Forgetting is Not Part of Forgiveness
A sermon based on: Matthew 18:21-35
given at Mount Vernon, OH, September 14, 2014 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A mother put two children to bed and then got ready for bed herself. She put on some old clothes, washed her hair and wrapped a towel around her head. Then she removed her make-up and then treated herself to a special facial cream putting on one of those soothing greenish looking masks. Just then (of course) she heard the children squabbling in their bedroom over a stuffed animal and she ran in, and with kind words surprisingly quickly got them to settle the dispute and even got them to say “sorry” and forgive one another. After she left the room one of the kids whispered “Who was that scary green lady with the turban?”
Many moms –and dads– try to be purveyors of forgiveness. Their children often seek and long for it too. There’s a Spanish story of a father and son who had become estranged. The son ran away, and the father set off to find him. He searched for months to no avail. Finally, in a last desperate effort to find him, the father put an ad in a Madrid newspaper. The ad read:
Dear Paco, meet me in front of this newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your Father.
On that Saturday 800 Pacos showed up, looking for forgiveness and love from their fathers. 1
Jesus was a teacher of conflict resolution and a purveyor of forgiveness. These gifts are a big part of the peace he left and gave to us. John records the resurrected Christ breathed on the disciples saying “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven . . .”
If we are honest about it we may ask our kids to practice forgiveness but as adults we really do not use the gift of forgiveness that Jesus imparts nearly enough, as the “Paco I Forgive You” story illustrates. Neither Jesus, nor admonitions from parents, nor desires of children have set us on a path to regularly pursue forgiveness.
We need only look at our civil court system for evidence of a nation brimming with conflict. I don’t just mean civil rights infringements we’ve been hearing about all summer. Americans have a great many smoldering struggles at the personal level. Millions and millions of lawsuits are filed annually in American civil courts to try and resolve them. 2
While the courts serve to adjudicate disputes, award damages and declare legal rights, they are traditionally not fashioned to facilitate forgiveness or bring about an actual reconciliation of the litigants. “Their operative premise is that someone will win.” 3 Which means someone also loses. Indeed, the acrimony generated by the adversarial approach utilized in our court system can actually serve to “fuel the fire of conflict and impede resolution.” 4 Consequently court cases don’t necessarily serve to reconcile or fully resolve disputes, but rather declare a winner of the contest and that victor’s award.
The cost of suing others in court can be very high. Hiring a lawyer and paying the costs of a court battle is an expensive proposition which can easily run into thousands and thousands of dollars – costs that even the victor is not always able to recover. In addition to out-of-pocket expenses there is also the very real economic cost of lost work by litigants as they attend to meetings, depositions, discovery, trial preparation and the trial itself. Moreover, there is the additional cost of litigation which society pays. Our civil courts exceed $17 billion a year in operating costs. 5
In addition to the tangible economic costs, courtroom battles take an emotional toll. Litigation often consists of claims and counterclaims, accusations and counter-accusations all of which not only further exacerbate a victims’ harm (and costs), but also create a climate of hostility and stress that can make forgiveness all the more complicated and difficult.
The overwhelming economics of litigation make access to the justice system outside of small claims court impractical for many, limiting justice in court to those with the means to finance a case. And so for many justice through the civil courts is often only a pipe dream. As a consequence of the high costs of litigation, many conflicts and injustices are left by the wayside unadjudicated, with the costs of the injuries usually unwillingly absorbed by either the victim or society.
Interestingly, when the New Testament mentions courts and lawsuits between individuals it is generally trying to dissuade litigation. For instance in Matthew Jesus urges his followers to avoid it by “com[ing] to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court. . .” (Matt 5:25). Jesus goes so far as to advise his followers to generously settle suits, saying “if anyone wants to sue and take your coat, give him your cloak as well”(Matt 5:40). Paul agreed with this idea or avoiding litigation, noting that to “have lawsuits at all with one another is already defeat for you”(1 Cor 6: 1-7). In short, the New Testament suggests an ethic for the followers of Christ to avoid litigation as a means to obtain a secular victory over a neighbor or enemy.
Now it is true that the justice system in Jesus’ day was not like the American court system. There was no Constitution or law created by elected representatives (as we know them). There were no juries of peers nor a modern sense rules of evidence, nor our sense of justice and fairness.
