Toorak Uniting Church

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It's all about Relationships – Forgiveness

Psalm 103: 1 – 8   Matthew 18: 21 – 35
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
11 September 2011

When you hold resentment toward another, you are bound to that person or condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel. Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free.

Catherine Ponder

Oscar Wilde the Irish Satirist identifies a truth about the experience of forgiveness when he said, `Always forgive your enemies - nothing annoys them more" It's that sense that forgiveness, or forgiving someone - is not only about me or just about the other person; it is about us -about a relationship. Forgiveness is almost the only way that I can get some distance for the feelings and emotions associated with fractured or broken relationships.

I have no illusions that there's some kind of blanket approach to forgiveness that can be rolled out on every occasion when a relationship or a condition is disturbed or breaks down. We all know it's not that simple. But there is something to be said for what could be call the principle of reciprocity -you know, "what comes around goes around." If you are a person who forgives others then there is at least, a greater chance that others will forgive you.

Why do we need forgiveness?
Forgiveness goes even deeper than just our relationship with each other. Christian theology and even human experience itself, recognizes that there is a fracture implicit in the human soul, in the human psyche, in our being. It is well illustrated by the words of the apostle Paul to the church in Rome,

"For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!" Romans 7:18ff

It is not very popular to talk of one being wretched in the modern world. Perhaps better to say "dysfunctional." It is interesting to note the popularity of the hymn Amazing Grace, with its line:

"Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me,"

There is a truth in the experience that many of us have had. That is the feeling of being wretched. And I don't think it is just a poor self-image. And before you dismiss this word wretched because it sounds too harsh and negative, in its original context it was often use to denote homelessness. To be wretched is to be without a home and really if the word salvation means anything, and it means many things, it means coming home.

Perhaps the story of the prodigal son illustrates that best. The son in a wretched condition without a home is welcomed back to his home by the waiting father.

There is this deep longing I think, in the human soul to be a one with God; to be one with the centre of life, the ground of our being. We long for life in all its fullness and for that to become a reality we need to heal the fracture, or rather the fracture needs to be healed in us. That's why we need to feel that we are forgiven; that I belong and I am at home here in this world and in my own life. That there is nothing between us and God -nothing held against me. The word in the New Testament for forgiveness is the word ãöåóéò (aphesis) and it means "to let go." To forgive is to let go of the debt one owes or is owed.

The parable of the unforgiving servant
When Jesus is asked by Peter in the passage read earlier how many times he must forgive someone who has wronged him, Jesus takes the question out of the quantitative and places it in the qualitative. You see his response to Peter's, "As many as seven times?" Is 'Not only seven times; but seventy times seven.' The author of Matthew is not suggesting 490 times, he is saying there is no limit. Forgiveness must be woven into the fabric of life and will always be a part of healing relationships.

Now to illustrate his point Jesus then tells the parable of a forgiving master and an unforgiving servant.

The kingdom of Heaven should be thought of in this way: There was once a king who decided to settle accounts with those who served him. First, there appeared before him a man whose debt ran into the millions. Since he had no means of paying, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife, his children, and everything he had, to meet the debt. The man fell at his master's feet. "Be patient with me," he said, "and I will pay in full." His master was so moved with pity that he let the mango and remitted the debt.

But no sooner had the man gone out than he met afellow-servant who owed him a small amount. Catching hold of him he gripped him by the throat and said, "Pay me now what you owe me!" The man fell at his fellow-servant's feet and begged him, "Be patient with me, and I will pay you." But he refused, and had him jailed until he should pay the debt.

The other servants were deeply distressed when they saw what had happened, and they went to their master and told him the whole story. He sent for the man. "You scoundrel!" he said to him, "I remitted the whole of your debt when you appealed to me; were you not bound to show your fellow-servant the same pity as I showed to you?" The master was so angry that he condemned the man to tenure until he paid the debt in full. And that is how my heavenly Father will deal with you, unless you each forgive your brother from your hearts.’

Reciprocity - do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Orin this case do the opposite that's been done unto you. Why when this man was shown such grace and mercy that he should show so little grace and mercy to those who were in his debt. It illustrates the point that forgiveness does not always bring about the desired results.

It is interesting that Jesus uses an economic metaphor to illustrate this process or experience of forgiveness. Of course that isn't uncommon in the New Testament. Here it has to do with a debt, something that is owed and in this case weighting the debtor down. Even today the remitting of debts -particularly at an international level -still occurs. Here the illustration is that something is removed that is getting in the way of the relationship. It is clear from the context that Jesus is saying, "Because God has forgiven you a great deal, you should forgive those who owe you a little."

The Heart of Forgiveness:
A contemporary example of this comes from Archbishop Desmond Tutu during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the end of apartheid in South Africa, he said:

"To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of of self-interest. It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things: the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.

However, when I talk of forgiveness I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person: A better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred. Remaining in that state locks you in a state of victimhood, making you almost dependent on the perpetrator. If you can find it in your heart to forgive then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator. You can move on, and you can even help the perpetrator to become a better person too."

The benefits of forgiveness
While much of what I have said this morning comes from reflecting theologically of the issue of forgiveness, there are some very simple benefits to forgiving those who have wronged you. Scientists have suggested that simply thinking about forgiving someone can have a "quelling effect" on us and particularly in our bodies. Imagining that I will heal the broken relationship with a friend or family member actually seems to improve cardiovascular function. I briefly make mention of that in my Still Thinking article in the TUC Update.

But perhaps the greatest benefit comes from the very root of the meaning of forgiveness and that is it is all about letting go. One of the great truths in life is that life is actually about letting go. The Buddhists have a pattern for living that says the first part of life is about acquisition; we get an education, a spouse, a home, a family, a career and so forth. And the second half of life is about letting go; the children leave, maybe physical health diminishes, you certainly can keep your spouse, but eventually you will let go even of your own breath. Those who live life letting go of their attachments live better lives than those who try to gather more and more into their lives. And when we are attached to our hurts, our painful experiences, or those who have wronged us, then we live a diminished life.

It shouldn't be lost on us that Jesus' final words from the cross were, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Luke 23:34

The story is told of a young monk who goes to his Abbot to ask what he should do about the grudges and resentments he feels toward his fellow monks. He tells the Abbott of words that have hurt him and attitudes of his fellow makes that are definitely not Christian.

The Abbot listens and when the novice has finished his litany of woe, the Abbot says to him, "Go to the kitchen and find a sack of potatoes and bring them back to me." The novice does as he is told. When he returns the Abbot instructs him to carve into each potato his resentments, hurts or grudges, against his fellow monks. The novice obeys his master and all the potatoes are marked with his gripes. "Now," says the Abbot, "Gather up all the potatoes and put them back into the sack and place the sack on your back and you will carry it for the next week and then we will resume our conversation."

The author Catherine Ponder helps us see that it is all about our relationships and letting go of hurts and pains is essential to the healthy life. She says:

When you hold resentment toward another, you are bound to that person or condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel. Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free.


© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2011

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