How hard it is to forgive

We all know that we are supposed to “forgive those who trespass against us”, because every time we say the Our Father that is what we pray; but to say it is one thing, to do it is another. Maybe it’s because for us to trespass is simply to walk on someone else’s land. It doesn’t sound too terrible, does it? But one of the traditional Spiritual works of mercy brings out its meaning more clearly, because it uses a stronger word. We are called to “forgive offences” and perhaps even more difficult “bear patiently those who do us ill”. Well I don’t know about you, but I can think of at least one incident in my life, where someone offended me so badly that I would still find it very hard even to meet him, let alone to indicate in any way that I had forgiven him.

 The temptation, if I met him, would be to find some way to make him look small. I wouldn’t resort to violence as some might, but I would use any other means at my disposal to make him know how angry I am about what he did. I hope you noticed that word “temptation”? … I hope I would resist the temptation to be nasty to him, that I would try to be friendly and kind, but I am not sure that I would succeed.

 That word “temptation” is, of course, central to our Gospel today. (Luke 4:1-13) Jesus too was tempted. But we tend to think that somehow it was easier for him because he was the Son of God. This is actually quite wrong. God chose to become fully human in Jesus. He did not pretend to be human, and so he had to face all the same problems that we face. He was “tested as we are” (Hebrews 4:15) and it was so hard, that (as we heard in the Gospel) he had to go away from everyone else as he struggled to resist these things.

We might also think that Nazareth, where he was brought up, was a quiet country village without the troubles and temptations of our modern life, where all sorts of things are now accessible to us through the computer. Again we would be mistaken. Nazareth was a town full of the hated foreign Roman soldiers; the archaeologists have even found their bathhouse! You can be sure therefore, that like any garrison town, all sorts of things were on offer, polluting the purer life that must have been there before the soldiers came.

So here is one temptation Jesus must have found very difficult to resist. He was tempted to use military power to put everything right. The evil voice within him said, “I will give you all this power and the glory of these kingdoms.” In other words, “I will not forgive these foreigners who have taken over my country. I will not forgive their awful offences. I will rise up as a great leader and smash them and their Empire to bits. Then I will rule the world and bring people peace.”  We know that he chose a different way – to bring a different kind of peace through love and service and sacrifice – but that was a hard road for him, as it is for us. He even forgave them whilst they killed him brutally on the cross.

 We could go further. Remember the story of the Roman soldier coming to Jesus for help? (Matt 8) Here is a time to make them look small. We are reminded here of one of the Corporal works of mercy –“to welcome the stranger.” And this man was not just a stranger, but one of the hated foreigners!  It’s interesting that Jesus has just crossed another barrier, and reached out and touched a hated leper. Now he reaches out to this foreigner, and simply says “I will come.”  Have you ever noticed that we are asked to echo the soldier’s reply every time we come to Mass “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof”. We are called, at that moment, to think of ourselves as the offenders, those who spoil the goodness that God wills for the world; and yet in his mercy he forgives our offences. So, every day, we are taught to pray “Forgive us our trespasses” and called to try to forgive and to love in the way God forgives and loves us. For God never says “No. Go away” when like that soldier we ask for his help. God, in his mercy always says “I will come”.

 It is only as we think of ourselves as offenders in need of God’s mercy, that we have any chance of forgiving others who offend us. It is only as we think of how God bears patiently with us as we go astray, that we have any chance of bearing those who do us ill.  Jesus always replies to his temptations by turning to God the Father. He says “You must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone” .That must be our way too.






Our sins are wiped away

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :-  We are now into a period in which we explore, as the first Christians had to do too, the implications of our redemption. What did it mean to them, what does it mean to us to claim that our sins have been wiped out, an idea so central both to our reading from Acts and from the First Johannine letter?

