The Pesky Call to Forgiving

“Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who sin against us.”

Luke uses “Hamartia”, the Greek word for sin. Matthew goes with “Opheilemata”, debts, a more familiar term in Jewish culture. The word trespass likely comes from translators William Tyndale (1494-1536) or John Knox (1514-1572) used in the first Book of Common Prayer published in 1549.

Collectively, they hold us day by day and week by week to an honest confession to God and a loving mercy directed at one another. Love of God… and love of neighbor is all bound up together here, as though they are dependent on each other. I can’t possibly love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength and not love you. I can’t experience the forgiveness of my sins and withhold forgiveness from you. And in offering you grace I return again to what God in Christ Jesus has done for me.

It sounds good, and organic, and even kind of natural, but we all know how the challenge of our own egos sever this holy collective tissue. There is a requirement that goes with the mercy and grace of forgiveness. It isn’t fair, or just; and as such, I must lay down my stubborn pride that tells me I’m right, and justified therefore in continuing to hold our broken relationship at bay, at least until you confess your trespass, and bow before me owing a debt.

And where would we be, if such was God’s way? If Jesus, hanging on the cross, decided not to pray to his Father “forgive them all!” but instead, “Damn them all for what they have done to me!”, or “Forgive them when they realize what they’ve done, when they repent.”

But no, it is not that way. It’s “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” It’s Jesus’ own determinative action. He has power, holds real power to forgive, and does so, even though humanity holds no collective contrite heart. Blessed be the Lord! He lets go of his human impulse for holding onto hurt, he accepts the humiliation of not needing to win, and chooses to go with mercy and grace. Jesus becomes the running father embracing his runaway son. Carl Bjork (1837-1916), first Covenant Church President says it this way:

“No, not a word about sin, uncleanness, seriousness or amends, but just as he was, he embraced him and kissed him. The son did not even have time to tell him that he did not expect to be received as a son but would be glad if he could remain as one of his servants. Now, do you have anything against this, if he does the same with you?” (Images in Covenant Beginnings, p. 138).

N.T Wright says that

“In particular, having received God’s forgiveness themselves, they were to practice it among themselves. Not to do so would mean they hadn’t grasped what was going on…failure to forgive one another wasn’t a matter of failing to live up to a new bit of moral teaching. It was cutting off the branch you were sitting on.

So the more I am aware of God’s goodness to me, the more I am able to be gracious to those around me. Forgiveness has a dual purpose. It is intended to restore us to a renewed relationship with God AND with one another.

Yet “I forgive you” sticks to the roof of my mouth like a spoonful of peanut butter, as I hold not the right to judgement rather than mercy and locate my spirit back in the old worldly ways of revenge instead of the reconciliation Jesus so beautifully brings into the world. Cycles of violence develop in my heart and mind. Hatred lives and breathes. The establishment of God’s Kingdom come and God’s will being done is thwarted.

Into all this pain of our human condition — your ego and my pride — Jesus comes and teaches us, shows us how not to hold on to the pain, but work through it toward reconciliation. nd he empowers his disciples — tells them that they can and must do the same thing for each other, over and and over and over, that he is doing for them.

That’s the pesky and courageous call to forgive. Who comes to mind for you?

Love from here

Peter Hawkinson

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