Lent 5- Forgiveness

“Forgive us our debts/trespasses as we forgive those who are indebted to us/have trespassed/sinned against us.  Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  

For if you forgive those who sin* [make a mistake, offend] against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 

But if you do not forgive their sins [mistakes, false steps, errors] your Father will not forgive your sins.”  

(Matthew 6: 12-15)
  • Greek; paraptomata – is the word used. It has a heavy connotation of owing a contracted debt you must pay.  It implies that the only way to get off is for the debt to be forgiven, written off, by the one to whom it is owed.]

Last time we spoke of temptation and what Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness, dogged by the devil and temptation, teach us about ourselves and our own struggle with our own demons.  Just to recap: Jesus’s “demons”, the things the Tempter thought he could most entice him with, were (1) worry about the provision of the most basic things, (2) achieving superstar religious recognition, and (3) achieving worldly power, fame, fortune.

#1 is about the stuff it takes to make life work from day to day.  The Tempter says, “Hey dude, you’re famished, literally dying of hunger.  So if you are the Son of God, then just turn these stones under your feet into bread, and voilà, problem solved!  No big deal; just a little perk for being God’s Son!  Who’s to know, eh?”  But Jesus refused to use his special position, power, and status to gain an advantage and take the easy way, answering, “Man shall not/cannot/must not live by/on bread [the physical stuff our bodies demand] alone, but by every word that comes from God’s/the Creator’s mouth.”

#2 is about achieving superstar religious recognition and status by showing off how spiritual and totally lined up you are with all that people expect from a Messiah – a really spiritual person.  The Tempter smarms, “Hey Jesus, if you’re really God’s Son, the promised Messiah, make a dramatic arrival on the scene by throwing yourself off the summit of the Temple in Jerusalem.  After all, doesn’t on of the prophecies say that you could throw yourself down and God would send his angels to catch you so you wouldn’t even stub your toe?  Imagine the impact!  Everyone would know immediately how great and anointed you are and follow you just like that.  No need to go through all the performance-criteria to convince the big-shots of the Temple and Sanhedrin.  Even the Zealots and hothead fanatics would be convinced!”  Jesus rejected this too, saying, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” 

#3 – Finally, the Tempter plays his last Ace.  “All right then.  If those two things don’t appeal to you, and you really are anointed and appointed by the Holy One to be Israel’s last King and the world’s Saviour, I can spare you a lot of struggle and war and grief and pain and suffering – not only for yourself, but for everyone else too.  See, I actually have control of things down here, and I can hand it all over to you – today if you like!  Remember how Adam and Even listened to me?  When they did, they gave me control.  Even you have to admit that.  And today I’m offering that control to you.  All you have to do is one little thing – not very hard, really.  Just bow to me and worship me, just this once, just for a second or two.  And I’ll just fade into the background and let you have it all, all the power and glory and fame and acclaim.  Just think of it, man!  No wars!  No slaughters!  Just take the throne and I’ll get them all to bow to you.  I’ll do all the finagling and convincing.  How could that not be a good thing, huh?  Even your Father would have to agree this is a great thing – to stop all the wars and selfish slaughters and personal ambition all these human rulers operate by.  Just a bow to me!  Just this once, eh?”  And Jesus answered the Tempter, “Get away from me, Satan.  It is written, “You shall worship only the Lord your God, and Him alone shall you serve.””

Jesus defeated the Tempter in these archetypical allurements.  We all must face the specific manifestations they take in our own lives.  He was modeling for us that there are no shortcuts to a real relationship with the Creator.  He was portraying the character of what we each will face as we travel our roads.  We will struggle and worry about provision; we will seek spiritual wisdom, or at least the answer to the meaning of who we are, what this reality is, what it’s about, and whether there is anything beyond what our material perceptions tell us.  We will be greatly drawn to make that meaning a question of what we can achieve and become noted for in the eyes of the world (kosmos, in Greek).  But what Jesus shows us is that it all turns on knowing our Creator first and foremost, and recognizing our own personhood as a gift, given out of pure love from Him/Her, and for which we are accountable.

As he said more than once, it all boils down to two basic things: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.  And love your neighbour (fellow humans) as you love yourself.”  Loving God is not a thing done in the abstract, but in the world where you live.  It is an inner orientation which flows out by loving the other humans God made in his/her own image, just like He/She made you.  And that also extends to loving the Garden of Planet Earth He/She made you and me to inhabit and look after.  All the Creator’s creatures and creations are, in that way, our “neighbour” too.”

However, we all stumble and fall and make mistakes and act, sometimes, in terribly selfish ways.  But the Creator is concerned enough about that to have sent His/Her special envoy, or Son, to show you the way out, in fact, to be the way out.  The Creator is ready and willing to forgive your mess-ups, even the really bad ones.  But it’s not just about getting a free pass, no matter what you do.  There is a promise that you will be forgiven almost anything, no matter how gross, terrible, atrocious, etc.  Just one exception – something called by Jesus “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” – which we will not deal with here and which is much debated to this day.  No one is quite sure what that is, even since the very earliest days of the Jesus Movement.

There’s this one other thing too, a thing that doesn’t get much attention in our eagerness for total, unconditional forgiveness and love.  The problem is that “unconditional love and forgiveness” cannot be found in the record of what Jesus said.  As we said, it’s not that he, and God, are not willing to completely forgive everything you could ever do wrong, (except that mysterious blasphemy of the Holy Spirit).  But there is one condition attached to my receiving full pardon.  You can see it in the citation that stands at the head of this post.  It’s how we forgive those others who have done us wrong.  After all, they don’t really deserve to be forgiven; you just don’t know how badly they hurt me!

