A certain ‘High Church’ parish priest had recently welcomed her new curate and he was spending his first week observing her activities in the parish. On Wednesdays it was the practice of the priest to offer confession to her parishioners and, with the permission of those coming to confess their sins, the curate sat in silence listening to the conversation.
“Mother, forgive me, for I have sinned.” said the first penitent. The priest asked, “What did you do my child?” The man confessed, “I have lost my temper and sworn at other drivers”. The priest asked, “How many times?” and the man replied, “Three”. The priest said, “Say two Hail Mary’s, put £10 in the collection box and go and sin no more.”
A few minutes later a woman entered the confessional. She said, “Mother forgive me, for I have sinned.” “What did you do?” asked the priest. “I have lost my temper and sworn at other drivers.”… “How many times?”… “Three times”… The priest said, “Say two Hail Mary’s, put £10 in the collection box and go and sin no more”.
Now just after that the priest was called away to an emergency, but the curate was sure that he had got the hang of it, and said he would be happy to carry on offering confession.
A few minutes later another woman entered the confessional. “Father, forgive me for I have sinned.” In his most solemn voice the young curate responded, “What did you do?” The woman replied, “I have lost my temper and sworn at other drivers.”… “How many times?” asked the curate…. “Once” replied the woman. Thinking carefully about how he had heard the priest respond earlier, the curate said, “Go and do it two more times, we’ve got a special on this week – three for £10!”
My apologies for opening with a rather corny story this week, but it does make you think, doesn’t it? What is confessing sin and forgiveness of those sins all about? Are all sins to be forgiven? Should we keep forgiving sins, even if they are repeated?
“How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
Jesus answered Peter, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
For Jesus, forgiveness is not a quantifiable event. It is a quality; a way of being, a way of living, a way of loving, a way of relating, a way of thinking and seeing. It is nothing less than the way of Christ. And if we are to follow Christ then it must become our way as well. “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
I suspect that everyone, is in favour of forgiveness, at least in principle.
I love this quote from CS Lewis “Everyone, says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until there is something to forgive”.
What do we do then? What do we do when there is something really serious to forgive?
Do we have to forgive the drunk driver? The ‘misleading’ politician? The racist? The bully? The abusive parent? The greedy corporation? And this weekend, as we recall the atrocious events 19 years ago – even the terrorists of 9/11?
Today we stand at a difficult, seemingly impossible, place. We stand in between the 19th anniversary of the September 11 tragedy just two days ago and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The memories, the images, the anger, the fear, the pain and losses – with all of these things in our hearts, we hear Jesus’s teaching on forgiveness. Both are real. Both are true.
The deeper truth is that we would still be standing in the same place even if September 11 had never occurred. We stand at that place every day of our lives.
Reflect on the history of the world, the history of humanity and we see the Holocaust, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, racial discrimination, the slave trade, economic oppression, more recent wars and torture in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Reflecting on our own lives, we find broken promises, hurt feelings, betrayals, harsh words, physical and emotional wounds. I am sure that every one of us could tell stories of being hurt or victimized by another. Beneath the pain, the wounds, the losses, and the memories lies the question of forgiveness.
Some, quite understandably, will succumb to the natural reaction to strike back – seeking revenge. Some will run away from life and relationships. Some will let the darkness paralyse them.
We don’t say that out of criticism or judgment of anyone, but out of our own experience. I suspect many of us have done them all. We know how hard forgiveness can be. Most of us struggle with it and often avoid it. But we also know that none of those answers are the way of Christ. All of them leave us stuck in the past, tied to the negative effect of the actions of another, and bereft of the future God wants to give us.
Forgiveness is the only way forward. That does not mean we forget, condone, or approve of what was done. It does not mean we ignore or excuse cruelty or injustice. It means we are released from them. We let go of the thoughts and fantasies of revenge. We look to the future rather than the past. We try to see and love as God sees and loves. Forgiveness is a way in which we align our life with God’s life.
God’s forgiveness and human forgiveness are intertwined with one another. That is more than apparent in today’s parable. The king forgives his slave an extraordinary amount. Ten thousand talents was about 3000 years of work at the ordinary daily wage. It seems there is no debt too large to be forgiven. This man, this debtor, was forgiven. That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like. That’s how our God is. This slave, however, refused to forgive his fellow slave 100 denarii, about three months of work at the ordinary daily wage. And too often that’s what our world is like. And sometimes it is how each of us can be. In that refusal the forgiven slave loses his own forgiveness.
So how do we begin to forgive?
Well there is no easy road to forgiveness and please don’t let anyone tell you, “Just surrender it to God. Forgive and forget.” Simplistic trite answers only demean those who suffer and pick at the wound.
Forgiving another takes time and work. It is something we must practice every day. It begins with recognition and thanksgiving that we have been forgiven. We are the beneficiaries of the crucified one. Hanging between two thieves he prayed, “Father, forgive them.” That is the cry of infinite forgiveness, a cry we are to echo in our own lives, in our families, our work places, and in our church.
Forgiveness does not originate in us. It begins with God. That’s what the slave who refused to forgive didn’t understand. It was not about him. It’s about God. We do not choose to forgive. We only choose to share the forgiveness we have already received. Then we choose again, and then again, and then yet again. For most of us forgiveness is a process that we live into.
Sometimes, however, we just can’t. The pain is too much, the wound too raw, the memories too real. On those days we choose to want to forgive. Some days we choose to want to want to forgive. But we choose because that’s the choice Christ made.
How many times must we choose to forgive? Tell me this. How many times have you been hurt by the actions or words of another? How many times has anger or fear controlled you? How many times has the thought of revenge filled you? How many times have you shuddered at the sight, the name, or the memory of another? How many times have you replayed in your head the argument with another? That’s how many times you must choose to forgive. With each choosing we move a step closer to forgiveness.
“Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
May God Bless you and all those you love this coming week.