22 Trinity 2008

The Twenty Second Sunday After Trinity
October 19, 2008
Verse 21 & 22 of St. Matthew 18:21-35
‘No Preconditions!’

Did you know that earlier, in his 6th chapter, St. Matthew records nearly parallel words from Jesus’ mouth, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. And of course the supreme prayer that Jesus himself taught us to pray, The Lord’s Prayer, includes asking God’s forgiveness for ourselves, as we ourselves have forgiven others.

I’ve heard it said several times by our critics, ‘Christians are the least forgiving of all religious people.’ Would you agree, or disagree, with that assessment? Here is the ‘litmus test’ regarding the accuracy of the accusation. Ask yourself this question: Is there at least one person who has hurt or offended you that you refuse to forgive?

Of course there may be extenuating circumstances. It could be, the person does not realize that what they did was wrong or hurtful. Or, the person has not owned up to, or refuses to own up to, the fact that what they did was wrong or hurtful. Or, they have not asked for, or they feel they have no need of, your forgiveness. Or they are not sorry for what they did. Or, they have no intention of righting the wrong. Or they have no intention of making restitution for the wrong or injury they inflicted.

Whatever the extenuating circumstance may be – any or all of the above – we feel that until they admit their mistake, and show evidence of contrition, and ask for forgiveness there will be no forgiveness forthcoming from us. Does this mean then we are unforgiving people?

Am I mistaken by saying I heard our Lord lay no such preconditions upon forgiveness? What he says in reply to Peter’s question as to how many times Peter must forgive a brother that has wronged him, is forgiveness is to be granted without limitations. ‘Seventy times seven,’ is the way Jesus chose to articulate it. How would anyone know when the 490th incidence of a frequently repeated offense occurred? There would be no way of knowing, unless one were keeping a meticulous record on the other party, and totaled the numbers periodically so as to avoid accidentally overlooking the 490th time the offense occurred. Do you keep such records?

Our Lord was not suggesting we keep score. He was suggesting in fact that we let it go and forgive the offender every time the offense occurs. Not 7 times, but by stipulating ‘70 x 7,’ every time! He did not lay any preconditions upon our forgiveness of others.

Or have we misunderstood what he said in the conclusion of the parable he told Peter? The parable ended, ‘And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if you from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.’ The only condition that I hear our Lord lay down, is not upon the offender, but upon the one who was hurt or offended: the one who was the recipient or victim of the trespass. The offended party has no choice but to forgive the offending party; and it must come, not merely from the lips, but from the heart! That is a very heavy commandment he lays on us. Surely Jesus is being unrealistic. He is not taking our feelings into account.

Yet we read in St. John’s gospel of how our Lord told his disciples that unless they eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, they have no life within themselves. Now the earliest disciples were exclusively Jews, and as such kept not only the Sabbath, but tried also to keep the Law as well, which included the Kosher law. That means they would not eat anything that was cloven hoofed, not eat any shellfish, or anything that had been strangled, nor would they eat the blood of animals: much less human flesh and blood!

The very thought of eating Jesus’ flesh or drinking his blood would be abhorrent to them and we are told that many of them, up to this point having followed him, now turned away and no longer followed him. It is important to note that Jesus did not run after them, nor call out to them to come back, or apologize or refine what he had said. He did not suggest that he was speaking only metaphorically! He meant exactly what he had said! And his words cost him many of his disciples.

Please note that at the conclusion of this morning’s gospel account, Jesus does not apologize or rephrase what he has just said to Peter. He doesn’t say to Peter, ‘Tell you what; make that 2 x 7 – that should suffice.’ Nor does he drop the ending from his parable, because it applies not only to Peter, but also to us. Nor does he retreat from saying that true forgiveness must originate from the heart!

So, if some of us find his standard unrealistic, we should probably leave Jesus now and run to catch up with the crowd who two thousand years ago found his words about his Body and his Blood so offensive, and thought it asked too much of them to believe or to practice. Jesus never asks us to do anything that he himself has not already done, or was prepared to do when the situation so required.

When he was being crucified, AS they were hammering in the nails into his outstretched hands and feet, he FORGAVE his executioners. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Did you catch that? For they know not what they do!

Jesus does not say, Father, forgive them if they realize what they are doing, or if they acknowledge what they are doing is wrong. Father, forgive them if they are sorry for what they are doing, or if they confess the sinfulness of what they are doing. Father, forgive them if they repent of it and promise to desist from doing it ever again, or if they promise to make restitution.

He lays no such preconditions upon his fierce executioners: he simply, completely, and entirely without reservation or condition, from his heart forgives them. And they are forgiven! They were thoroughly as forgiven as the good thief was, who turned to Jesus from his own cross to ask Jesus to remember him when Jesus would come into his heavenly Kingdom.

Now, we are not informed whether the executioners accepted Jesus’ forgiveness. If they refused or mocked his forgiveness, they would perhaps then not be with Jesus or the good thief in the heavenly Kingdom.

On the other hand, one would hope and pray that it would affect them. If not at that moment, perhaps at some later stage in their lives they would reflect back on the horrific event at which they were integral players; having crucified the Son of God and Lord of life.

Would they eventually realize what they had done, and to Whom they had done it? Perhaps! Would they acknowledge in their conscience what they had done was wrong? Well, Perhaps! Would their acknowledgement lead them to contrition for what they had done? Perhaps! Would they confess their sinful participation? And repent of their participation? Perhaps! Would they wonder whether it was humanly possible to in some way make restitution to God? Surely they would realize that it is not possible to make restitution to God for our sins. What then could they possibly do? They could accept the forgiveness that Jesus gave them.

When John Paul II was felled in St. Peter’s Square from the bullets of an assassin’s gun, he almost died that day, and lay not far from death’s door for several days thereafter. During the days of his long recuperation, the stricken Pope determined that his duty as a loyal follower of Jesus Christ required that he forgive the assassin, and that he do so in person. The Vatican and the Italian government arranged for the Pope to meet the assassin in the prison cell in which he was confined.

The Pope laid no preconditions upon the meeting. He simply wanted to meet the man who had made the attempt on his life, to tell him that he forgave him. The two men met as scheduled. The Pope spoke with the man briefly and then assured him that the act and its perpetrator had been forgiven, and the Pope told the man that he had prayed for him each day of his recuperation.

He laid no conditions or preconditions upon the forgiveness he freely granted. The man responded, telling the Pope tearfully, he was very sorry for what he had done to him. And the Pope accepted the man’s tearful apology and blessed him.

Terrorists usually boast of what they’ve done. They want the credit for their actions. When was the last time you heard of ANY terrorist apologizing to ANYONE for the injury, misery or death he has inflicted on others? This terrorist did! The Pope had not scolded him. He freely from his heart had forgiven him! And the man responded warmly to what was so loving and generous an offer.

Retaliation visited upon the offender does not bring the offender to repentance or to God. Just so, refusal by the offended to forgive an offense committed against them will not bring the offender around to contrition or around to God. Conversely, employing Jesus’ method DOES bring people to a realization, and even to their knees and to reconciliation, not simply with God, but reconciliation with the offended brother as well.

If we choose not to forgive until the other person asks for our forgiveness, the offense will eat away within us like a cancer, as one awaits the apology (which may never come). Holding anyone in a state of un-forgiveness is the same as ‘holding a grudge.’ And holding grudges against others can eventually make ones self, ill! It is far better to forgive, and pray for the offender, because this helps bring about inner healing.

To forgive is to live, not simply because of the disposition of our soul, but also because of the literal physiological changes that occur in the body, as a result of forgiveness. Actually, to forgive is beneficial to one’s own health and heart. In fact, it just could save your life. What we are saying is that, unconditional forgiveness is pure. It releases you from the burden of waiting on a fallible fellow human to bring you closure and to release from your hurt.

What about the offender? What if he still has not asked for our forgiveness, or never does? That doesn’t make him un-forgiven, just unrepentant. And we know his own healing won’t begin until he owns up to what he has done. What I can do, is ACCEPT the unconditional forgiveness of God for myself, and pass it on to others; because it is that acceptance that can change the heart and heal the wounds and secure the future and lead us eventually into the kingdom of Heaven.

But first forgiveness must be given its chance to work on the heart, both of the offended brother and the offender, the brother trespassed against and the trespasser. And that is why Jesus forgives without preconditions: because such gives HOPE to ALL! When Jesus forgave you and me from the Cross, there were no preconditions laid upon us. He simply asks us to ACCEPT what he did for us ALL. His forgiveness is all encompassing, its for ALL people, its for ALL time. And it is there for you and me to share with others, in turn without preconditions.

Does that fact make you want to turn away from him because of the weighty demand it places upon each one of us to forgive ALL OTHERS UNCONDITIONALLY. Remember what has been said by our critics: Christians are the least forgiving of all religious people. That is simply not true. But then, examining our selves more deeply, perhaps it is true? Father, forgive us, for (much of the time) we know not what we do!