Quite clearly in Acts (3:13-15.17-19) sin looms large as a devastating blot on the people of Israel, as well as on them as individuals. The author, Luke, makes clear that in handing Jesus over to Pilate they have disregarded the God of their ancient faith, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Not merely did they hand Jesus over, but they did so knowing his innocence; “You who accused the Holy One, the Just One.” Moreover, they asked for the release of a murderer and deliberately killed the one Luke calls significantly, “The prince of life.” This is a truly devastating series of accusations; a betrayal of their religion; a triple perverting of justice; since the charges against Jesus were false and Pilate himself had declared him innocent, and they secured the release of a guilty murderer. How then could the death and resurrection of Jesus set this appalling situation to rights? Luke suggests two ways of making sense of all this. First, despite their guilt, they are in reality ignorant of the facts of Jesus’ true identity and secondly, they had failed to understand God’s way of acting for the salvation of humanity which he had continually foretold through his prophets – small wonder then that they made such a botch of things. When one considers the abysmal reception of its prophets by Israel, one cannot but agree. For most of them were harassed and rejected in their lifetimes and their message misunderstood, and when they had spoken of the suffering of the nation, Israel very rarely seemed to understand. Luke sees Christ’s sufferings as prefigured in the suffering of the nation – Israel – and it appears to be a story without end. The endless cycles of violence and hatred continue; the guilt and repetition of the same sad old offences just grinds on.

But what does Luke claim? “Now you must repent and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out.” The solution is clear and simple, and Israel and we too do not need to be stuck in a morass of endlessly repeated disasters, we are not doomed to be forever in this terrible situation. When we look at 1 John (2:1-5) a very similar message is emphasised: we do have a solution to our being eternally stuck in the rut caused by our repeated sinning. “I am writing this, my children to stop you sinning; but if anyone should sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ.” Moreover, John emphasises, he doesn’t just forgive our sins but those of the whole world. Now this is something that most of us find very difficult to take on board. But there it is, in black and white, by following the commands of Jesus, we are forgiven, the entire world of sin can be wiped out, and by this we can ‘know God’. What we have to do is accept that it really is this simple and allow it to happen. Instead, we prefer to hang onto our sins and continually mull over them and those of others, and when we do this we clearly do not have the opportunity to ‘know God’.

In his gospel, here Luke (24:35-48) the writer explores how precisely this comes about as he shows us one incident in the resurrected life of Jesus. Central to this is the Lord’s real bodily life: “Touch me and see for yourselves; a ghost has no flesh and bones as you can see I have.” To drive this message home further he eats a piece of fish so pointing once again to he risen bodily life. His true bodily life is central to his being with us, now and in eternity, knowing God is rooted in knowing Jesus who came back from the dead and has wiped out all the sin and sadness that stands in the way of each of us truly knowing God.

Luke further claims that Jesus went on to ‘open their minds’ to the correct understanding of the scriptures, here meaning the Old Testament with its laws and endless tales of woe and so linked himself to that story that his own suffering and death and resurrection was finally understood as God’s solution to the seemingly endless cycles of death and destruction that beset the creation. Critical to this message is our response – repentance by which sins are forgiven, a message not simply for Jews but for the whole world. Luke writes: “You are witnesses to this.” Clearly he does not simply mean that the disciples are those acknowledging the events of the resurrection, but its implications: that in true forgiveness and in accepting it totally, the world will be a changed place as the first disciples were changed people. We too can be numbered among those transformed human beings and so changed that we are utterly open to God the Father, sharers in his life.

Though we sin continually, God loves us endlessly.

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Julian of Norwich, the late 14th century mystic, always reminded people of the extent of God’s love. “Though we sin continuously, he loves us endlessly.” She knew what she was talking about, for the life of anyone in medieval Norwich at the time can only be described as grim. I was thinking about this amidst all the talk of taking up arms against Syria and the likely repercussions of any such action even to the extent of another world war. What could that possibly achieve? What kind of world would any of us then bequeath to our children? Even if we manage to negotiate a peaceful solution to this crisis, what form, what shape will it have?

