Guest post by Rev. Dean D. Ziegler
Preached on August 25, 2013 at Coraopolis United Methodist Church
Texts: Gen. 50:14-21 & Matt. 18:21-35
If God asks you to do a thing, you can be sure that doing it will bring you life, even though it may feel for a time like you’re dying. Forgiving is like that. Forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins others commit against us, Jesus taught us to pray. It is one of the hardest tricks in the book!
There are three ways this petition has been translated down through the centuries. Forgive us our debts, forgive our sins and forgive our trespasses. While it might be interesting to unpack the subtleties of each term, let us simply say that in spite of the various emphases, they all come down to the same thing: we need forgiveness, and we are commanded to forgive. That is what we will focus on this morning.
Aren’t you glad God forgives your sins? Of course! But why, oh WHY, did Jesus put that tiny, two-letter word, “as” in there? Forgive our sins AS we forgive sins others commit against us. That’s conditionality. Turns out, Jesus has definite opinions about this. He told a terrifying parable about a man who was unforgiving towards a fellow debtor, and forfeited, as a result, the forgiving of his own debt. Jesus stated flat out that if we will not forgive others, God will not forgive us.
Now immediately we have a problem because that flies in the face of a teaching we hold critical to the whole salvation message, namely that God, in Jesus, forgave us unilaterally and unconditionally, BEFORE we even acknowledged our need for it or could do anything to justify it. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly” Paul explained in Romans 5. This same Jesus, looking down from the cross into the hateful, very UN-forgiving faces of his enemies prayed that his Father forgive them, “for they know not what they do.” He did not pray “Father, make them forgive before it’s too late so that they can have a chance later to be forgiven by you.” No, Jesus died for still-sinning sinners, not for self-reformed sinners.
So how do we reconcile these two? Does God declare unconditional, unilateral forgiveness for the human race at Calvary, then contradict that elsewhere by saying, “Ha, just kidding. No forgiveness for YOU unless you have first forgiven everybody else who has wronged you.” Clearly, there must be a better answer than to see this as a flat-out contradiction.
In fact, there’s a single interrelated spiritual reality. Here is that reality: only with forgiveness can there be life. Forgiveness is the only way to stop the runaway train of sin’s evil force and offer a way out of impossible situations. There is no double standard. As we relate to God, so we relate to others. Jesus here strikes dead the notion that we can somehow humbly, gratefully receive forgiveness from God but proudly and coldly refuse it to others.
If God put forth forgiveness as the only way to deliver fallen humanity out of death into life, then we have no other hope of entering life than to do as God does. Annie Dillard once wrote,
“You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to see the stars, you will find that darkness is required. The stars neither require it nor demand it.”
If you want abundant life, real life, you have to accept the conditions. You have to accept the terms. Want forgiveness? Learn to forgive.
I hope this morning that no one here would be so foolish as to say you do not want God’s forgiveness. But forgiving those who have sinned against us – that’s much harder! Let see then how this difficult task is an open door to life and freedom.
First of all, we must say that forgiveness is for real sin. I tip my hand here in favor of praying “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who SIN against us.” “Debts” and “trespasses” can suggest relatively minor issues. But sin always sows death. Sin sows death – in relationships, in families, in communities, in society, even in the earth itself. What we receive from God, is forgiveness for real sins: brutality, deceit, betrayal, violence, abuse, murder, greed, cowardice, disrespect, abandonment – you name it – all the appallingly down-and-dirty things we humans regularly do.
We cannot avoid the corresponding truth that forgiving others must mean forgiving real sins as well – it will mean forgiving acts of rage, brutality, and greed, deceit, dishonesty, violence, adultery, abuse, abandonment, torture, murder – all the appallingly down-and-dirty things other human beings do to us.
Now it’s right about there that our feelings seize up. Because there’s another belief we cling to and that is the idea of justice – the scales of justice must be balanced. We feel that. We believe that. We need that for the world to make moral sense at all. Is forgiving a just thing to do? How can that be fair?
I want to recount for you the story of a man’s crisis of forgiveness that will force us to wrestle with the question of its rightness. The story is of Simon Wiesenthal, a Jew from Poland imprisoned by the Germans in WWII. P. Yancey summarizes his story in, What’s So Amazing About Grace,” drawing from Wiesenthal’s own book, The Sunflower.
