r m p




Forgiveness as a Given

Old Testament Reading: Exodus 33:19

New Testament Reading: Matthew 18:23-35

I would like to explore the question of whether forgiving someone who has offended you is a duty automatically incumbent upon you. Is forgiveness a given? Can we take forgiveness for granted? The question is raised in the Matthean parable you have just heard. There we are left in no doubt--but also in no position to comply. The parable is the work of the evangelist Matthew and betrays the tell-tale marks of his failure to think through the logical implications of what he writes. He makes it impossible to do what he commands us to do. Here's why.

Notice that the parable by itself, that is, without the concluding comment by Jesus, does not present us with a problem. It makes its point vividly: in view of the much greater debt of sin God has forgiven us, how dare we hold a grudge against those who can have by no means as seriously offended us?

Matthew takes a good point and bungles it. The trouble is where he has the unforgiving servant packed off to the torturers. This is at first simply part of the color of the story. That's what Oriental despots do! But Matthew literalizes it by making this, and not simply the disproportion between our forgiveness and God's, the point of comparison: "So will my heavenly Father do to each one of you who neglects to forgive his brother from his heart."

Let me get this straight: if I don't forgive from the heart, I will be tortured. Well, I must say, that is some way to get me to have a change of heart! Surely you see the difficulty. It's like a man asking for a date with a pistol pointed at the head of his intended. Of course she will say yes, but it won't be a sign of requited affection! You can't compel and threaten a gesture "from the heart." The whole idea of forgiveness from the heart would have to be sincere forgiveness, free forgiveness, forgiveness willingly bestowed, not wrung out of you by threats of torture.

Matthew has created an instance of what Paul Watzlawick, in his book How Real Is Real? calls "the 'Be Spontaneous' paradox." The one thing you cannot produce on command is spontaneity. And this is true of forgiveness. Because what is forgiveness, after all?

The Exodus passage we read tells us. It is a favor that might or might not be tendered. It cannot be required because it is not owed. It is what Tillich called "creative justice." It represents a leap beyond what is required. It is a willingness to go beyond the second mile. No less than God, the human forgiver must be able to say, "I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy." Jesus or Matthew or anyone else can no more tell you to forgive someone than they can tell you to fall in love with someone you don't love.

Now Jesus might exhort you to forgive, advise you to forgive, and that is a different matter. And that is advice you might well heed. Here is the difference I see. We find it in 1 Corinthians, where Paul says, "All things are lawful for me, but not all things are expedient. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be bound by any." Yes, I have just argued that you are not duty bound to forgive. That would make it all a sham. But you may yet find that to forgive is more expedient! It may relieve you of a burden you would rather not bear. What's the phrase? You "bear a grudge," carry it around. It can become heavy! It might expedite things if you shrugged it off and patched things up. You would breathe easier if you didn't have that adrenaline rush of hate whenever you thought of the person you refuse to forgive.

When we bear a grudge against someone, we often think, "I wish I'd never see him again." Yet you are preoccupied with him, thinking about him and how you hate him. You could forget all about him if you just patched things up! Then the person would recede to his normal place in your attentions. So if you are bitter, why don't you forgive? It's your choice, but it's an obvious choice, like getting surgery the doctor says you need.

Someone will say, "Yes, I'd like to forgive. I wish I could forgive, but I can't. What he did to me was so bad I just can't forgive him. I can't calm down and stop hating him." I understand. There are such things as emotional scars. And they are like physical scars in that they are a result of some blow inflicted from without, and they are there whether you want them or not. It may be that someone has so abused you that you have some emotional scar tissue. You cannot for the life of you bring yourself to feel kindly toward him. You wish you could, but you can't. But it is not your fault. That is the emotional scar. The other person has himself to blame. You are not to blame if you cannot bring yourself to obey the gospel injunction to forgive. But there is another gospel counsel you are capable of obeying, and the time has arrived for obeying it. You know it. It goes like this: "Love your enemies. Bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you."

What I mean is that you cannot wave a wand and transform feelings of hate and rage into feelings of sweetness and light. The human psyche just doesn't work that way. You will only damage yourself by that kind of self-deception and repression. But here is what you can do: you can decide to act without hate, to be as civil as you can be, even as helpful as possible, if occasion should provide the opportunity. The love that is commanded is not emotion but action. And often feelings accommodate themselves to action. Once you see yourself acting toward that person as if you didn't hate him, you may stop hating him! It is hard to act like friends and not feel like friends. The act reestablishes contact. The other person says a grudging or a surprised "Thank you," and you're on your way.

This is because it is easier to stay mad at the caricature of the other that your rage has drawn. The picture you carry about in your bitterness is like those propaganda posters during World War Two, when the Germans and Japanese were portrayed as devils and monkey-men. It is harder to hate someone like yourself. And in your bitterness you dehumanize the one you hate. If you didn't, you wouldn't be able to hate him so easily. And when you see, and speak to, and maybe help the other person, you will see the real person, not the caricature, and maybe you will find it harder to hate, easier to forgive.

Robert M. Price


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