and dislike, only leads towards one’s own spiritual death. Being unforgiving toward others ultimately is being unforgiving towards one’s self. The second gravesite our unforgiveness digs is our own sense of peace and fulfillment. Neither will be possible as long as revenge and not forgiveness is our modus operandi.
In this week’s Gospel text Jesus surprises Peter by reminding him that in Genesis, the biblical text advocated forgiving seventy-seven times. (Genesis 4:24). That was for the murder of a sibling. Jesus also advocated for any general offense an offering of forgiveness of seventy times seven.
These numers are metaphors for as often as forgiveness is needed and sought after. Jesus is challenging his disciples, in the first centruy and in the next twenty first centuries to find it within themselves to offer the gift of forgiveness, no matter how many times it took. For as long as we have breath, we are to forgive.
Let us not confuse forgiveness with forgetfulness. It is never forgetfulness. We will remember, but in forgiving, we no longer use the memory against others. Forgiveness is not pretending the event never occurred, or even that it does not matter. There is no use in pretending. The offence is real, but when we forgive the offense, it no longer controls our behaviour. We do not pretend things will be the same as they were before the offense because they can never be the same.
None of us can truly forgive without knowing and accepting the forgiving love that God has given to all of humanity, most perfectly in the gift of Jesus Christ, the ultimate gift. No one can be forgiving of others and their human failings until they have felt the power of the forgiveness that comes from the cross that crosses all boundaries and all dividing walls. It took Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for forgiveness to become known within the bloodstream of humanity.
Jesus did not advocate a religion with a set and sworn system of rites, rituals and beliefs. Jesus offered all humanity who would receive the gift of faith a relationship with God that was personal and pulsating – alive to everyday moments and face-to-face encounters. Jesus offered reasons to receive God’s love and reasons to reciprocate God’s forgiveness. Jesus offered access to God’s love in a way never before made possible.
Jesus made God’s love for humanity something personal. Jesus made God’s love available for every one of us. Jesus made forgiveness God’s personal gift to all of us.
Our ability to forgive is forever linked to Jesus’ love for us and God’s compassionate forgiveness. It was only this divine, sacrificial love that made it possible for human forgiveness to be an active part of our world.
Forgiveness is never easy, never simple. It forces us to look at our own weaknesses while accepting the weaknesses of others. To offer forgiveness instead of lashing out in vengeance takes a new focus of faith that sees Christ’s sacrificial gift of love, not an ideal of dignity, as the reason for our actions and attitudes.
In Jesus’ teaching this week, he delivers us from being forever weary and wary; from being forever weary in keeping an eye out for those who seek to settle some score with us. And from being wary of every individual or invitation we receive to involve ourselves in direct contact with all others who are God’s children. If we are called to forgive seventy times seven, we are being called to open ourselves, throughout our lives, to simply act as a conduit for the greater forgiving power of Christ.
“Vengeance is mine, says the Lord”. Let us take that to heart. Some people call it Karma; others call it poetic justice. It gives us one less thing to stress about. We do not have to seek revenge. We have been summoned to offer forgiveness.
MalalaYousafzai, the fourteen year old Pakistani advocate for girls to receive an education, was targeted by the Taliban. She was shot in the head by an intended assassin on her school bus on October 9th, five years ago. Miraculously Malala survived and has since continued her fearless, ourspoken commitment for the education rights for girls and boys all around the world.
After recovering from her wound, Malala made the media rounds. But her focus was always on education, never on revenge. When interviewed by the always glib John Stewart on the Daily Show, she managed to leave him speechless. She declared that if attacked again by a Taliban assassin she would not physically defend herself, but would attempt to talk to her assailant about the need for education. She joked that she might try to throw her shoe at her attacker, but then she recanted saying, “If you hit a Talib with a shoe, there will be no difference between you and the Talib. She does not condone the violence of the Taliban, but she forgives the ignorance of the Taliban and continues to dedicate her life to bringing the light of education into that dark world. “You must fight others, but through peace and dialogue and education”, she insists.
Each one of us needs to forgive someone this week. It may be yourself. Can you forgive yourself? It may be a family member? Can you forgive your relatives? It may be an enemy that is doing everything they can to make you fail. Can you forgive your enemies?
Every week we say in the Lord’s prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Forgiveness is withheld from the person who won’t forgive, not because God is punishing us for not forgiving, but because the person who won’t forgive cannot receive forgiveness. Do not be that person. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. Now it is our turn to forgive.
Let us pray.
Loving and patient God, help us to learn how to forgive, as Jesus forgave. Teach us how to let go of wrongs that have been committed against us. Help us let go of the guilt we carry for hurting others. We ask this in the name of Jesus. Amen.