Ezekiel 12: 1-12 & Matthew 18.21–19.1
I can’t help but wish that I had the time to explore both of this morning’s readings with you. The first is a marvellous tale of how Ezekiel, prophet of God, acted out a little cameo of carrying his baggage. He did this to make people wonder, and so that they would ask him what he was doing…so that he could warn them that unless they mended their ways, they too would be carrying their baggage out of the promised land.
It’s a delicious little story, and it makes me wonder what dramatic cameos we could act out, as a warning to the people that we are called to serve in God’s name. Perhaps a cameo of me drowning in a bath-tub might warn people of rising sea-levels. Or perhaps putting Sandra in a hospital bed outside the front of the church would encourage more people to pay attention to COVID restrictions!
But, as I say, there isn’t time to do justice to both of these readings. And the Gospel reading for today is SO important, that we really mustn’t skip over it. It deals with the topic of forgiveness, of course.
As a priest, who has heard many a confession or life-story, I know that forgiveness is one of the hardest callings of the Christian faith. How can someone be expected to forgive another who has abused them, or stolen from them, or falsely accused them, or hurt them in a myriad of ways? How can we forgive the negligent parent whose drunkenness marred our childhood? How can we forgive the internet scammer who took all our savings?
And yet Jesus calls us to forgive those who trespass against us…as much as seventy times seven, he says metaphorically to Peter. He is talking, on this occasion, in the context of a church fellowship. Note that Peter’s original question is ‘if a member of the church sins against me, how many times should I forgive him?’. And this is because Jesus knows that a lack of forgiveness can completely wreck a church fellowship.
I’m sure all of us have come across those tragic stories of how a person has left a church – or stopped going to church altogether - because of a thoughtless word or action on the part of another church member. Some of these occasions can seem trivial to us. For some reason, the more trivial stories always seem to revolve around flower ladies who have been slighted by the Vicar, or choir masters who go to war with the PCC! Arguments over pedestal arrangements or the volume at which hymns are played can quickly build into deep and abiding resentments…until one side or the other bursts, and resigns.
The trouble is, it’s usually the person who walks off in a huff who suffers the most. They are left with their seething resentment, however justified, whilst the rest of the community usually heaves a sigh of relief that the situation has been resolved. The church moves on to the next challenge…but the person who resigned is left feeling hurt and angry, and possibly never darkens the door of any church ever again. And they lose out on all the potential for spiritual, intellectual and moral growth that membership of the church would have offered them.
And that is why forgiveness is so important. To forgive someone is, quite literally, to give up one’s right to feel aggrieved or hurt by another. When we do that, we deny the person who has wronged us any power over our own emotions. We take away their ability to hurt us, or damage us in the longer term. Altogether.
In fact, true forgiveness means giving up the right to feel hurt before the hurt even has a chance to take root in one’s soul. To forgive is to give up the hurt before it can take hold.
But does this mean that the person being forgiven gets away with whatever they have done wrong? Well, perhaps – especially for the little things…the annoying word, the careless insult. By forgiving someone for that, we rise above them. We see them for what they are…symptoms only of that most common of diseases…the disease of being a failing human being.
But what about the really big things…the systematic abusers, the scammers, the murderers? Well, for such people, Jesus offers further advice. In Matthew chapter 10 he advises that we need to be ‘as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves’. If I know that someone has the potential to cause great harm to another, I have a duty and a responsibility to do all I can to prevent that harm. So it is only right that I must, and should, involve the appropriate authorities in stopping them. But never out of revenge. The gentle dove releases the hatred. But the wise serpent makes sure – as sure as they can – that the wrongdoer is prevented from causing further harm to anyone else, and suitably punished for the wrongdoing they’ve already wrought.
This is why we have a justice system, after all. Having forgiven the wrong-doer, so that they no longer have the power to hurt us, we hand over the responsibility for punishment and correction to the society in which we live. There, appropriate punishment is meted out, without passion, without hatred. Just punishment is handed down, but not by the person who was harmed. Not least so that the harmed person is not further damaged by committing some act of violence or retribution themselves.
So, may you find the strength to let go of the hurt that others have done to you. May you release your heart from the resentments it holds onto, so that your heart may fly free, and straight into the heart of the forgiving God of Love.
Father, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
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