While modern courts can also be used – and have been used– to oppress the poor, the poor and the oppressed today at least on occasion can gain and do gain access to adjudication through contingent fee agreements, statutory attorney fees, Legal Aid or sometimes special interest financing. Civil rights are a case in point, through access to the courts in the last sixty-years much change has occurred and promises to continue to occur in the areas of race, gender, age and disability discrimination. In the past few years we have finally even seen our LGBTQ brothers and sisters get traction through civil rights action. And thankfully the civil rights violations in Ferguson, MO will also likely find their way into the courts for adjudication with the promise of racial justice.
These are good things that happen in courts, and I am not arguing that people should be dissuaded by scripture from challenging injustices in court. What I want to point out is there’s a whole lot of disputes going on and resolutions in national, and even worldwide, justice systems are NOT the same as forgiveness. I want to suggest we dust off the gift of forgiveness Jesus left us, and use it. I am advocating for following scripture lessons that we not use court based civil resolutions as a substitute answer to God’s call to address and resolve conflict and harm and broken relations with anyone – even our enemies– using forgiveness. Following Christ’s call to forgive could lead to more reconciliation, less litigation, less costs, maybe even less war.
Jesus repeatedly calls us to forgive and has in fact empowered us with the Holy Spirit specifically to forgive (Matt 6:12-15; 18:35; Mk 11:26; Lk 6:36; John 20:23). The forgiveness Jesus calls and empowers us to is multifaceted, that is, we receive forgiveness for our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us (Ibid.).And as we heard in the Lectionary reading today, it not just once or twice, or even a few times that we are to forgive; we are to forgive as often as others sin against us (Matt 18:19). The writer of Ephesians points out that since “God in Christ has forgiven [us]” (Eph 5:1), we have a duty to “be kind to one another tender heartedly forgiving one another” (Eph 4:32). Simply put, Christians in any sort of broken relationship are called to begin the process of forgiveness. It is when we forgive and move onto the path of forgiveness and love for our neighbors and enemies modeled by Jesus that we become blessed peacemakers
Scriptural witnesses to the model of forgiveness can be found in both the Old and New Testaments. Jacob and Esau provide perhaps the best example in the Old Testament of a human ethic of forgiveness and reconciliation. After conniving to wrest Esau’s inheritance and spending years in exile far away, Jacob finally returns home where he humbly seeks Esau’s favor in order to achieve forgiveness and reconciliation (Gen 27-33). Jacob realized that he needed Esau’s forgiveness, so he offers humble apologies and gifts of reparation, which Esau gratefully accepts. After deep emotional embraces of reconciliation, the wounds of past family conflict were healed. And we are told Jacob actually experienced the face of God in the forgiveness process. It’s a beautiful Old Testament story we considered a few weeks ago.
In the New Testament Jesus models and teaches forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus powerfully demonstrates forgiveness by practicing what he preached in an extraordinary way. During his crucifixion he prayed for his torturers and executioners saying: “Father, forgive them . . . ”(Lk 23:34). On the cross Jesus did not seek revenge or retribution– and neither did God. Jesus did not claim or reserve a right to try in heaven the evil doers who put him on the cross. He asked that they be forgiven. “Father forgive them . . .” He says “Father forgive them . . .”
That’s our model. We need to forgive even the worse things done to us. We resist this on personal level for lots of slights. And we seem to think we are particularly exempt from trying to forgive when facing egregious harm. Collectively I sometimes think we are even worse regarding nations that oppose us and evil acting groups like Nazis, KKK, al-Qaeda and ISIS.
I am guessing it makes a number of us bristle to think of forgiving people we think are acting like monsters. (I for one am very angry at ISIS right now!). But according to Jesus we are to forgive and love even evil acting enemies, like those who terrorized and murdered him and countless others in Ancient Palestine. Rome was an occupying evil who’s agents and henchmen Jesus forgave even while unrelentingly resisting and experiencing their terror.
We may not want to hear or like or agree with Jesus’ non-violent love-your-enemy-forgive-everyone-all-the-time approach. We may even think it sounds impossible, to forgive personal or worldwide harms, but that’s because most of us do not have a good grasp on what it means to forgive.
