Please read the Scripture passage a few times before reading this reflection
Forgiveness from the Heart
As followers of Jesus we know that forgiveness is very important but perhaps we are not entirely sure why it is so important or why it is a central aspect of Jesus’ teaching. Forgiving others can be very difficult especially when we feel so hurt or so angry or so betrayed or so violated. It isn’t easy to get on with everyone especially with those in our closer relationships or with others in the church. The early church were challenged by forgiveness too.
In Matthew’s Gospel Peter poses the question to Jesus, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Then Jesus tells the parable known as the unforgiving servant. This is a strange parable. There are two points to note before going deeper into exploring what it means to forgive from the heart.
Firstly, the numbers used in Peter’s question and Jesus’ answer do not refer to the amount of times one should forgive. Some theologians think that the Rabbis in Jesus’ day taught that one only had to forgive a person three times– three times and that’s it, shake the dust off your feet on them, forget them, have nothing to do with them. However, the teaching of the day was not about how many times one ought to forgive, rather the teaching said that if one repented one need only to ask to be forgiven up to three times for a particular offence. One should not have to ask a fourth time.
How quick we are to put limits on our expectations of others and not just how many times we should forgive others. For example we say to our children, “I am going to count to three and when I get to three I want you to pick up your toys or clothes off the floor if not … (then we follow with a proposed punishment as a consequence). We then very slowly count to three and usually the children do what is asked. If they don’t act, the consequence follows. How often do we say in our minds, “I will give him/her three chances and if there is no change I won’t bother with them any more. This thinking is part of our lives, its part of our unconscious thinking. It is like we have been trained into it. It may work on little children but not when trying to maintain loving personal relationships or church community relationships. Imagine if we applied that rule to our friendships or even in our churches.
The number seven in the Bible is linked with completeness and perfection. When Peter asked if he should forgive seven times perhaps he was asking when is enough, when is righteousness fulfilled? 70 times seven is not 490 times rather it stands for absolute perfection. Is it possible to be in that place of perfection? What does that mean?
The second point I want to make is about parables. The parables of Jesus were never straight forward. They were never clear explanations of truth. Parables contained riddles, exaggeration and paradox. The greatest paradox in this parable is the portrayal of a human king as one who shows incredible mercy and forgiveness and the portrayal of God as one who will torture and endlessly punish those who do not forgive from the heart. When we come to the end of this parable we could easily deduce that this is how God will treat us too if we do not forgive. However, a key word to remember here is the word ‘heart’ (more about that later).
The parable begins with a human being, a king, who demands that his servants settle all their outstanding accounts with him. When one of his debtors is unable to pay, the king orders the man and his wife and family and possessions to be sold. But when the man begs for time an incredible twist occurs in the parable - the king has pity on him and forgives the man all his debts - without any conditions. Human kings were not known for their mercy. They held power by being ruthless and demanding complete and unquestioning obedience from their subjects and especially those in positions of power. However, the very same man who has been forgiven does not act in the same merciful way to those who are in debt to him. He does the opposite and throws the debtor into prison. This is a second twist in the story. It is not expected. How does someone who experiences being in a place where he is totally free of the enormous debt he owed the king then impose such an enormous punishment on one who owes him such a small debt in comparison? Yet is this not how we often act? We accept the forgiveness of those who forgive us for the big things we may have said or done but do we always extend forgiveness to those indebted to us? Do we not hold grudges for some minor things too?
The parables of Jesus can contain huge paradoxes. This parable should be carefully read and reflected upon. In this parable we should not confuse God with earthly kings nor earthly kings with God, nor confuse the kingdom of God/kingdom of heaven with the kingdoms and ways of this world. It is highly unlikely that a human king will act in a loving and kind way instead he will be ruthless in getting his way. It is impossible that God will act like a human king because God is love. The parables are there to challenge us to enter God’s kingdom and live with God’s life.
We step in and out of different worlds, between the world of the kingdom of God, a world of forgiveness and freedom and a human world that is dominated by indebtedness and by unforgiveness. The parable blatantly exaggerates something that we may not be conscious of: that we may not be giving people a chance. Even if we do give people two or three chances or more it is always limited by number and time. In our world we are in a place of unconsciously being unforgiving. When we are reminded as followers of Jesus that we must forgive we move to a place of conscious forgiveness but the place of seventy times seven is a place beyond our comprehension. It is a place where we are unconsciously forgiving. It is a place where there is no thought of retribution, a place where there is endless mercy. It is forgiving from the heart, a heart at one with the heart of God - it is the heart of God. How do we move from unconscious unforgiveness to unconscious forgiveness?
In a recent study of Forgiveness from a Wisdom perspective I was surprised to learn that there is no exact term for forgiveness in either Buddhism or Hinduism. Rather than holding the thought of the need to forgive consciously in our minds the ancient wisdom in both Hinduism and Buddhism seem to teach that in the flow of loving others, people are unconsciously forgiven. In loving others from the heart there is none to forgive, only people to love. Forgiveness becomes no longer an issue for us because we love from the heart.
Rather than being mindful of being forgiving, which is forgiving from the mind, true unconditional forgiveness unconsciously flows from the heart. How do we make this move from mind to heart and perhaps to where mind and heart are in harmony? Why forgive from the heart? Forgiving is reflecting who God is: endlessly merciful and patient and kind. Can we mortals put ourselves in a place where we can channel God’s endless mercy? Can we at least try? We begin our search with a prayer…
God merciful and kind, teach us to love from the heart, to let your love flow from us to all people, to all beings and to all things. As you freely forgive us our sins help us to freely love others and in loving them may they find forgiveness for themselves. Help us to take the words of Jesus deep within our hearts and let the wisdom of Jesus grow there in abundance. Show us the way to this place of the heart, this place of unconditional love. May our lives flourish with life. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.
Photo: Cahir Castle, County Tipperary, Republic of Ireland
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Minister of Campsie Earlwood Clemton Park Uniting Church Congregation