How hard it is to forgive certain people
Mary Copping, 17 September 2017
Romans 14: 1–12, Matthew 18: 21–35
As some of you know, my husband was in the army for years. In the 1960s and 70s he served many tours in Northern Ireland. Army families stayed with the soldiers on camp for a couple of years in the late 70s. We found the people generally very friendly towards us. But they were difficult times for all, and when the soldiers were on patrol, they used to dread the time when children came out of school. This was because some of the children would immediately start throwing stones at them – they had picked up from their families and others that the soldiers were no good and not wanted there. This was an example of people holding on to bitterness and unforgiveness and passing it on down the generations. Unforgiveness is a powerful and hurtful thing.
I read a book by Joyce Heatherley called Irregular People in which she said that most people have in their lives someone who, whatever we do or say, will always be negative towards us, always picking fault – the one person who hurts us and we feel we can’t do anything about it. In the book, she suggests how we might cope with these people, and part of that is continued forgiveness.
In our gospel reading Peter is asking Jesus just how many times he has to forgive. When he asks ‘As many as seven times?’ he obviously thinks that is quite enough! Perhaps he had an irregular person in his life, who continued to hurt and upset him. I can imagine that he wasn’t very pleased to hear Jesus’ reply of seventy times seven, which is the number used in most Bible translations. Apparently the Jewish rabbis taught that it was only necessary to forgive someone three times, citing when God forgave Israel’s enemies three times, then punished them (Amos 1: 3–13). Peter was going beyond this, but the disciples were still thinking of Jewish law and hadn’t quite grasped the limitless forgiveness of God.
The disciples hadn’t quite grasped the limitless forgiveness of God.
So that is why the parable follows of the slave who would not forgive his debtor even though the king had forgiven him all his debt. Jesus always told stories with deep meaning, and clearly the king here symbolises God, our heavenly Father, who forgives all our wrongs, our sinfulness.
Peter Seal spoke movingly about the cross last week on Holy Cross Day. Again this week we look to the cross (as we do every week, as we come to thank God for all that he has done for us through Christ). The agony of Jesus on the cross is the means by which we ourselves can receive forgiveness. Jesus’ words, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’, were addressed to more than those standing there; they are to us, to the world, with no-one excluded from God’s forgiveness. This is God’s free gift to us, gained by the cross of Jesus.
I find the illustration of the bridge of life helpful. The image is of two cliffs opposite each other, the people standing on one and on the other is God. The dividing part is sin – and because of this, we can’t reach God. But then, the cross of Christ is put between the cliffs and enables people to walk over it to be with God. A word used to describe this is atonement – or at-one-ment. Our sins are forgiven, and we can be at one with God.
Before Christ’s death on the cross, the people would go into the temple to take sacrifices and to confess their sins, and the priests would burn these offerings as a sign of their repentance and God’s forgiveness. Only the priests were allowed into the nearer presence of God in the Holy of Holies; they were the mediators of God’s forgiveness.
Now, in the light of the cross of Christ, we have God’s grace and mercy for forgiveness, given for all that we do wrong. We turn to him in repentance, receive his free gift and then ask for his grace to enable us to turn away from our sin.
God’s forgiveness is abundant and free. And as Paul says in the letter to the Romans, chapter 8 verse 1, ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’. We are not condemned by God for anything we do; we are forgiven and free.
So, as we receive this forgiveness we must pass it on to others, forgiving them as God forgives us. But oh how hard it is, sometimes, to forgive certain people and to keep forgiving, without holding unforgiveness and resentment in our hearts – especially if we do have that irregular person in our lives.
But thank God that we have his Holy Spirit to help us. Sometimes we don’t even want to forgive them. Why should we? We have perfectly good reason to be resentful about what they have done, and they’re not sorry either! Perhaps our prayer can be, ‘Lord, please help me to want to want to forgive that person’. The trouble is that, on a practical level, if we have unforgiveness and resentment in our hearts it affects the way we live and the way we relate to others. The person who wronged us, who we cannot forgive, may be happily getting on with their lives, while we are still suffering.
On a practical level, if we have unforgiveness and resentment in our hearts it affects the way we live and the way we relate to others.
In 2016 there was a TV drama about Damilola Taylor, the young boy who was fatally stabbed in London in 2000. His father recently went to receive the BAFTA award that this drama achieved. At the ceremony, he pleaded with people to help stop knife crime; that has been his continued campaign in memory of his dear son. But also, recently, he was totally honest when asked whether he could forgive those who killed his son. He said, ‘For me, the question of forgiveness is something I’m still searching my heart for, because such a tragedy – what it has done to my life – has been so painful’. Such an honest and moving answer is one that we can all understand, and of course God understands too.
There are times in our lives when it is hard to forgive, hard to find it in our heart to free others and ourselves – that is when we say, ‘Lord, help me to want to want to forgive’.
At the moment I am reading Works of Love by Søren Kierkegaard, who was a Danish philosopher and theologian – a few pages at a time, as it gives a lot to think about and take in. But one thing that has struck me from what I have read so far in his writing on love is: ‘You shall love your neighbour is a command not a request’. As we receive the love of God we shall pass it on to others. And in obeying this command there is self-renunciation – a forgetting of self and loving the other.
Forgiveness is a lot about the putting aside of self, refusing to hang on to and dwell on those grievances, those hurts, those resentments. In the light of the cross of Christ and his forgiveness – the at-one-ment we have with God – we are to continue the process of forgiveness and of loving, whatever the cost.
And the soldiers in Northern Ireland? They continued to do their duty, but were friendly with the children and gradually became friends with them. This may just have rippled out to their families and brought them nearer to forgiveness. Amen.