Forgive is a word that we hear lot in churches. We mostly hear it as something we want to have happen for OUR transgressions, OUR mistakes, OUR foibles. We all long to have OUR sins let go. But that is often about as far as we get. We know that we are supposed to also forgive sins of others, even as our sins are forgiven, but like I said it just seems impossible. Mostly it seems impossible because we misunderstand forgiveness as meaning we forget a wrong done against us. But forgetting is not what forgiveness is about. We are NOT called to forget, as if we could just erase our mind of traumatic events or harms or wrongdoings. It is important that we understand this. Sins against us can be huge and they can be small and everywhere in between. We may forget trivial matters like being cut off in traffic, but the bigger things? They are going to be impossible to forget.
If someone, say, assaults or abuse us, we just are not going to forget that. If a person is involved in an evil doing group like ISIS we are not going to forget that. That stuff is there in our head and our hearts and so if we equate forgiveness of a transgression with forgetting a transgression, it will necessarily seem impossible, because in our experience, it IS impossible!
Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It’s not about accepting a wrong as okay. It is about seeking the restoration of a healthy relationship with God and others. And it is needed whenever a relationship with another being is broken and in need of repair. Forgiveness is not usually an instant happening, it is rather a process that begins with either, or both, the victim and wrongdoer taking a step or steps toward forgiveness.
Forgiving is a not about forgetting or accepting a wrong. It’s about continuous efforts at love and reconciliation. It’s about moving as best we can toward repairing harm and seeing one another as fully human and worthy of God’s love. Jesus tells us to do this. It’s one of our tasks.
Victims can do their part by taking steps to work on disclosing their harm, abandoning the right to retribution, and coming to understand the wrongdoer as a person still worthy of God’s love– as opposed to hate. Those are steps the victim needs to work on: Disclosing harm; Giving up on retribution; understanding the wrongdoer as worthy of God’s love. (When we reach the point that we can pray or wish the best for that person that’s the idea seeing them as human beings!) These are hard things to do and they do not all happen at once. Often they take time . . . years even . . . a lifetime even. And they do not mean the victim is supposed to expose herself or himself to harm or toxic people or environments. This work can be done from afar for safety’s sake. Forgiveness does not mean we don’t try and stop wronging or that wrongdoers don’t face justice. It means we see them as humans.
And of course, the wrongdoer has work to do, often a lot of it. The wrongdoer needs to takes steps to confess the act; repent for having done it; express sincere regret and apologies to the victim; and repair as best can be any harm done. Those are the steps the wrongdoer must work on. Confession; repentance; express regret and apologies; and work on repairing harms.
Any one of these forgiveness steps I’ve mentioned, or any combination of them in any order – by either the wrongdoer or the victim– moves the conflict further down the path, the process, of forgiveness, closer to love, closer to God. And although the process can be short and lead to actual complete reconciliation and forgiveness, often forgiveness is a long, long process. It can take a lot of time. Ideally both the victim and the wrongdoer should be involved but either the victim or the wrongdoer can move toward forgiveness– toward love– alone by simply taking one or more steps. In fact this unilateral option empowers victims to move toward forgiveness and healing without the wrongdoer causing further harm by not participating in the process or by continuing to be a threat. We don’t need the bully or the evildoers involved in order for us to work on forgiveness.
Communities and God help provide accountability, encouragement, love and support for the parties. And God and the communities share in the harm, and they share in the healing too.
Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is not about accepting a wrong as okay. It is about doing our part, often times very hard work, toward the restoration of a healthy relationship with God and others. It is needed whenever a relationship with another being is broken and in need of repair. We know it is needed because we feel the need– and that’s God and Christ and the Holy Spirit calling us to forgiveness. And we must do it, not just once but over and over and over again. And not just for family and friends or people we like, but enemies and evil doers too. That’s the lesson in the reading. We are not to count the times we forgive as Peter suggests, we are to forgive every time there is a need for it. Forgiveness is not forgetting it is a part of love and loving and it leads to peace. It leads to God. AMEN.
* This sermon is based on my studies of forgiveness in a wonderful course taught by Dr Joretta Marshall at Eden Seminary in 2004, and in an ethics course taught by Enoch Oglesby in 2005, along with subsequent classes, papers and sermons I have put together since.
1. Bits & Pieces, October 15, 1992, pp. 13.
2. National Center for State Courts (www.nsconline.org), statistics FAQ.
3. Levine, Stewart, Getting to Resolution, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., (1998), 13-14.
5. National Center for State Courts (www.nsconline.org), latest figures posted were for 1990.
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