Sunday the Twenty-fourth

Give peace, Lord, to those who wait for You and Your prophets will proclaim You as You deserve. Hear the prayers of Your servant and of Your people Israel (Sirach 36:18).

The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion. (Psalm 103).

     “Then Peter approaching asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive (ἀφήσω, apheso) him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times. … So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother (ἀφῆτε, aphete) from his heart (Matthew 18: 21-22. 35).””

In a Gospel course filled with actively participating and interested undergraduates I asked, “Has anyone not heard the word forgive or forgiveness?” There wasn’t an elevated hand in the group. “Fine,” I said, “what then does it mean to forgive?” There wasn’t a sound heard in the room so after an awkward period of silence I did the dastardly deed and simply called upon a student for a response. After a bit of squirming an utterance filled the room, “Forgiveness? Well, like it’s like ya know – no, it’s like, well like to forgive - like kinda like ya know to forgive but like I like know it inside but can’t like ya know like say it out loud, ya know what I mean?” Puzzled, I looked at her and said, “No, I don’t know what you mean.” The student was not embarrassed; they have become accustomed to my questions asking the meaning of words and of actions that are at the core of Christian living. Dare I say many people in our congregations would be hard pressed to offer a description of forgiveness. We toss around many words like forgiveness in the context of religious living and when asked by someone to explain the term or the action, we pause and realize that often we cannot.

Because the experience of forgiveness is at the core of Jesus’ teaching and way of living, it is well worth pondering the Word of God this Sunday. Jesus freely imparted the Father’s forgiveness in response to sorrow for sin. He taught His disciples to forgive one another and included it as a petition in the prayer that defines all Christian Prayer, the Lord’s Prayer. He even pronounced a prayer of forgiveness from His broken Body engulfed in a pain that words cannot even begin to express as He was dying on the Cross. And just in case none of this has moved us, Jesus concluded today’s parable with one of the Gospels’ most stinging challenge: “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother (ἀφῆτε, aphete) from his heart (Matthew 18:35).”

Jesus’ Words certainly cut deep into our minds and hearts. Every time we hear Him say a word about forgiveness our minds vividly present us with the many faces of strained and broken relationships that are still oozing with pain. The pain and hurt often prompt thoughts, if not action, of revenge because ‘he or she is not going to get away with hurting me.’ Other times the hurts generate anger as we realize we cannot do anything to ‘feel better.’ We have experienced hurts so deep that ‘forgiveness’ (whatever that might be) seems impossible to us at that moment. Add a national and global commemoration this weekend of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 Attacks and forgiveness seems downright ludicrous.

ἀφίημι (aphíēmi) is the Greek verb that is generally rendered “to forgive” in the majority of English Bible translations. In antiquity, ἀφίημι (aphíēmi) meant “to release” suggesting a prior action that has somehow bound or even imprisoned a person or object. Closely related to the meaning of “to release,” is “to leave” and “to leave to another.” While there are a number of other English words that also translate ἀφίημι (aphíēmi), all of the translations suggest some type of movement. This further suggests that ἀφίημι (aphíēmi) ‘permits’ movement since, implicitly, motion has been halted. Secular usage of ἀφίημι (aphíēmi) conveyed a sense of “lifting or releasing a debt owed;” a meaning that is often woven into biblical texts such as this Sunday’s Parable and the Lord’s Prayer.

So what does this all have to say to us when it comes to the very difficult action of forgiving another or others? Sin (sin in Hebrew hatta means “to miss the mark”) by its very nature is not only evil or disorder, but also an evil or disorder that is chosen. When I sin, I choose to introduce a level of chaos and disorder into life that retards and may even stop any growth or movement in life towards the other, others and Other (God). The greater ‘the sin’ the harder the brakes are applied to life and relationship living. Some offenses may even bring all movement to a screeching stop similar to putting a car ‘in park’ and blocking the wheels, not to mention the possibility of lifting the car on jack stands and removing the wheels. Nobody is going anywhere then.

The act of forgiving (ἀφίημι (aphíēmi)) is a power breathed into life that has been stopped dead in its tracks. ἀφίημι (aphíēmi) is an act of creation – a mighty act of creation – enabled by the Divine Life of the Holy Trinity within that jump-starts life once again. It does not whitewash or pretend that the hurt or damage has not occurred. Forgiveness is not about forgetting or having the memory of the hurt obliterated. That is impossible; after all what has occurred is an event in history. The damage occurred in a particular time and particular place and is real. To ‘pretend’ otherwise is foolish. What forgiveness does, however, is release one from the crippling affect and effect that the memories of painful events have over our life in the present. In the end, forgiveness is Divine Love that calls forth life into existence much the same way reality first came into existence: the response to a Word pronounced by a Loving Creator.

In fairness, what about the hurts that run so deep in life that I will not forgive? Is it a case of ‘not forgiving’ or is it a case that in the present – not excluding the future – I am not there yet? Let’s face it, we have all been hurt by friends and family in such a way that we are bleeding, and bleeding profusely. Not even a tight tourniquet will stop the blood flow! Some wounds take time to stop bleeding before healing can begin. Some injuries to our bodies, for example, have to remain open so that infection may drain before closing a wound or casting a limb. Similarly, some hurts require time prior to the healing word and experience of forgiveness. While waiting, actively seek the Lord’s grace to be able to forgive. This active seeking points us in the proper direction, gets life moving somewhat and gradually helps us to seek the day with Grace to say, “I release you. I forgive you. Let’s move on.” One might not be the other’s BFF (best friend forever) after the incident or incidents, but the freedom experienced does make for a more joy filled living.

Almighty God,
our Creator and Guide,
may we serve You with all our heart
and know Your forgiveness in our lives.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
Who lives and reigns with You and the
Holy Spirit, One God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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