Readings: Matthew 6.12-15 and Matthew 18.23-35
When I saw that I had been put down to preach today on forgiving others , I thought I’d got the most difficult of all our series on the Lord’s Prayer. Actually I was originally meant to preach some weeks ago on ‘Your kingdom come’, but in the event I wasn’t well enough to preach it, and Sue kindly took over. So now I’m stuck with the subject most likely to get a preacher labelled as a hypocrite, if she doesn’t practise what she preaches. And for me at least, this is one of the hardest things in Jesus’ teaching to practise. In preparation for this sermon I have spent time over the last few weeks trying to forgive everyone I have ever failed to forgive, and I’m not sure I’ve got very far. Your mileage may vary, as they say online.
On the face of it Jesus’ message is very clear and unequivocal. Our forgiveness by God is dependant on our forgiving others. If we don’t forgive, we will not be able to experience God’s forgiveness of our many failings.
But wait a minute. Does that mean God’s forgiveness of our sins is conditional? Is Jesus essentially saying, To earn God’s forgiveness you have to do something - you have to forgive others? It certainly looks like that. I can now hear Protestants all over the world, whose motto is ‘Sola fide’ or ‘faith alone’, squirming uncomfortably in their seats. Or at least they would be if they were all listening to me. Surely the only condition for forgiveness is that in Christ, God took our sins on God’s own shoulders and atoned for them? Does God’s forgiveness of us only apply if we have forgiven every one who’s wronged us?
This is one reason this subject is so scary. Which of us can say we have forgiven everyone who’s offended us, as Matthew 18 says, ‘from the heart’? I think there is a way round this, and I hope I’m not making excuses here. I’d like to suggest God’s forgiveness of us is truly unconditional. God is after all portrayed by Jesus as a loving father. As someone wrote recently on Ship of Fools website: ‘ I cannot conceive of disowning my child, whatever she might do, in any circumstances, for one second, ever. God's love for us is not less than our love for our children.’
Where the link with our forgiveness of others comes in, I think , is that while we are harbouring grudges and unforgiveness in our hearts, we are not in a state where we can truly experience God’s forgiveness of us. If our mental state is one of grudge-bearing, we will project that onto God, as it were making God in our own image as a hard man who reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he does not scatter. So in order to be able to see God’s forgiveness clearly, we have to be in a state of forgiveness ourselves. So in the parable of the unforgiving servant which we heard earlier, the master is fully prepared to forgive, but when the servant is unforgiving, he loses the benefit of the master’s forgiveness. And I think this parable also tells us that God’s forgiveness of us is meant to have results in our own behaviour to others. If knowing we are forgiven does not inspire us to forgive others, then perhaps we don’t understand God’s forgiveness very well at all.
That’s the only way I can make sense of the link Jesus makes between our forgiveness and God’s. But of course the story doesn’t end there. There’s the small matter of how we manage to forgive, and what counts as true forgiveness anyway? And are there any preconditions to our forgiveness of others?
Well there’s one definite precondition, and that is that to practise forgiveness, we have to have enemies. You can’t practise enemy love without having an enemy. Having enemies is an uncomfortable position to be in, and I’m in that position at the moment in relation to my son’s headmaster, who is depriving children with special needs of the support which is their legal right. So forgiveness is a very live issue for me.
Of course some of the people we need to forgive - perhaps most of them - will be our friends, and especially our family. The closer we are to someone, the more they can hurt us. And the closest of all to us is ourselves, and it’s not always easy to forgive ourselves for things we regret doing or saying.
The second possible precondition is repentance. We experience God’s forgiveness best when we turn away from whatever we are doing that is against God’s will. Is it the same between us and fellow human beings - do people have to repent before we can forgive them?
I don’t know if any of you listened to The Moral Maze on Radio 4 on Wednesday before last? It was all about forgiveness, sparked by the fact that the bomber of the Grand Hotel Brighton in 1974, Pat Magee, was appearing in the House of Commons alongside the daughter of one of his victims. If you remember, that was the bombing of the Tory conference, where five people were killed, and where Norman Tebbit’s wife was paralysed.
The ‘witnesses’ on the show were Paul Bowman, whose daughter Sally Ann was raped and murdered by a serial sex offender; Timothy Latchbourne, the grandson of Earl Mountbatten, who lost his grandfather and his twin in another IRA bombing, and has written a book about learning to forgive the bombers; Ruth Dudley Edwards, who has written a book about the Omagh bombing, and Peter Price, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, who has been involved in a lot of reconciliation work.
A lot of the discussion centred around the fact that while Pat Magee is no longer a terrorist, he has refused to repent of what he did and says in the same circumstances he might do it again. Most of the panel were very sure that forgiveness can only happen where there is repentance. One said that there were some crimes too heinous ever to be forgiven; and Paul Bowman said that even if his daughter’s killer expressed remorse, he would never forgive him, and that to do so would be disrespect to his daughter’s memory.
