What is forgiveness, and what does it mean?
Thinking about the command Jesus gives to Peter in Matthew to forgive 70x7 times and the story of the King and his servants, watching the disaster in New Orleans unfold during the week I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable with the whole concept.
What is forgiveness? What does it involve and how does one know forgiveness has happened?
Is forgiveness the same thing as forgetting about something? But what then about really deep hurts, the ones that can rarely be wiped out of one's awareness. If forgiveness was forgetting it would be possible to forgive those wouldnt it? Or does forgiveness mean we should dismiss our pain and just "move on"? Somehow I cant imagine that that would be what Jesus had in mind when he talked about forgiveness.
Can forgiveness be one sided? Or does it take two people to come to real forgiveness?
Is it really bad when we find that sometimes 7x70 is just a few times too many?
Is Jesus saying we should all turn into doormats?
For a child forgiveness is something fairly easy and straightforward. It basically means that if somebody does something nasty to you, kicks you or calls you names, you can only resume playing with them after you have forgiven them. Sometimes they will ask for forgiveness, sometimes not, but basically, for the offended party, forgiveness will mean that the offender is once again welcomed in the community at play. And I dont know about you but to me often being able to forgive would come as a relief, a relief to be able to forgive someone and not be angry anymore because Id really longed to play with them again and keeping up anger and resentment was proving to be quite an effort.
Forgiveness creates space and bring release and relief when it happens. Nobody likes to be angry and filled with resentment. Nobody likes to be the one that has not been forgiven.
When weve grown up it is very much the same. Forgiveness enables us to reconstitute relationship after some unpleasantness has occurred. It entails letting go of resentment and anger and usually it will bring relief.
We wipe the slate clean and enable us to start afresh.
Unfortunately in adult life it sometimes gets a little more complicated than that. Wiping the slate clean and starting afresh is not always an option. Things become a little less straightforward than "you hit me but I forgive you and you can still come over for a play" sort of thing. For a start there might not be agreement on what actually needs forgiving and by whom. Who is guilty and of what exactly? There are all sorts of complications and more often than not we will end up in a mess that is difficult to solve in a satisfactory way.
How I wondered, are those people back in New Orleans going to forgive those who they feel left them to the elements? We have seen on television how angry they are, and how resentment has fuelled violent and horrible acts of retribution. And how are the victims of that violence and retribution going to be forgiving and to whom? How are the ones who feel they failed in their responsibilities after the hurricane struck going to forgive themselves? Apparently some police and rescue people are committing suicide because they cant cope with what happened. And how are those who are high and dry somewhere because they had the means and the opportunity to get out in time going to feel about what they left the others to put up with?
Who exactly is going to forgive who and why - after this mess is over? And how long will it take?
Australian story this week, you may have watched it, told a tale of forgiveness that may shed some light on what we are thinking about this morning. Two communities managed to forgive and find reconciliation over a fatal accident that killed young people who belonged to those communities 25 years ago. They were able to move on, to let go of past hurt and re-constitute community. But it took 25 years.
How long will it take before the wounds of 9/11 will be healed? For the moment violence only seems to be breeding violence and it is hard to see how forgiveness can even start to take place with the gap between Americans and Muslim fundamentalists deepening all the time.
Forgiveness in all of those cases is a process. A process that takes time and effort. A process that will bring release as much to the offender as to the offender, once it happens. A process that involves letting go of pain and resentment and making room for reconciliation and re-establishing community and communication with the pain and hurt acknowledged, accepted and then released. Either by the offended alone, whom the process of forgiveness will free from the negative feelings of hate, anger and resentment. Or if we are lucky, by both offended and offender, in which case forgiveness can grow into reconciliation.
Last week, as part of the multifaith festival, some of us visited Temple Beth Israel, the Synagogue in Alma Road, where Rabbi Fred Morgan explained to us about their beautiful stained glass windows.
One of the windows pictured the Exodus, the crossing of the Red Sea we read about this morning. There was Egypt, on one side, a gloomy place, cramped, full of dark and derelict houses, with representations of the 10 plagues that had made Egypt to suffer all over it. The last plague, the slaying of the first born very movingly pictured by wombs with unborn babies in door openings not smeared with the red of blood.
A dark place of hardship and suffering. For Israelites and Egyptians alike. A gloomy place of oppression and costly liberation from slavery, a place of death, for everyone.
Opposite, on the other side of the Red Sea, the window is much lighter. It pictures the wilderness the Israelites wander into after their liberation from slavery. There is a Pesach plate, with different kinds of foods symbolizing aspects of life in slavery and liberation and some glasses of wine for celebration. There are also, around the plate, blood red tear shaped drops of wine. And Rabbi Morgan told us how they are the drops the Israelites took out of their cup of celebration to remember the suffering of the Egyptians, the death of their first born sons and the drowning of their whole army in the sea. The suffering of the enemy taking away from the joy of liberation.
Jews still do that. Take out a few drops of their glass of wine at Pesach to remember that their joy is not complete because of the suffering of their oppressors.
That picture in the synagogue re-entered my mind while I was thinking about forgiveness. The Israelites had every reason to be bitter and resentful about what the Egyptians had done to them and they had every right to celebrate their release from bondage and slavery. But their joy was tempered by the sadness and suffering of their enemies. Even where they would have felt that it was the Egyptians that had brought that suffering upon themselves by not letting them go free.
Somehow to me that has a lot to say about forgiveness. We get hurt, are deeply wounded at times. There are times when forgiveness proves to be not as simple as turning the other cheek or just forgetting about what happened and move on. Sometimes things will take a long to time to even begin to heal and make us ready to forgive. Sometimes guilt, responsibility, blame, cause and effect are so intricately intertwined it is impossible to tell where, who and what should be forgiven and how.
Should the Israelites have forgiven the Egyptians for keeping them in slavery, killing their sons, abusing their daughters? Should the Egyptians have forgiven the Israelites for the plagues, for the death of their first borns, for the loss of an army? Was God to blame maybe? When it gets as complicated as that maybe forgiveness is nothing but being able to let to go of the desire for retribution, of feelings of resentment and revenge and see the suffering of the other party and let our own joy be diminished because there is a gap between us and the other that is filled with pain and suffering.
On our side, but also on theirs.
What I believe the parable of the King and his servant tells us is that in all of this God is the initiator and facilitator. Because we know ourselves forgiven by him it should become easier for us to extend that same forgiveness to somebody else. Because we have seen God forgive the greater debt, we should be able to forgive others a smaller one. Because we have a God that has wrestled with pain himself, it may be easier to wrestle with it ourselves and find ways to reconciliation.
Baptism is a sign that God holds on to us, even through death itself. It is a call to us to hold on to each other through hardship and pain and not let resentment and anger fester between us if we can help it. Forgiving 7x70 is a lot, but supported and inspired by what God has done for us, we should be able to at least manage some of it. Amen.