Saturday, September 10, 2011

Forgive us our sins

Over twenty years ago, someone hurt me very much.  There’s no need to recount the details; the reason I bring it up is because I have forgiven this man many times.  Sometimes, I remember the incident, think it over,
nd tell myself I’ve forgiven him.  Then I put it away again, determined not to give it any more thought.

But I do think about it.  It hasn’t been more than a few months since I told someone the story!  I can’t tell you how many times I have “forgiven” him.  In truth, I understand he didn’t intend to hurt me.  I don’t hold it against him.  And I don’t bear him a grudge.  But somehow, the incident has remained alive for me all these years.

When I began thinking about what to say today, this story popped into my head.  This time, I realized
that I have forgiven him but until now I hadn’t been able to see my own involvement as being other than victim.  In truth, I had a lot to do with my own hurt.  There were several places in the conversation where I could have stopped it, where I should have stopped it, and yet I didn’t.

How many times must I forgive my brother, Lord?  As many times as it takes, replies Jesus.

I think I’ve finally forgiven this person for the last time.  It won’t make a difference to our relationship.  He’s dead now; yet, even if he wasn’t, we would be living far apart and traveling in different circles.  But I still need to forgive him for my own sake, for my own spiritual health.

An important part of forgiveness is deciding to release ourselves from the unhealthy baggage not forgiving piles on us.  As usual, I did not come to understand this on my own.  I was reading an article called, “Is forgiveness possible at Ground Zero?”

Today is 9/11.  Ten years ago today, we stopped whatever we were doing and watched the horrors of that day over and over again. Almost immediately, Americans began looking at Middle Easterners differently
and many began casting blame for the tragedy on the nearest Arab-looking person.  Then there were all those officials that might have stopped it if only…. 

We are very good at placing political blame in this country.  We are doing it again at all levels of government
over the jobs and debt crises.  Perhaps blaming someone helps at first.  But in the long run, it is an impossible game to win.  Because, you see, it doesn’t help anyone heal, it doesn’t help rebuild cities and towns, it won’t feed the hungry or clothe the poor.

And it really doesn’t make us feel better, either.  Forgiving those who chose to attack this country, forgiving those who seem to put politics ahead of what’s good for the country, has to be the Christian response.

Now here’s what we need to remember about forgiveness.  It in no way releases the wrongdoers from the sin of their actions.  Saying, I forgive you, does not wipe the slate clean.  What it does, is allow us to heal
and to learn trust once more.  Forgiving someone does not mean they can continue doing the same old thing,
causing the same hurt.  It means that by our act of forgiveness, we are working to turn them around.

Do you remember in the epistle two weeks ago, Paul said if our enemies are hungry, we should feed them;
if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads?
What a strange thing to say, but Paul means that we are to treat those who have wronged us, who are our enemies, with the same kindness we treat each other.  In so doing, we embarrass them into changing their ways.  Changing their heart is the part of forgiveness that is about them.

And that’s what the parable is about today.  An oriental potentate calls for an audit of all his accounts and discovers that one of his officials has mismanaged a great deal of money.  The sum in the parable is so huge
that no one could ever pay it back which makes you wonder where the potentate got it in the first place!

In any case,  the official begs for mercy, assuring the potentate that he will indeed pay it back if given enough time – perhaps three lifetimes would be enough.  He is greatly surprised, as is everyone within earshot, to hear the potentate forgive him the entire debt.

And yet, the official then sees someone who owes him a trifling amount of money – easily paid off in a matter of months or years – and he orders him thrown into jail until the debt is paid.  When the potentate hears this,
he has the official treated the same way. 

How can we be forgiven if we are not willing to forgive?  It is not a simple matter of asking our own sins to be forgiven and then going about business as usual.  If that was the case, forgiveness would be cheap,
not worth asking for.

Remember that forgiveness requires a response from the one being forgiven, some kind of restitution or admission that leads to a changed life.  By refusing to accord his own debtor the same magnanimous treatment given to him, the official has cancelled out the forgiveness given to him.  It does not take the act of the potentate to do this.  No, he merely makes it official.  The sinner, by refusing to learn anything from the potentate’s act of forgiveness, condemns himself to living in the torment of his sin.

In reading this parable, we need to be careful not to allegorize it.  The potentate does forgive just as God forgives – limitlessly – but that is the only way in which he is like God.  God does not sell families into slavery.  God does not renege on promises made.  The parable is strictly about forgiveness and how we are not to set limits on the forgiveness we offer those who sin against us.

Jesus taught us to pray Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.  If I am not willing to forgive, how can I be forgiven?  Just as we work at not causing others harm, so we must work at forgiving
those who harm us. 

One of the lessons to come out of 9/11 is that we do not understand the mind of our Islamic brothers and sisters.  We are working to correct that but we may never fully understand.  St. Paul warns us not to pass judgment on another, that our Lord has welcomed them even though they may not know it.  The one who is faithful to his or her lord is upheld by our Lord.  That was a radical teaching for Christians then and it is still one for us now.

God’s mercy and forgiveness are unlimited.  It is not ours to build in limits.

The images of the World Trade Center being hit, burning and collapsing are part of our memory now.  The plane slamming into the Pentagon is not an image we can forget.  The courage of the people on board the plane that went down in Pennsylvania, as well as the courage of those who tried to put out the fires at all three sites and lost their lives, is part of who we are now.

But, while we can’t forget, we certainly can and must forgive even if we don’t really know who we are forgiving.  If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live
or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 

The Lord has forgiven.  So must we.

No comments: