My sister Barbara could hold a grudge with the best of them. Once when we argued (I forget what the argument was about, that’s how important it was) she must have thought I had gotten the better of her, so she called me at two o’clock in the morning to continue the quarrel; she had to win! Of course, she had to win because she was always right, to disagree with Barbara over any matter of substance didn’t merely become a question of opinion, but of right and wrong; and if you didn’t come quickly to her way of thinking there must be something wrong with you! The battle escalated to one of good versus evil. My sister was wonderful, but she could also be difficult.
One battle she waged with tenacity, over the course of years, to the benefit of no one, was against her daughter Donna’s boyfriend Colin. Let me say at the outset; Barbara was wrong about this one: Colin was a great young man: handsome, charming, kind, loving, patient. I can’t say enough good about him. Unfortunately Barbara, an intellectual snob, didn’t think he was bright enough to date her brilliant daughter. Problem: Donna loved Colin. He made her happy. And while Colin may not have been dean’s list material, he was no fool and had skills and qualities that some of the kids on the dean’s list would have envied. Barbara saw none of this and made no attempt to disguise her disdain for Colin from anyone – Colin included. Tact was not my sister’s strong suit.
The battle went on for years, making for many uncomfortable moments and awkward (and sometimes ruined) family celebrations. In time, Colin learned to steer clear of Barbara, though Donna kept getting pounded by a barrage of maternal nagging about how much better she could do in the boyfriend department. Donna went away to college and later to med school, and Colin, while never completely out of the picture, drifted in and out of focus as other romantic interests caught her attention for the moment. None of them lasted, but Colin did. You see, he did (and does) love her. Nothing, however, could convince my sister that she was wrong about Colin – well almost nothing.
Forgiveness came hard to Barbara.
According to the 20th Century philosopher Hannah Arendt, Jesus of Nazareth was the “discoverer of the importance of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs.” She pointed to his words uttered to his executioners from the cross as being among the most important words ever spoken in the history of humankind: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Note the nature of Jesus’ forgiveness; it is pure grace. He doesn’t wait for an apology, nor does he seek to get even with his tormentors. His forgiveness comes as a gift with no strings attached.
That’s what our forgiveness should look like too. So let’s take closer look at Jesus’ practice of forgiveness since it is the pattern for our own as his disciples:
Jesus is proactive when he forgives. He doesn’t wait for an apology or even remorse; He lets go of all resentment. In doing so, Jesus frees not only his tormentors but also himself, from the prison of bitterness. When we forgive as the Lord forgives we hold no grudges and keep no account of wrongs. Christian forgiveness is an active decision to let go of all that we might hold against another: past hurts, disappointments, betrayals. It wipes the slate clean on its own initiative freeing us to live in the blessedness (beatitude) where we can “love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, …” (Luke 6:27).
When the Lord prays for his enemies, He shows us the way. It may be impossible to like those who have betrayed or hurt you, but you can still pray for them and for their wellbeing as Jesus does for his tormentors from His cross. Underlying this is Jesus’ tenacious refusal to give up on anyone, ever. In his ministry, he reached out to the marginalized and despised: tax collectors, prostitutes, and public sinners of all sorts. He had kind words for the hated Samaritans, rescued the woman caught in adultery whom the mob of righteous men was ready to stone to death. He saw potential in beggars, blind men, and thieves. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,” Jesus tells Nicodemus, “but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). Forgiveness is the first step in the saving process; before Jesus can save, he must forgive. All one needs, to receive the gift of forgiveness and salvation, is faith, In the Gospels, faith is not the assent of the mind to propositions, it is a relationship with Jesus: allowing him to be who he is and wants to be in our lives.
We must never forget that we who seek to follow the Lord were once far from him! The Lord has forgiven us and lifted from our shoulders the great weight of our sin and brokenness: this is the point of the parable of the two debtors (Luke 7: 36-39). The setting of the parable is the home of Simon the Pharisee, who had invited Jesus to dinner to take the measure of the young prophet causing such a stir. A horrified Simon watches as a woman, a known sinner, crashed the dinner and, weeping uncontrollably, washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and kept kissing his feet as she anointed them with ointment from her alabaster jar. What kind of prophet could Jesus be, Simon thought, if he doesn’t know “what kind of woman this is touching him.” Knowing Simon’s heart Jesus gives him the parable:
A man loaned money to two people: to one he loaned 500 denarii, and to the second 50. Both sums are considerable; a denarius is what an average worker receive for a day’s labor. The first sum, though, is ten times the second: it would take more than a year and a half to earn the money to repay this amount. Neither debtor could repay the debt, so the creditor forgave both. Who, Jesus asks Simon, will love this generous creditor more? The answer would seem to be obvious, but Simon hesitates: “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
Simon and the woman with the alabaster jar were both sinners, but only she knew it. Only she had accepted the gift of forgiveness Jesus offered to both of them. Jesus changed her life by forgiving her many sins and lifting the burden of shame and guilt from her forever. She was renewed and restored as a daughter of Abraham. , This woman was made new by grace. She expressed her gratitude and love with her tears, and her kisses, and the ointment in her jar.
Unlike the woman, Simon thought himself “righteous.” He observed the law, he tithed, he carefully kept himself ritually pure. Simon doesn’t realize how hard his heart is, how unkind and judgmental he has become. Simon offered Jesus none of the customary hospitality (water for his feet, an anointing of oil, a warm greeting) expected of a host. Thinking himself Jesus’ social superior, though, he didn’t bother with any of those niceties. The sinful woman put him to shame with her loving attention to Jesus; she did all that Simon should have done, and more.
Simon was every bit the sinner the woman was, his sins were different, and he was completely unaware of his need for great forgiveness. The parable asks Simon to examine his life and to appreciate forgiveness that is his for the taking too. We don’t know how he responded, we can only hope this was the beginning of his conversion to true faith.
We can only be grateful for what we are aware we have received. Our first challenge as disciples is to know that WE are forgiven sinners: no more guilt or shame or burden, the slate is wiped clean.
Writing to the Colossians, Paul says “forgive, as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you forgive one another. There’s the challenge: forgive AS WE HAVE BEEN FORGIVEN! For the disciple, there should be no more grudges, no recrimination, no coldness to those we think have “done us wrong.” Finally, we should give others the benefit of the doubt. Often those who hurt us “know not what they do.” They just do it. They are thoughtless, or clueless, or insensitive, but not necessarily malicious.
In 1996 the doctors diagnosed Barbara’s with Ovarian Cancer, stage four. Once diagnosed she had surgery, but the cancer was pretty far advanced. Barbara’s daughter Donna, at this time, was studying medicine in Chicago, but she flew back to New York to visit her mom. Colin picked her up at Newark Airport and drove her to the NYU Medical Center where the operation took place. We waited, seemingly endlessly, in the lounge for news of the operation. Finally, the lead surgeon appeared. Trying to put the happiest face he could on the failure of his healing arts, the doctor told the family: “We got most of it.” It would prove to have been not enough.
Healing was taking place there, though. You just had to know where to look.
Seeing Donna was a lift for Barbara’s spirit. Barbara asked how she got from the airport, and a little sheepishly Donna confided that Colin had picked her up. “Where is he now?” Barbara asked.”He’s outside in the waiting area; he didn’t think you’d want to see him.” My sister looks at her daughter; a tear glistened in her eye, and she said: “please ask him to come in. None of that matters anymore; it doesn’t matter at all.” In one short sentence she forgave, she asked for forgiveness and began the healing process for long-festering wounds.
The Lord gave his disciples a prayer in which he encourages us to ask “Our Father” to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” There’s a request and a promise in those words: a request for God’s abundant and gracious forgiveness, and a promise to be abundantly and graciously forgiving.
Forgiveness changes lives and restores people to friendship and community: it is mercy in action.
The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
— The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1