Many years ago now, I encountered a Roman Catholic priest who was covering the same area of Newfoundland as I was. When there was the occasion, I would go over to the Roman Catholic Church and, because of a love for music, I would sit with the choir. They thought it was “far out” that the Anglican Minister would do this, and the first time it caught the new priest Father Joseph off guard. After one such service – a funeral for a much love town employee who, amongst other things, collected the community’s garbage – we were stand out side waiting the for the funeral home to come out for the trip to the cemetery. Father Joseph grabbed me by the shoulders and loudly announced to those gathered around, that we, Him and I, were brothers.
Now you need to understand that Father Joseph could not look more different if it were possible to make it so. He was very tall, me not so much. He was very thin and me, not so much. He was from Ghana and black. I am from Canada and white. The people were confused as to how we might be brothers. So, I was quick to point out that we are brothers from different mothers. We were adopted by our heavenly Father and we are brothers and heirs with Christ in the kingdom and in the life that is to come. “We are brothers, because Christ made it so.” Then, there were smiles and the nodding of heads and clapping of mitted hands in approval.
We need to consider the Gospel this week in the same light. In Matthew 18.21-35, there is an important discussion about forgiveness and about how often one needs to extend forgiveness to another. Peter says to Jesus, Should I forgive my brother seven times? Conventional wisdom of the day was that you forgive a person three times. After that you can respond how you like. So, Peter, more than doubling the total, thought that he was being lavish and generous to think seven times. No doubt, Jesus’ response to his generosity was bone jarring.
There is lots of debate about whether it was 77 times or 490 times that you must forgive a person who has wronged you. How hard is it on the 78th or even the 491st time? The point of the lessons was not to keep track of sins so that at some point down the road you could hold it against the offender. That makes a person merciless and pitiable because they do not understand compassion at all. They cannot have experienced mercy and compassion when they were suffering and in need becoming merciless (anileos). Mercy, compassion and forgiveness are fundamental to being a follower of the Lord Jesus and in staying healthy as a human being. If there is no capacity for forgiveness and compassion (which leads to the offering of grace) then there is no hope for there to be a reserve for grace to be lived into.
Think of the merciless servant that Jesus talks about in the parable. What did he do with his new found new lease on life that he had been given? He used the old system to brutalize someone else. He got forgiveness from the king but then he turned around and throttled the next person in the chain not allowing the forgiveness, mercy and grace that had been given to him to follow to some one else. One cannot claim to be a good Christian and to love God and then turned around and hate your brother. If you love God, you must also love your brother and sister. (1st John 4: 20) Otherwise, you make yourself out to be a lair, because you do not love the people you can see and know but claim to love Someone others cannot see.
In learning to forgive from the heart, is the crux of the matter. In choosing to forgive, from the very centre of one’s life, you do not allow for anger, bitterness and resentment to settle in. These things can lead you to sin, to be come separated from others and from God. Not allowing these things in prevents sin from having a toe hold in your life. Living this way in turn promotes healing, reconciliation and community which are God’s desire for us. Allowing anger, bitterness and resentment to remain means that we are making our feelings and desires paramount which leads to us making our feelings and demands are more important than what God expects of us. This is an idolatrous notion.
We need to remember that forgiving someone is not an event; it is a process. Old feelings of anger and the desire for retribution and revenge are going to surface. In that moment, we need to stop forgive and forget: not for the offender’s sake, but for your own. Forgetfulness is key to forgiveness and our own well being. It is a godly thing to do as well so that we are not consumed by our own issues, desires and demands, including the need for revenge.
This is especially important for the health and well being of the community of Christ in which we participate. Learning to forgive and forget where members of the Church, of our family are concerned is one of the ways that we can best witness to a world that is bent on revenge and one-up-men-ship. Learn to forgive from deep within and do not allow your anger to cause you to sin. Learn to love as Christ loves.