The Challenge of Forgiveness

My visit to All Saints’, Marseille, on the weekend of September 16/17, took place after a week when terrorism struck the London tube once more, when Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority continue to seek refuge in Bangladesh, and world leaders were resorting to threatening language. The lectionary did not let me off the hook, so here is the sermon that emerged from my wrestling with the challenge of forgiveness in Matthew’s Gospel (18. 21-35).

Families are not always the ideal we imagine they are. They can be places of love and mutual flourishing, of course. They can also be an arena of tension, conflict and even betrayal. That is true of any network of human relationships.

Nearly 20 years ago, the Irish-born BBC journalist, Fergal Keane, who has reported from many of the world’s disaster areas, wrote his Letter to Daniel. The book is a series of recollections of his life and work, addressed to his then-new-born son. In one poignant moment, he shares his memories and feelings about the dysfunctional family in which he grew up. He recalls his long-dead father, and tells of the night, years earlier, when he, his mother and brother decided to leave their home near Cork in Ireland. Keane’s father had come home drunk that evening, shortly after Christmas. He had come crashing through the door, the house was turned upside down, and the rest of the family could take no more. Keane describes how, during the years that followed that hasty departure, he and his father continued to drift apart. The drinking continued, and his father’s life continued to disintegrate. Keane’s own words, addressed to his dead father, convey something of the overwhelming regret and loss which he and his father must have felt towards each other at the moment of death:

Down the years we struggled to find one another, [Keane writes] but I was growing up and away, and you were drifting closer to darkness. And at the end I gave up writing, gave up calling. I gave up. Until one night my cousin called to say you were gone. It was a few days into the New Year, and your heart simply gave up in a small room in the town in North Kerry where you were born. I remember that you sent me the collected stories of Raymond Carver for Christmas. I had sent you nothing, not even a card. Now I would send you a thousand, but I have no address.

Keane’s experience chimes with what we heard in the Old Testament reading (Genesis 50:15-21). It was no small thing for those Jewish sages, struggling to keep their faith alive, amid the stretch of persecution and exile, to tell and preserve this story of Jacob and his sons. It’s hardly a piece of family history to be proud of. Jacob and his sons were the dysfunctional family par excellence. The ten jealous and scheming brothers, who tried to do away with their bother Joseph, and who tried to stitch-up their youngest brother Benjamin, now find themselves grieving the loss of their father, Jacob. He had always looked out for them; but they had deceived and hurt him. Now they must plead with Joseph, their younger brother, whom they had once left for dead. He now holds all the power. He could have grasped the opportunity to use that power for his own ends. He could have taken revenge for what they had done to him. Wouldn’t that have been the instinctive, human response? History is full of people getting even: the victim who, in time, becomes the oppressor. That’s the story of Adolph Hitler and Robert Mugabe. God forbid that it should become the story of Aung San Suu Kyi.

But Joseph refuses to go with his impulses, or the cultural conventions of his day. He looks beyond the immediate hurt and anger, and leads this disrupted and disruptive family into the future by a reckless act of forgiveness. We may not always understand it. It may sound too easy. But a future becomes possible because someone has put his own needs to one side and been courageous and generous enough to forgive.

When we come to the Gospel, we are confronted by Peter’s question: ‘Lord, how often shall I forgive those who sin against me: seven times seven?’ In the Jewish tradition, to forgive seven times seven is to forgive perfectly. This, Peter imagines, is what the forgiveness of God is like. But Jesus’s answer shows that God’s capacity to forgive is beyond our imagining – let alone our calculation.

Peter has to start seeing the world, and other people, as God sees them. Those who limit the mercy of God become limited themselves: living in a limited world with limited vision, limited empathy, and a limited sense of themselves. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn once observed:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

It’s worth bearing this in mind, as we think about the parable Jesus tells in response to Peter’s question. Every time we accuse others, we accuse ourselves. And every time we strive to forgive, instead of hitting back or blaming others, we give to others a small drop out of the bucketful of mercy that God has already freely given us. This is how human lives and human societies can begin to find their future purpose.

Of course, it can sound too easy. Where does forgiveness impinge in a world where threats to our freedom and well-being seem to stalk us in all kinds of ways? What difference can forgiveness make in the dark and sordid world of human trafficking and child sexual exploitation?

Nowhere in Jesus’s words do we find any suggestion that we simply forgive and forget as if nothing had ever happened. Forgiveness involves confronting and challenging the behaviour that poisons homes, lives, communities and nations. Forgiveness requires untold patience, energy, wisdom and courage. It is costly. I’m struck by the way the journalist and former Beirut hostage, John McCarthy, still finds it impossible to forgive his kidnappers in one vital respect: that they showed no compassion for the fact that his mother was terminally ill and died during the years of his captivity, not knowing if he was alive or dead. Those who will not show compassion, according to the parable in this morning’s Gospel, cannot expect to be forgiven. If we simply count up the number of times we are prepared to forgive, all we are doing is putting off the day of revenge; and we will never be free. Don’t count, says Jesus. Look to your own need for forgiveness. Then do for others what God in Christ has already done for you.



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