Today: Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Payback time?    (3/29/2009 )

ForgiveForgiving someone who has deeply hurt you is never going to be easy.  Sometimes it may not even seem right.  I’ve been challenged several times over the years about whether it is actually right to forgive someone who has done something abominably awful, especially if they show no remorse.  

Perhaps it’s not right to forgive sometimes.  But in one of the strongest stories Jesus ever told, when he was asked the question - how often are we supposed to forgive? - he challenged the basic assumption in the question.  If you want to do it by numbers, he said, then certainly try forgiving someone seven times (as the disciple Peter was generously suggesting), but then go on and on forgiving, until you get to seventy seven - which of course is a joke - who on earth is going to count the times and keep a record until they get up to seventy seven and then stop?  “That’s it, you’ve had your seventy-seven chances!”  

Jesus was saying - “Don’t even count.”  Perhaps he was also saying - you take the initiative.  Don’t ask, “Does he deserve it?”  When someone wrongs you, don’t be on the back foot, call his bluff!

Forgiving is often seen as the weak thing to do, which is obviously what the man in Jesus’ story thought.  A friend owed him peanuts, but when they met, he beat up his friend, took him to court and had him locked up until he paid.  But there were other friends who were upset at all this, most of all because they knew that the man had himself owed an absolute fortune to his boss and had been let off.  When news got back, the boss was so angry he revoked his pardon and threw this debtor into prison too.  

How much do you owe to God?  How much are you in his debt?  How much has he forgiven you?  If you knew the real answers, there probably wouldn’t be any more question of how much you should forgive.  

Jesus’ message is actually very clear - how can we expect to be forgiven if we have not learned to forgive others?  But that’s not so much a trade-off, it’s a powerful reminder of the depth and extent of God’s love - he offers us forgiveness whatever.  When we receive that forgiveness, we should be so overwhelmingly grateful, we should try to learn and share that same love and forgiveness, no matter what.  

One of the most powerful stories from Northern Ireland came from the Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen in 1987.  Gordon Wilson’s daughter, Marie, was buried alongside him under the rubble of the explosion.  She died hours later in hospital.  She was just twenty.  The incredible thing is that her father was somehow able to say that he forgave her killers and said, “I pray for those people every night.”

That event and Gordon Wilson’s response brought a change to Northern Ireland.  It came about through evil and tragedy, but also through one man’s Christian faith.  He knew the story Jesus told, and he lived it.  

That is not weakness, that is great strength and courage.  Retribution has so often sparked a spiral of suffering and death.  Forgiveness has the power to break that chain and bring life and hope.  That is exactly what Jesus was doing when he died on the cross: “Father, forgive them,” he said, “they don’t know what they are doing.”  

We have a lot to learn about forgiveness, both in receiving it and giving it.  This story of Jesus’ reminds to do both.

Read the story for yourself, you’ll find it in the Bible at Matthew 18, verses 21-35.

Think about:
Can you think of a situation in your own life where retribution, paying someone back, has only made everything worse?  Can you think of a situation where your offer and gift of forgiveness transformed things?  Can you imagine standing before God and receiving his forgiveness?

Someone may have done me some terrible harm and may be quite unrepentant about it.  She may not deserve to be forgiven, and my forgiving her may have no effect on her at all, but it could have a profound effect on me.  

Loving God, you have the power to punish and condemn, but you show us an even greater power, that it is in your nature to forgive and show mercy.  Help me to glimpse the depth of that love, and to begin to understand what mercy means, so that I may learn to show mercy too.  Thank you that in the death of Jesus is my forgiveness.  Give me then the strength and courage that I shall need to forgive like that.

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