When we forgive people either for crimes against the person; for serious infringements between states; or simply when the acrimony of divorce has taken its terrible toll on families and friends; it is always with provisos. Someone, or some country, is not fundamentally to be trusted; the hurt inflicted upon people remains; as we see from long enduring child abuse cases and where behavioural patterns long established seem to eat into the very soul, tarnishing our subsequent actions and relationships. It is extremely difficult to forgive, to turn ones back on the past and to strike out afresh. But that is not how God behaves.

The story of Israel, as recorded in the Book of Exodus, (Ex 32: 7-11.13-14), is the exasperating tale of the nation’s continual apostacy and the writers understanding of God’s magnanimity, his repeated and full forgiveness of Israel, time after time, sin after sin. Throughout their long and terrible history of failure, deceit and wickedness they remain his chosen, his beloved and God carries on his relationship with them quite regardless of their deserving or response.

St Paul’s experience of God’s love is similar. Paul (1 Timothy 12-17), knows his past self as a blasphemer, one who did all he could to injure and discredit the faith. He saw himself as the greatest of all sinners because he deliberately and actively sought out and destroyed Christian believers. What he subsequently experienced at conversion, was not God’s wrath or punishment, but rather his inexhaustible patience, both towards his own sins and those of others. When God forgives, contrary to our half-hearted efforts, he does so completely; the slate is wiped clean and we begin again, newborn, cleansed, with no dodgy past hovering over us to blight our futures.

Our gospel gives us some insights into what the love and forgiveness of God is like. (Luke 15:1-32). It begins with two tales of rejoicing. The first is over the shepherds recovery of a strayed lamb, not one might think a very significant event, for we are told of the 99 remaining sheep he had in his flock, and might well assume this was just inevitable, ‘natural wastage’. Those of you familiar with the stupidity of fell sheep and their capacity for self-destruction would probably just shrug your shoulders! Not so for the shepherd, who leaves the rest, presumably with other shepherds and dogs, and goes off on an extensive search for the stray and brings it back rejoicing, in fact, calling friends and neighbours to join his rejoicing and, far from whipping or dragging the sheep, bears it on his shoulders. He bears its weight and cares for it.

Our second parable relates to a woman with 10 drachma who, losing one, searches her house high and low until she recovers it. Now as it is evident that this woman was by no means well off, the money probably amounted to her entire savings and was therefore precious to her and accounts for the extent of her search and her joyful celebration, again with friends and family on finding her lost coin.

Both parables are then designed to evoke loss and gain for poor and ordinary people, for whom their loss would have been a serious affair. The keynote is the rejoicing at the recovery of lost items, which is wholehearted and fulsome. It’s the same with Jesus’ tale of the Prodigal Son, which more appropriately should be called the Loving Father. We discover that this father, abused and denigrated by his younger son, who treats him as one dead before his time and demands his share of the inheritance and behaves with a total lack of the filial respect which was de rigueur in ancient society, is in fact the one who had been on the look-out for the returnee all along. Far from punishing the renegade, and he could even have killed him, he treats him with immense love and respect, as if his return was the long awaited and best thing in the world. He brushes aside all the son’s apologies and treats him like royalty. Similarly, when the elder of the sons quite reasonably complains about his father’s treatment of his brother and compares it with his own unfair treatment by their father, he is given the most gentle of reprimands. After all, fathers in ancient society ruled the roost and could determine the treatment of different people at whim. Just as in the case of the younger son, it is the father who takes all the initiative, he goes in search of the angry elder brother and seeks to reconcile him to the situation, explaining the enormity of the meaning of the return of the younger man. One, who was ‘dead’, has returned to ‘life’. We cannot hope to replicate such forgiveness or such resurrection moments in our dealings with others, but the message of divine love is there; the true standard has been set and the knowledge we have of the God who loves us endlessly remains as a beacon in all our relationships, whether personal, national or international. We, godlike, are called to be blind to past defects and to see people only as God sees us, with the infinite hope and potential that we have in his eyes.