Forgiveness – A Gift or An Entitlement?

20 Sep


Year 12 end of school celebrations can be problematic.

The shenanigans that accompany the end of 13 years of schooling can and does sometimes get out of hand. I was involved in an incident at a school where I was chaplain and steps had ben taken by the principal to bring an end to a number of years of inappropriate behaviour.

Students were spoken to and informed of the consequences, which were severe, if they set foot on the school property during the last week of their school term.

Well, after an evening of partying at a parents home they entered the school grounds and climbed on the second floor of the building and laid out a banner. It was around 2 in the morning, it was dark and it was raining. One slip and they would have fallen onto the concrete pavement below with disastrous consequences.

The principal was true to his word. They were banned from coming on the school premises except to do their HSC exams, they were also banned from the end of year assembly, formal and chapel service. Parents and students alike to reacted badly. The expectation was that as Christians we are to forgive others for the benefit of their benefit only and not for the community, the trust now broken and the relationships shattered by their actions.

Forgiveness is not an entitlement. You simply cannot turn up, say sorry and receive forgiveness. There is a process and without that process there can be no reconciliation or resurrection, as we say in last weeks Gospel.

Jesus reply to Peter has to be read inside the commitment to community, of the primacy of the life of the community. It is not an individual entitlement. It is not something I deserve or even need for my own benefit. It is not something that I get to resolve the issues that maybe impacting upon my life as a result of my actions.

William Loader reminds us that “The reduction of the gospel to forgiveness of sins misses the point of the gospel which is about making people whole.” It is this commitment to wholeness by all involved that allows a seemingly endless supply of forgiveness. While forgiveness is the life blood of the community without the which it cannot exist, it can only occur if the relationship and the trust of the community is valued above the desires of an individual or a group to be reinstated because it is the “Christian”, the “nice” thing to do.

The implication in Jesus response to Peter rests on the idea that we have been forgiven many times and experienced that for ourselves and know its power in our lives. The Divine Reconciler forgive us and so do those around us in our community who tolerate our faults and shortcomings over and over again as we strive for wholeness for all.

One of my favourite Desert Father stories involves Abba Moses, a desert father who spent much of his earlier life as a robber:

A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, ‘Come, for everyone is waiting for you.’ So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, ‘What is this, Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When they heard that they said no more to the brother but forgave him. (Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.)

This is closer to the meaning of this passage than anything else. It is our acknowledgement and awareness of our own humanity that is the motivator for patience with and forgiveness of another. We can only forgive another if we understand its importance in our own lives, if we have experienced it for ourselves. This passage is about us in community and our capacity to engage with the humanity of another who wishes to share that place with us.

The characters in the parable are not strangers to each other. They share the same workplace and the same location of being. They rely on each other in the normal comings and goings of life. They are committed to the wholeness of the community in which they live. The failure one makes here is that he elevates himself and his needs above that of the other. In doing so he separates himself from community. His action of demanding from another what was not demanded makes him out of balance with the rest of the community. He is no longer committed to its urge for wholeness, only to the fulfilment of his own needs.

Forgiveness is not a right nor is it a weapon and this passage cannot be used as a means to demand forgiveness from others nor to allow another to avoid the consequences that are a necessary part of forgiveness. The torture is not a physical act but the pain of separation and isolation that accompanies unjust behaviour and inappropriate demands. You will find yourself excluded from community without any of the rights, privileges and responsibilities that go with it. It is dis-ease, the experience of not being at ease in a place where you once did, and it eats away at you.

In the case of our students, some were able to recognise the impact of their behaviour on the whole community and to work to heal that wound and in so doing found forgiveness and return. Others did not. It will always be the case that some will not experience forgiveness because it is always about them, even after 77 times.

Matthew 18:21-35

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