A Community That Looks Forward

By Geralyn Wolf

Forgiveness is essential to the Christian life. Jesus’ death on the cross was fundamentally an act of forgiveness. It was the act of overcoming the primal sin of Adam and Eve: their disobedience to God’s will. Jesus’ death revealed complete obedience to God, thus healing the original disobedience, thus reconciling humanity to God. In effect, the disobedience was forgiven. God the Father, the Creator, let go of the first sin. Letting go, forgiveness, is a sacrificial act. It is love in action.

Most of us have preconditions for forgiveness: we seek an apology, or an expression of remorse, or at least an acknowledgment of “wrongdoing.”

Jesus, our greatest teacher, asks us to forgive even when there is no apology, even when “they know not what they do.” This is one of his most important and challenging teachings, because our first instinct is for revenge or retribution. We want justice. “However, we all know, sadly, that perfect justice does not exist in our lifetime” (Jonathan Sachs paraphrase).

We spend a lot of emotional energy on past experiences that were harmful and demeaning, if not downright abusive and malicious. These wounds can consume us and hinder our future as we remain victims of the past. They are like memories in an echo chamber, repeating over and over again.

I hate to admit this, but if you harm me, my natural instinct is to harm you. This has led to the disintegration of families, murder, war, and the ultimate destruction of nations and cultures. Considering our basic human nature, forgiveness is a radical response.

The king in this gospel made an unexpected and radical gift of mercy to the debtor. By the standards of the first century, the slave owed about 10,000 denarii, more than he could earn in a lifetime. He was in serious debt, from which he and his family had little hope of escaping.

The king took pity on him, and by cancelling his debt literally gave the man his liberty, his freedom. However, in the slave’s heart of hearts he either thought he deserved it anyway or was unable to receive such forgiveness, such mercy and compassion, and therefore was unable to offer it to another. There are many people who, in not believing they are worthy of love, find it very difficult to love others.

The king of course is Jesus, and the troubled servant is all of us. The lesson is this: as we are able to receive forgiveness, so can we forgive others, and the reverse is true. The measure by which we forgive others is the measure by which God forgives us. Others may not forgive us, but God forgives us. “Our Father, who art in heaven … forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sins against us.”

Peter asked Jesus, “How many times must I forgive?” Jesus answers 70 x 7 — always.

Forgiveness does not mean that one forgets what has happened. It does not mean that there is a clean slate. It’s more like a knee replacement. The surgery leaves a visible wound, which in time becomes a scar, healed, visible, but healed. Eventually, it is almost forgotten, fully integrated into the rest of the body, and you finally walk without pain. Through forgiveness, the wounds of hurt and disappointment become scars, healed, integrated into who we are, no longer consuming us but allowing us to move on.

Forgiveness is a process that requires self-honesty, time, maturity and reflection.

A teenager in the throes of hating her parents is in no position to offer forgiveness. A person in the midst of an abusive relationship is not expected to forgive. It would be unjustified. During a war, people do not forgive the perpetrators or the enemies, but only after the destruction and killing have ended, peace agreements are signed and soldiers return home. Forgiveness comes with viewing one’s circumstances from a different perspective. It comes when letting go of results in being able to move on.

Apartheid in South Africa officially ended in 1990, but the Truth and Reconciliation Commission did not begin its work until the end of 1995. The Rwandan Civil War officially ended in 1993, but its Truth and Reconciliation Commission began in 1999. Germany is still reconciling its past. Through these experiences, we have learned that once truth is exposed with all its tears, residual anger, and heartache, it still takes a long time to achieve reconciliation. The truth about racial injustices that we are learning about in our present age, again, is leading to change, but the road to true reconciliation is long and continuous, if we are all to be emancipated.

Forgiveness frees us from spiritual imprisonment and restores our capacity to envision the future. Someday, I pray, there will be peace in the Middle East, but it will not be possible if the focus is on arbitrating 3,000 years of history. The focus must be in looking toward the future, by seeing what it would mean for our child, grandchildren, and the generations to follow to live in peace.

Many survivors of the Holocaust attributed their strength and endurance to looking toward the future. To be able to hope in the future allows one to make sacrifices today. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross revealed his hope for humankind, and his trust in the age to come. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of England, once said, “If you can look to the future, the past will take care of itself.”

I had the privilege of attending an opening of an exhibition at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. In attendance were over 200 survivors of the Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania, and their families. The exhibit was painful to walk through, and many survivors had tears in their eyes when viewing the various artifacts and reading the commentaries.

However, what was most memorable to me occurred at the gathering after the viewing. People were introducing their children and grandchildren, and sharing something of their lives since World War II. Each speaker referred to the past with both pain and compassion, recognizing the extreme inhumanity of which we are capable, and the need to make the decision to move on.

They did not claim the position of victimhood, though victims they were. Instead, they were a people of extraordinary hope and gratitude. “The world must never forget,” said one speaker, “but life must go on.”

If we live in the past without a degree of reconciliation, the present is compromised. We become victims of our memories, tortured souls like the slave in the gospel for today. Our lives are worth more than this. We owe ourselves and each other more than this. We must not dwell as a community of the victimized, but a community of hope, a community that looks forward. Jesus the victim becomes Jesus the Resurrected One, the life-giver, the one who sets us free.

I believe that we need to be more forgiving of those with whom we disagree. I have noticed that some people find it almost impossible to find even the smallest fragments of good in the arguments or opinions of others. We have all read of people who have lost jobs and positions for espousing a minority opinion — even in the church.

Jesus is not asking us to be the same, but to speak truth in love, to empty ourselves, and assume a position of humility. After all, he humbled himself to be one with us and listened to follower and protagonist alike and honored both. He forgave sinners and even prayed for his enemies. What if we truly prayed for those whom we perceive to be our adversaries?

For the Christian, forgiveness is the outward and visible sign of Christ’s love. He is the King who listens to us with compassion, lets go of all that is past, and welcomes us to newness of life. And, inasmuch as we are willing to receive this radical blessing, so will we be a blessing to other, and to ourselves.

Forgiveness is the action love. It began with God in creation, was revealed in its fullness through Jesus the Christ, and is the gospel gift that he imparts to us today.

The Rt. Rev. Geralyn Wolf, former Bishop of Rhode Island, is an assistant bishop in the Diocese of Long Island.


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