September 14, 2014
Five Amish schoolgirls killed, 11 wounded, by a shooter in Pennsylvania, the headlines cried in 2006. The Amish community not only comforted the shooter’s wife and children, they forgave him. The Amish were reviled by many in the press because they forgave even as they mourned the death of their own innocent children.
In 1948, Pastor Yang-Won Sohn’s two teenage boys were shot for being Christians by a rioter in Korea. Sohn not only forgave the shooter, but arranged his release from prison and adopted him.
Were these people crazy? How can people forgive such heinous crimes against innocents? It messes with our minds. Yes, Jesus said forgive, but there must be a limit, and these crazy people crossed it.
We want killers punished. But Jesus said, forgive not seven times, but 70 times seven. OK, let’s count it up; we must be way beyond that limit now. But if we’re honest, we know when Jesus said “70 times seven” he was using it to mean “always.” You must always forgive.
And then Jesus told a parable about the wicked slave who is forgiven a huge sum by his master, but then goes out and throws a fellow slave in prison for being owed just a fraction. We hear that the wicked slave then gets his just punishment. “Good,” we may say. He surely deserved that! We might forget that he was punished not because he owed money, but because he didn’t forgive. Jesus is very serious about this forgiveness thing.
Paul reminds the Romans about another side of forgiveness. His take on it was about how we treat each other because of our differences. Some eat anything, others are vegetarians; they must not despise each other. Well, that’s easy enough. We can do that.
Some may worship God on one day, some on another; do not despise one or the other. Another easy one – we can do that!
But then Paul asks, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” meaning, why do we pass judgment on all others? Perhaps because we so often see immense hurt and evil in our world and we want to see justice done. We cannot imagine why people maim and kill innocent people. We cannot understand the sickness of domestic abuse, trafficking of young men and women and children, the horror of genocide. These evils need to be dealt with. They need to be eradicated from the earth and humanity deserves to live in peace and safety. Forgiveness? No! Maybe Jesus in his humanity couldn’t imagine the kind of evil that infects our world today. Maybe his “70 times seven” would have been tempered a bit.
But we must remember the heinous things that happened in Jesus’ time. They were actually not that much different from today – slavery, war, murder, genocide, abuse. It almost seems hopeless, as we have not learned a whole lot from Jesus’ time until now. But Jesus makes it very plain that we must forgive or we, too, will suffer punishment.
So, how do we start? We might look once again at the Amish. Their ability to forgive came from the center of their theology, which is the Lord’s prayer. They believe it when they say, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Over and over, Amish leaders tried to explain that to journalists and others who could not believe the parents of the dead little girls could forgive. What we may tend to forget, however, which the Amish people also made quite clear, is that forgiveness did not take away the burning pain of loss, the near despair of losing children. There is the crux of the matter. This is where we might find the ability to begin learning to forgive. That old cliché “forgive and forget” just doesn’t work.
Forgiveness doesn’t numb our minds and hearts to the pain we feel. Forgiveness doesn’t mean justice does not need to be carried out. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that perpetrators must not be stopped just because our hearts have gotten all warm and fuzzy with our forgiveness of them. Sadly, our world is not yet the fullness of the Kingdom. The wars going on in the Middle East, the genocide taking place in the name of God, the evils done to men, women and children because of lust – all need to be eradicated, the perpetrators punished. The victims will be forever changed, and that breaks the heart of God. The perpetrators may not even want our forgiveness. And many of these issues may not have touched us here. We might pray for conversion of the evil ones. We might pray that they are found and brought to justice. We might begin our practice of forgiveness here. We might offer the difficulty of our forgiveness to God. Pray that we might be able to hold the hurt of others in our hearts while we place those we need to forgive into God’s.
Then we might look at forgiveness closer to home. This, perhaps, might be harder. When we are the ones who have been hurt, we may find forgiveness even of family members difficult. How many stories have we heard about brothers and sisters not speaking to each other for years, or churches being divided over small incidents? Hurt goes deep.
Being the first to seek reconciliation is hard, but that’s what Jesus means when he says, “70 times seven.” The good news in all this is that we are not alone when we are called to forgive or to seek reconciliation. In it all, God is with us. God has shown us the ultimate image of forgiveness when Jesus died on the cross for us all, taking our sins upon himself and promising us resurrection. Forgiveness is only possible if we remember God is within and God is our strength. That promise upholds us even when our willingness to reconcile with another or forgive is rejected. God knows our heart – God is our heart. God has even promised that when words fail us, the Spirit will give us words.
Later, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer together, take the words “as we forgive those who trespass against us,” into your hearts. Only then, can we begin to understand what forgiveness is all about.
— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.