Forgiving: Payback Ends Here; a personal attempt to understand what it means to forgive

Scripture: Matthew 18: 21-22
Floyd Orr
January 22, 2017

There have been hundreds of homilies in this church on the topic of “love.” That’s no mystery; love is an important mysterious topic with descriptions that range from the ridiculous to the sublime. From “oh, I just love your new shoes” to “I love you so much I’d sacrifice my life for yours” or, somewhat less spectacularly, “I’ll put your interests ahead of, or on a par with my own.” If it weren’t so important we wouldn’t spend so much time attempting to understand it and learning how to better practice it. Love is not a single response but a category or family of responses to another person. Loving our significant other is different than the love we have for a friend or our siblings or our offspring. English is bereft of words to describe the varieties of love and we resort to qualifying adjectives; filial love, brother love, divine love, sexual love, etc.

I didn’t come today armed with another talk about love. I came with the intent of describing my journey to understand a topic related to love, namely forgiving or forgiveness. In my many years with this church I can’t remember a sermon on forgiving. Maybe I was absent that day. In my mind love and forgiving are intertwined. Can you love someone and not forgive for a wrong you suffered from them? I think the answer is yes. Can you forgive someone a wrong and not love them? That’s a much easier question for me to answer. Yes indeed you can forgive, but not love. When I get to the crux of my argument it will become clear that there are instances where forgiving doesn’t imply loving.

Why this lacuna when it comes to talking about forgiving? As church members we’re constantly reminded of forgiving. From a rather elevated theological perspective we’re told that God forgives us. I confess I don’t relate to that notion. It suggests a personal relation to the Almighty that I don’t experience in my daily life. Some of our fellow Christians wear the idea as a badge of salvation. “Christians aren’t perfect just forgiven.” In some branches of Christianity there’s a whole weekly industry around forgiveness and repentance. In Roman Catholicism it’s confession on Friday night, the prescribed amount of atonement by prayer, and the taking of the sacrament on Sunday.

In our church every Sunday without fail we repeat the Lord’s Prayer. Whether we say forgive our sins, or forgive us our debts, or forgive us our trespasses we ask forgiveness from others and pledge our forgiveness in return. What exactly do we mean by that? Something like “oops sorry, I won’t do that again and I hope others will respond in kind” If I sound confused it’s because I am.

The passage that Peter read from Matthew does say something important about forgiving, even though it’s highly unlikely that Jesus and the Apostle Peter ever had that conversation. If you like consulting the opinions of the Jesus Seminar and their translation of The Five Gospels this passage is written in black type. That’s their collective scholarly opinion and I’m willing to accept it. Jesus and Peter never had that conversation. However there’s an important truth in that exchange.

Peter says “Master, how many times can a companion wrong me and still expect my forgiveness? As many as seven times?” Jesus replies, “My advice is not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” I take the intent of the Jesus’ response to mean as often as necessary. It’s forgiveness unlimited.

My deepest personal confusion around forgiveness came from my long held belief that forgiveness and reconciliation were joined at the hip, Siamese twin concepts. This brings me to heart of what I really want to speak about. In the interests of full disclosure I’ve been wronged by some with whom I don’t want to be reconciled. Not many but a few. It’s very uncomfortable feeling. I’ve asked many whom I know to be a lot smarter about such matters than I am only to discover they shared the same belief that forgiveness and reconciliation are intertwined. In those cases where forgiving seemed impossible it was laid off on God. Only God can forgive those wrongs that lie beyond our capacity.

Then one day I put the question to Dave Clark who was our interim pastor a couple of years ago. We were having a casual conversation about something else and I raised my sixty-four dollar question about forgiveness. His answer blew me away. In his opinion forgiveness and reconciliation are not intertwined. Here’s the punch line: forgiveness is the decision on the part of the wronged party NOT to respond in kind. Please don’t gloss over what I just said. It sounds ridiculously simple; it’s not. It means I’ve suffered a wrong and I’ve decided I won’t seek revenge, I won’t try to rebalance the scales, I won’t endeavor to get even. Consider with me if you will how deeply the revenge motive is imbued in our society. We want to believe in a distorted view of karma, that evil doing will be avenged. Furthermore we’d like it to be instant karma, let it happen right now. Without the revenge motive ninety-five percent of the action movies from Hollywood couldn’t be made. Getting even is the principal plot line. You wronged the schoolmarm, I’m gonna make you pay for that. In a recent Keanu Reeves movie the mayhem that ensued was over the death of his character’s dog.

In a more serious vein, consider what it means not to seek vengeance when it comes to a broader social palate. Someone from your clan kills someone from my clan so I’m going to kill someone from your clan and for good measure I’ll make it two murders rather than one. Then the response of well you killed two of my clan I’d better take four more lives from your clan. Think of the ongoing strife in the Middle East, the civil war that nearly destroyed our country, the clan wars in Ireland. I realize there are multiple reasons for these conflicts, but certainly vengeance is a factor in the equation of strife.

We had the opportunity to eliminate the death penalty in California in the last election. I voted in favor of eliminating it. I did so in the spirit of forgiveness and not seeking revenge for a capital crime and for the utilitarian reason that it’s the monetarily sensible thing to do. It’s less expensive to keep someone who’s a danger to society incarcerated for life than to pay for endless appeals. The bill failed to pass and was superseded by a plan to streamline appeals. Apparently the majority of those who voted believe vengeance brings some sort of closure to those affected by a heinous crime.

I have a dear friend whose parents were murdered in their bed by a family member. They were stabbed to death. My friend is condemned to live with this horrible event for the rest of his days. How would executing the perpetrators ever bring closure? Knowing him as I do the death of the murderers would bring him little satisfaction. It certainly wouldn’t give him the lost years with his parents.

Moral issues are seldom simple. Are we not obliged to resist evil? I doubt there are any in this room who believe war is the solution to disagreement no matter how profound. Yet what would the world be like had the axis powers prevailed in the Second World War? It’s pretty clear the Holocaust would have proceeded to the extinction all the Jews however their Jewishness was defined. I admired Mohandas Ghandi from the day I learned about him. I can still hear Nehru’s voice declaring our beloved “Bapu” the little father was dead. When he was fatally shot Ghandi said to his killer “I forgive you.” Did you know he counseled the Jews not to resist Hitler, but rather to lay down their lives. Here are the words of a Rabbi on the subject. “Ghandi counseled the Jews in Nazi Germany to neither flee or resist but offer themselves up to be killed by their enemies, since their (quote) ‘suffering voluntarily will bring them an inner strength and joy’.”  Really? I can’t quite get my head around that. In fairness to Ghandi he viewed the world from a very different metaphysical perspective than the Rabbi I cited.

Violence is only the answer when all other options have been exhausted. Short of that I remain indebted to Reverend Dave Clark for the teaching that forgiveness means payback ends here. I for one will do my best not to seek revenge and join our Jewish Sisters and Brothers in the practice of Tikkun olam, the repair of the world one day at a time. Care to join me?