Beloved Members and Friends of St. Martin’s,
It certainly seems the lectionary has been speaking straight into our times—and how perfect that this weekend we continue to contemplate forgiveness in our worship as our Jewish kindred celebrate the beginning of a New Year, with Rosh Hashanah beginning at sundown on Friday and not concluding until sundown Sunday. These High Holy Days will end in ten days with Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement, when the devout seek to acknowledge and make recompense for any harms committed against God or others in the previous year. This is a reminder to all that forgiveness represents a new start as well.
In Jesus’s instruction of the “Lord’s Prayer,” in the earlier Ethical Discourse from Matthew’s gospel, there is this about forgiveness:
9 ‘Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread.* 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And do not bring us to the time of trial,* but rescue us from the evil one.* 14For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
In our gospel reading for this weekend, Jesus calls us to forgive, and to remember that we ourselves have been the recipients of grace-- unconditional forgiveness-- by both God and others in our lives. But forgiveness does not take away the original injury. And one of the great sicknesses in American society is a lack of empathy for others—a tendency to discount or deny the validity of others’ suffering and pain, including the belief that my rights allow me to trample upon those around me. This is, of course, antithetical to scripture, both the Torah and the Christian gospel, as well as most other faith traditions.
As a Christian, as especially as a preacher, I always approach this reading with a good dose of caution and contemplation. I have had people attempt to use this injunction against me—and I bet you may have too. You know what I am talking about—the person who knows that as a Christian we are supposed to forgive, and when they have knowingly done wrong, perfunctorily apologize and demand forgiveness. Of course, we can go ahead and forgive them—and sometimes that is a gift we give ourselves, as we have discussed earlier this summer-- but unless their demand for forgiveness is back up by a turning away from the habit or action that caused the initial injury, the relationship cannot be fully reconciled.
Jesus does not expect us to deliberately place ourselves at the mercy of those who abuse us or even our good graces. Asking forgiveness is not a get-out-of-jail-free card, but must be accompanied by repentance and restitution as well to remove the burden from the wrongdoer. We are going to be hurt by others. We are going to hurt others ourselves. But the way to break the cycle is by embodying forgiveness as a gift to ourselves. That’s why the word “give” is right in the middle of the word “forgiveness.”