The one clear Christian voice on the programme was the Bishop, who said that even if there is no repentance, forgiving can be beneficial to the victim in coming to terms with what has happened. His experience also told him that forgiveness ahead of repentance, can also sometimes lead to a change of heart in the offender. What struck me most in what he said is this: ‘The ability to forgive is part of a life well lived.’ The unforgiveness of Paul Bowman stood out starkly against this, and it seemed to me that his inability to forgive was inflicting far more pain on him than it was on his daughter’s murderer.
Bishop Peter also made the link between our forgiveness and God’s, by saying ‘I forgive because I am forgiven’. As the panel points out however, this could be problematic, because for most of us, what we need to be forgiven of is nothing so dramatic as rape, murder or terrorism. As the parable of the Pharisee and the publican shows, it is sometimes harder for the ‘good’ religious person to understand forgiveness than it is for the out and out criminal. In the face of the glory of God, however, we all feel besmirched and in need of cleansing, as in the reading from Isaiah we had last week: ‘Woe is me I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts’ (Is 6.5).
But what is forgiveness anyway? Is it just an internal attitude? Or is it an objective change in the relationship between people? And if it’s the latter, does it mean releasing the perpetrator from all consequences or penalties of their actions? There was a lot of talk on the Moral Maze panel about the relationship between forgiveness and justice. Most of the panel agreed that forgiveness did not mean leaving crimes unpunished; and some said there could be no forgiveness until justice was done.
Which brings us to that other passage we heard from Matthew 18, which describes a process of confrontation and reconciliation between Christians. It’s interesting that Matthew’s order has Jesus advising this process before the parable of the unforgiving servant. Do we actually need to do something active, when we can, to put things right, before we can forgive? Certainly there is such a thing as forgiving, or apparently forgiving, too soon, when we haven’t really dealt with our anger. This can leave us still seething inwardly., with only a veneer of forgiveness. I’d like to suggest that if we read these two passages together, we can say that forgiveness is not an end in itself, it is a part of reconciliation. And perhaps sometimes it is not the precondition for reconciliation, but the result of it.
So where does that leave me, trying to forgive the Demon Headmaster for his offences against my child and others’ children, while at the same time chairing a campaign to stop him doing it? And as a result constantly hearing more of the appalling and probably illegal things he’s saying and doing, and being reminded how angry I am with him?
Well at the moment it leaves me struggling. I know I have to bless those who curse me and pray for those who persecute me, but what keeps coming into my head instead is ‘Woe to him who harms any of these little ones’ and part of me would love to tie a millstone round his neck and throw him into the sea.
The last person who gave me so much material for forgiveness, is now dead, and in some ways that makes it easier to forgive him, because I know for sure he’s not going to carry on doing the things that upset me. And if he was still alive, I’m afraid I suspect he would have gone on doing them.
As Hamlet said, ‘Ay, there’s the rub’. Unfortunately when Peter asked how often he should forgive his brother, Jesus didn’t say ‘Seventy times seven but only if he repents’. Nor did he say ‘490 and then you can beat him up as much as you like.’ Ultimately, if we are modelling our forgiveness on God’s forgiveness, we have to look to Romans 5.8: ‘God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us’. If God didn’t wait till we repented, can we do that to others?
Perhaps there’s some significance in the fact that Peter asks Jesus about his ‘brother’ meaning ‘brother in the Lord’. I think we could make a case that in Matthew 18 Jesus is recommending that with fellow Christians, we need a process of actively seeking repentance and change, not simply forgiving and forgetting. We should expect our Christian sister or brother, not to earn our forgiveness, but to respond to it with change. Perhaps with those who aren’t followers of Jesus, we cannot so readily expect repentance, so all we can do is forgive and pray for a change of heart. I can certainly try praying for my enemy the head master; and perhaps as a step towards forgiving him I should stop calling him the Demon Headmaster. I shall still however go on fighting his policies because they are harmful to vulnerable children.
So to sum up the main points, our forgiveness by God is not dependant on our forgiving others, but it is expected to lead to it; and we might need to forgiven others before we can really receive God’s forgiveness. Equally, our forgiveness of others is not dependant on their repentance, but it is meant to inspire their repentance; and when we are dealing with fellow Christians, we may need to confront their sin at the same time as forgiving it. Perhaps the most useful things said on The Moral Maze was that forgiveness is a process. Reconciliation is a process too, and the two need to go hand in hand.
In the bombed cathedral in Coventry, where I grew up, there is an altar with a cross on it made of blackened medieval nails salvaged from the ruins. On the altar there is a text in gold letters: Father, forgive. I’m sure it’s meant to remind us of the rest of that saying of Jesus from the cross: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’. Surrounded by the Gothic ruins, this clearly implies a reference to the Germans who bombed Coventry so heavily 55 years ago next month. Our country, of course, retaliated by dropping even more devastating bombs on Dresden and other cities. However since the new cathedral was built in the 60s, the cathedral has had an active ministry of international reconciliation, especially with Germany, and established a kind of scattered community of reconcilation called the Fellowship of the Cross of Nails.
If Jesus asked God to forgive the worst thing we have ever done to God, what right have we to withhold forgiveness from others? But please pray for me that I may be able not only to preach about it, but to do it. I’ve got a long way to go.