Our human automatic fall-back position is “tit-for-tat”, this-for-that – revenge, in other words.  You did me wrong, so I want justice.  You deserve to be punished and hurt just like, or with the same measure which, you did to me – even more!  (After all, it was me, the most important person who’s ever lived, that you hurt!)  Jesus’s statement is very sobering and powerful: “If you do not forgive their sins [mistakes, false steps, errors] your Father will not forgive your sins.”  If I won’t forgive, neither will the Creator.  If I forgive, so will He. 

I really wish that verse wasn’t there.  It feels like a sword of Damocles hanging over my head.  Especially if I get to the end of my journey and have stubbornly held tight to my “right to be avenged, to demand justice.”

That’s why Jesus, citing the Hebrew Scriptures repeatedly, says things like, “Go and learn what this means; I (the Lord) desire mercy over sacrifice,” and, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities (nasty deeds), then who could stand?”  Who has more right to demand justice than the Creator, whose creation has been violated, raped, pillaged, defaced, wasted, and ruined since humans first rebelled against His/Her offer to live in relationship and harmony with Him/Her?  Who has more right to say to all of us who have mistreated and abused our fellow humans made in the Creator’s image just as much as I and you are, “You can’t be my son or daughter after denying that other people are by the way you treat them and think about them and reduce them to mere animals or things by the way you act towards them?”

But instead, this all-loving, all-merciful Creator comes to us in Person, even as a human Person, and says, “You can be fully forgiven.  Just forgive one another as I forgive you, and accept that if you hold unto me, I’ll see you through into God’s eternal Kingdom.”

Refusing to forgive one another is retaining the posture of rebellion, of making myself judge and jury – in other words, still claiming the prerogative of being my own little god, to make the final decision about right and wrong, good and evil, just like that original lie of the old Tempter.

There we have it!  Full circle!  The Tempter again: “See, honey, you can’t trust God to do what’s right.  You have to judge right and wrong for yourself, because that Creator is just too damn lenient.  You’ll never get justice [vengeance] if you rely on Him/Her.  Take it from me!  I know!  He never gave me the recognition I deserved.”

We are nearing the end of this Lenten season.  Good Friday is just ahead, followed by Easter Sunday.  Good Friday – so ironic!  A “good” day – on which the ultimate innocent and best Person who ever walked the Earth was taken and convicted of. . . .  what exactly was His crime again?  Pilate, his judge, said, “Why?  What evil has he done?  I find nothing deserving a death sentence.”  But then he sent him to be executed anyway – not in a nice, clean, modern “humane” way, but after horrible torture and unspeakable abuse.  And in the most excruciating fashion ever designed by the cruel refinements of human ingenuity to inflict pain and suffering on another human.

But even as he was drawing his last breaths, he asked the Creator for mercy, not justice, on all those who had done all this to him.  “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”  Incredible!  After being beaten, spat upon, whipped to within an inch of his life, mocked, and abandoned even by his best friends: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”

First there were the ordinary people, soldiers and just regular folks – who screamed for his blood, mocked and spat on him, even as they worried about Temptation #1 about how they would meet the needs of the day. 

Then there were all the religious types and claimants of righteousness before God/the Creator.  Temptation #2:  Do you hear them saying, “Hey Lord!!  See how well we keep your laws, do the sacrifices, perform the ceremonies, pray and give a good example of how to live right?  Pretty impressive, eh?  So we really deserve to be in your Kingdom, right?  And look, this wretched poser and quasi-Messiah, we just got rid of him for you.  He would have undermined everything we’ve done for You.  He kept saying that none of our stuff impresses You, that all you want is to love us, have us love you back, and love one another.  But we know it takes a lot more than that!”

And then there was that Roman Governor and those Herodians saying (Temptation #3): “We can’t let a dude like this become too popular.  His whole message will undermine our whole message – telling people that their true King is God, the One God, the Creator, and that he, Jesus, is the one true Anointed and appointed spokesperson and embodiment of the Creator’s actual Person.  He’s telling them that all the power and glory of Empire is an illusion and only leads to oppression and disillusionment.”

So there isGood Friday, and there is Jesus, hanging by his nail-pierced wrists and bleeding out through the slashes and gashes of his head-to-toe, front-and-back flogging, the thorn piercings through his scalp, and the spike holes though his wrists and ankles, his face swollen from the punches and blows of his mocking captors.  Even then he says to his Father from the Roman cross, “Father, forgive them.  For they don’t know what they’re doing.”

So if I want forgiveness, I’d better remember whom I have not forgiven in my self-righteous, petty-god clinging to my “right to justice”.  I’d better consider what Jesus says about God’s forgiveness to me.  I’d better realize that his stipulation has no loop-hole that allows me to claim the right to vengeance.  I’d better put this in front of me like a moral and spiritual GPS: “But if you do not forgive their sins [mistakes, false steps, errors] your Father will not forgive your sins.”

Yikes, friends!  Just YIKES!!  It’s time to give it up – that old grudge, that “right” to be right; to “have justice”, seek vengeance.  If you insist on straight justice against that person, you are insisting on it against yourself too.  That’s what it means.  So choose, remembering that Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means, mercy triumphs over justice!”  But to receive mercy, you have to extend mercy – real, undeserved, pure grace mercy. I would much rather have God’s total mercy than cling to my (illusionary, after all) right to demand justice.  And the Creator would much rather give you full mercy and pardon than leave you standing naked before the Judgment Seat where the Son will sit when it comes down to the last and ask you, “So why didn’t you forgive?”

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