Here is a man who watched his grandmother shot dead by Nazi soldiers on the stairway of her home while his mother was carried away, a man who ultimately saw 89 of his relatives die at the hands of the Nazis. He himself had tried to commit suicide when he was taken captive. Wiesenthal survived not only his suicide attempt, but improbably, the war itself. Consider this man’s experience: On a bright, sunny day Wiesenthal’s prison detail was cleaning rubbish out of a hospital for German casualties when a nurse approached him. “Are you a Jew?” she asked, then signaled him to follow her. Apprehensive, Wiesenthal followed her up a stairway and down a hall until they reached a dark, musty room where a lone soldier lay, covered in bandages. White gauze hid the man’s face, with openings cut out for mouth, nose and ears. The nurse disappeared, closing the door behind her to leave the young Jewish prisoner alone with a dying Nazi. The wounded man was an SS officer, and he had summoned Wiesenthal for a confession. “My name is Karl,” he said from within the bandages. “I must tell you of this horrible deed – tell you because you are a Jew.”
Karl began his story by reminiscing about his childhood faith, which he had lost when he was in the Hitler Youth Corps. He later volunteered for the SS, served with distinction and had recently returned, severely wounded, from the Russian front. Three times as Karl tried to tell his story in weakened voice, Wiesenthal pulled away as if to go. Each time the soldier reached out to grab his arm and beg him to stay.
He wanted to talk about something that had happened in the Ukraine. In a town, abandoned by retreating Russians, booby traps killed 30 soldiers in Karl’s unit. As an act of revenge, the SS rounded up 300 Jews, herded them into a three-story house, doused it with gasoline, and set it afire. Karl and his men encircled the house, with guns drawn to shoot anyone who tried to escape. “The screams from the house were horrible,” he said. “I saw a man with a small child in his arms. His clothes were alight. By his side stood a woman, no doubt the mother. With his free hand the man covered the child’s eyes—then jumped into the street. Seconds later the mother followed. Then from other windows fell burning bodies. We shot….
All this time Wiesenthal sat in silence, letting the German speak. Karl went on to describe other atrocities, but he kept circling back to that young boy with black hair and dark eyes falling from a building, target practice for the SS rifles. “I am left here with my guilt,” he concluded at last. “In the last hours of my life you are with me. I do not know who you are. I only know that you are a Jew and that is enough. “What I have told you is terrible. In the long nights while waiting for death, time and time again I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. Only I didn’t know whether there were any Jews left…. I know what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace.”
Silence! … Two strangers all by themselves, caught in the crisis of forgiveness. A member of the super race begged to be forgiven by a member of the condemned race. Wiesenthal tells us what he did. “I stood up and looked in his direction, at his folded hands. At last I made up my mind and without a word I left the room.”
Wiesenthal survived the concentration camp. But he could not forget the SS trooper. He wondered for a long time whether he should have forgiven the soldier. He wrote to rabbis, theologians, philosophers, priests – anyone who might have insight and asked them all the same question: “Did I do right or wrong?” But Wiesenthal did not put the question just to the theologians and philosophers, but to every reader who picks up his book. Here are the closing words:
Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong? This is a profound moral question that challenges the conscience of the reader of this episode, just as much as it once challenged my heart and my mind, There are those who can appreciate my dilemma, and endorse my attitude, and are others who will be ready to condemn me for refusing to ease the last moments of a repentant murderer.
The crux of the matter is, of course, the question of forgiveness. Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of, but forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision. You, who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, “What would I have done?”
Of 32 distinguished writers, religious thinkers and philosophers only six could bring themselves to say he should have offered forgiveness to the repentant man. One philosopher wrote, I think I would have acted the way you did – refused the request of the dying man…. One cannot, and should not go around happily killing and torturing and then, at the last moment, simply ask, and receive, forgiveness. The easy forgiving of such crimes perpetuates the very evil it wants to alleviate.
Cynthia Ozick, a novelist, was even more blunt… Often we are asked to think this way: vengeance brutalizes, forgiveness refines. But the opposite can be true. Forgiveness can brutalize…. The face of forgiveness is mild, but how stony to the slaughtered…. Let the SS man die unshriven. Let him go to hell.
Philip Yancey writes, “In a world of unspeakable atrocity, forgiveness seems unjust, unfair, irrational.” And so it does. When we forgive someone, we give up our right to get even. We suffer the wrong with no hope of balancing the scales of justice and we willingly, no, willfully get on with living in spite of the pain unfairly suffered.
