This weekend is a special time for our Jewish brothers and sisters. At sunset Friday they began celebrating Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashana is not a one-day celebration. It is the beginning of Judaism’s High Holy Days, which end with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
These high holy days are also called the 10 Days of Repentance. It is a time for reflection, for examining one’s conscience, amending one’s ways, and seeking forgiveness for the wrongs done against God and neighbors.
Yom Kippur is specifically the day to atone for sins against God, and to ask God’s forgiveness. The days before it are times to atone for and seek forgiveness for sins against one’s neighbors. It is considered an imperative to repair the harm against other humans before Yom Kippur.
“If one does not remove hatred from their heart of Yom Kippur, their prayers are not heard,” one commentator said.
Another Jewish writing puts it this way, “Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray.”
Jesus was, of course, Jewish, and so it should be no surprise that forgiveness is at the heart of his teachings. We hear that today in our Gospel reading.
“Peter came and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often shall I forgive? As many as seven times?”
“Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.’”
That is one of more than 150 scriptural references to forgiveness..
Over and over again we are told that God has forgiven our sins and so we are commanded to forgive others.
The mandate to forgive is clear, but the reality of forgiving is not so easy.
We know we should forgive. We know there is value in letting go of cherished hurts. But many of us all too often find it impossible to do what scripture says we must.
And hearing Jesus’ words today, that we should be willing to forgive someone who has wronged us as many times as necessary can make us feel even worse by making us feel guilty about our inability to forgive.
When we find ourselves in that situation we are not alone.
“The inability or refusal to forgive has become one of the greatest destructive elements in the modern world, both for individuals and communities,” says New Testament scholar William Countryman in his book, Forgiven and Forgiving.
“We hold grudges,” he says. “We seek revenge. We cultivate victimhood as our identity. We let the past rule the present. We tend to make war more easily than we make peace, to harbor or even treasure the wrongs done to us more easily than we turn them loose.”
Forgiveness is not easy, Countryman admits, but we make it even harder when we think of it primarily as a duty, something that we should somehow be able to force ourselves to do.
“However hard we have worked over the centuries to reduce Christian faith to a list of rules – be neat, clean and obedient; never miss church; say your prayers; read your Bible – it is really about something much more fundamental and life-giving than duty,” Countryman says.
Christian faith is about changing your heart and mind. That’s what makes forgiveness possible. The point is not to acquire a technique of forgiving or to drive ourselves harder through sheer will power, but to acquire a whole new way of relating to God, the world, and one another.
That is something that the forgiven slave in today’s gospel reading is not able to do. The slave owes the king 10,000 talents – or as Bible commentaries tell us, about 165,000 years’ worth of wages.
The point is, the slave owes an astronomical amount, a debt that can never be paid.
But when the slave begs for mercy, the king astonishingly forgives the entire debt. One would think such an extravagant act of generosity and kindness would transform the slave’s life.
But it doesn’t. Instead, the forgiven slave immediately goes out and demands repayment from the one who is in debt to him.
The heart and mind of the forgiven slave have not been changed. And so even though his debt is cancelled, he remains in bondage to the past.
It seems obvious what the forgiven slave should do. But in reality, he is not so different from any of us. Every Sunday we are reminded that our sins – all our sins—are forgiven by a God of astonishing love and mercy.
And yet all too often we do not let the forgiveness we have received transform our lives; we do not let God’s generous spirit give us a new spirit of generosity.
In our struggles to forgive, it is helpful to remember what forgiveness is and is not.
The dictionary defines forgiveness as “granting pardon without harboring resentment.”
Forgiveness does not mean “making nice;” it does not mean pretending that someone didn’t really mean to hurt you, or be mean. Sometimes people do intend to cause harm.
Forgiveness also does not mean denying that a wrong has been done. All too frequently people have remained in abusive relationships because they believe the Bible’s mandate to forgive means pretending the abuse never happened.
Indeed, Countryman says, forgiveness must begin by recognizing and acknowledging what has happened, by naming the injustice or wrong that has been done. We cannot successfully deal with a problem that we refuse to admit exists.
It is not until we can acknowledge and name what has happened that we can move into the process of forgiving.
Forgiveness is often not a one-time act of will, but a process that may take years. The process begins with prayer regarding the one who has wronged us. That prayer may acknowledge our anger and hurt, and our honest feelings about the person who has caused them.
One of my favorite writers, Madeleine L’Engle, admitted that she has found herself in this situation.
“I sat in my quiet corner one night, the Bible open on my lap, and I knew that I still had hurt in my heart, and that I was still angry at whoever was permitting a great load of blame and shame to be laid on me,” she wrote.
And then, in the midst of her anger and hurt, L’Engle found herself asking God to bless the jerk (her actual word was much more colorful) who had hurt her.
Her prayer was perhaps not gracious, but it was honest. Her prayer had no demands for justification, vindication, or revenge. No manipulation or insisting that everything be worked out in her favor. No denying her feelings of hurt and anger. No pretending that evil doesn’t exist or didn’t happen.
L’Engle admitted that she had not yet forgiven the person who hurt her, but she was able to turn that person over to God, “knowing that God’s powerful love will do what our own feeble love or lack of it won’t.”
The White Queen in Alice in Wonderland believed that it was a good practice to believe in six impossible things every morning before breakfast. L’Engle says in her own life she has found “it is salutary to bless six people I don’t much like every morning before breakfast.”
If we can do that, remembering that the person in the world who has done us the most harm can be forgiven by God, just as we are, then we have begun the long road to forgiveness.
So think of such people today – six, five, one – the number doesn’t matter. Pray that God will bless and forgive them, and that we might be able, someday, to forgive them, too.