This seems almost too much to do or ask. Why should we give up our hatred, our contempt, our power – the energy of our anger – when our lives have been so deeply disrupted by unfair suffering? And yet, the question haunts. Is it right NOT to forgive? Jesus gave his answer and without qualification urged it upon us. “Forgive, just as you are forgiven.” “How many times, Jesus?” Peter once asked, “as many as seven, the perfect number?” “No, Peter – SEVENTY TIMES seven”. Oh.
But what of the question of fairness? Without discounting the profound evil suffered by innocent victims of psychopaths, or even incredibly selfish family members, former friends, or betraying co-workers, we must consider that the question of fairness cuts both ways. Yancey puts forth the simple question, “Which carries a higher cost, forgiveness, or unforgiveness?” In, Forgive and Forget, Lewis Smedes says, “Forgiveness is God’s invention for coming to terms with a [broken world]. Our sense of fairness tells us people should pay for the wrong they do. But forgiving is love’s power to break nature’s rules.” What if forgiving is the fairest alternative a victim of undeserved suffering has got?
Consider the alternatives: Vengeance leaps to mind. Revenge – balance the scales of justice! But in real life, the scales of justice can never be balanced. Most losses are permanent. Loss of a friendship, loss of trust, loss of reputation, loss of a marriage, loss a loved one in a crash caused by a drunk driver.
Whatever hurts we did not deserve, usually they are irreparable. It’s an impossible goal to right the scales. If we wait for justice before we can have a future, we will wait forever!
What about the emotional satisfaction of retaliation? Well, it certainly feels good for time. But it’s a recurring itch that is never quite satisfied. Taking revenge never really helps us to not hurt anymore. In fact, revenge seems to keep the hurt in the forefront of our lives. We want the “SOBs” to pay – again, and again! And that usually brings new hurts because of counter-retaliations and escalating rounds of aggression. Lew Smedes nails it. No one ever gets even in the pain game because no two people in the history of the world ever measured pain with the same scale.
The greatest fool’s quest ever set out upon is the quest to “get even.” In the Middle East, Russia, Egypt, Africa, in America’s race relations, in family feuds – we see round after round of hostility that have, sometimes, hundreds, if not thousands, of years of history behind them. Each new atrocity points to a former atrocity somewhere in the past that is now, the new attackers claim, only being avenged.
Is forgiveness more unfair than a virtually unending succession of oppressions, uprisings, counter-oppressions, wars and reinforced hatreds? Perhaps the strongest argument for forgiveness is the alternative, a permanent state of unforgiveness.
Is forgiving fair? In the end, forgiving is the fairest of all possible responses, because it sets people free. It puts a stop to endless rounds of payback. It also allows us to get on with life and lay aside the heaviness of a perpetual victim identity. “I’m the one who was cheated so cruelly! I’m the one who was attacked and wounded so viciously!” Which translates all too often into, “I’m the one who has no future now because of what happened to me.” When we forgive, we buy back our future. We rescue it from an unchangeable past, unchain it from an irreparable loss. Forgiving in the end is fairest of all to the victim because of its creative power to move us away from past pain. (Indebted to Smedes and Yancey here)
Forgive and forget? You don’t really forget. But you remember in a new and different way! That action is at the very center of our faith in the sacrament of communion, which in turn calls to mind the Jewish celebration of Passover.
There is unfair pain all over the landscape in both stories – the Exodus and Calvary – but it is not the unfairness that we focus on as we remember. No, what we memorialize is how God delivered us alive out of it all! The miracle we celebrate in remembering is our survival and renewal! In spite of what happened, because of God’s power and grace, we have a future and a blessing! That was Joseph’s discovery when he considered his brother’s cruel betrayal and abandonment. God worked in spite of his brothers’ sin against him. Forgiving forces us to “live higher”.
Do you need God’s forgiveness this morning? No doubt. All of us need forgiveness daily. Thank God we are forgiven and set free through God’s amazing grace.
Do you struggle to forgive someone this morning? Know that in forgiving, you do not condone or excuse the sin. You do not step up for more abuse when you forgive. But you do rise to life by trusting yourself to God’s care even as our Lord Jesus did on the cross.
Forgiveness has great power. It may or may not lead to reconciliation. But it can set the forgiver free, if not the forgiven, and possibly both.
Is there a work of forgiveness that you still need to accomplish?
Are you able to enlarge your frame of reference and trust God to be your keeper and refuge?
Will you claim, by faith, the goodness and blessing that God is ready to work in you in spite of what has happened, and focus on that in your life?
Ask God to empower you to forgive!