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Sand Art

February 17th, 2012 No comments

“Sand Art” (John 7:53-8:11)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
February 5, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Well, before we begin, I would like to say that often times, when we open the Scriptures, and when we begin to immerse ourselves in wisdom, the history, the psalms, the commandments, the letters, and the stories, we are strengthened and edified and inspired as we go out and in hope and to live in ways that are faithful to Jesus. And there are also times when we enter the Scriptures, if we do so honestly and openly, that we allow those Scriptures to pierce our way of life or our patters of thought, or to rearrange our priorities. And as I have pondered this text this week, that has been my experience. So this morning, as I share my thoughts and reflections of the ways in which this powerful text has struck me, I offer them humbly and as my own and invite you also to ponder, as we pray to be transformed more and more into God’s desire for us.

Political Scheming
I have found it humorous – albeit in a somewhat sobering and disconcerting way – to observe the political scheming and posturing and trickery that’s bound to surface in an election year. Candidates lie in wait, ready to catch one another, and as soon as someone slips up in this game they play, they pounce with a clever turn of phrase or roundly denounce that opponent.

Systems of government have changed over the millennia, but political scheming is as old as civilization itself. Jesus had said and done some things that shaken up the standard order of business and had gotten some of the religious authorities ruffled up,1 made them feel a little bit threatened somehow, I guess. And so they started scheming and setting clever traps2 with the hopes to discredit, and, ultimately, destroy Jesus.

And here they’re at it again. They’ve got another scheme cooked up to protect the purity and right practice of their faith as they see it, and this one’s a real doozie. Now I don’t know when the clergy became the adultery police, but they find someone they can accuse of adultery and drag her off to the temple where they interrupt Jesus’ teaching by throwing her in the middle of everyone.

And here’s the scheme. The Law recorded in the Scriptures clearly and without qualification requires death as the punishment for adultery (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22-24). Now officially, Rome did not permit the Jews to carry out the death penalty (John 18:31), though they often did anyway (e.g. Acts 7:54-60). So if Jesus advocates that she be stoned, the Pharisees can accuse him of riot-rousing and insurrection against Rome.3 On the other hand, if he doesn’t uphold the Law, they can paint him as a collaborator, a coward, a bleeding heart unwilling to take a serious stand for morality.

Now obviously, there’s some inconsistency here. They claim to have caught this woman in the act of adultery, and yet they have arrested only her and not her partner also, as the Law required. Under the Law, both were to be put to death. (Sadly, God’s people have not escaped the world’s tendency to pin an inordinate amount of blame for sexual transgression on women.) The scribes and Pharisees hope to discredit and destroy Jesus because they believe he is guilty of gravely violating the Law (i.e. Scripture), yet they are willing to compromise that Law to do it. Of course, hypocrites never think they’re being hypocritical.

At any rate, the scribes and Pharisees have arranged things quite nicely so that Jesus has two choices, and either way he’s trapped. “Death or Life, Jesus; what’s it going to be?”

Faithful Controversy
Over the years, I’ve experienced a fairly remarkable amount of what I might call “faithful controversy” in the church. My grandma, who always knew what she believed (and new the Bible better than any of us here, I believe), nevertheless liked to call these things “discussions.” Not debates or divisions or contests or even disagreements, but “discussions.”

It’s simply what happens when we get so many people together who are so committed to their faith, who love God and one another so deeply, and each who perceive things from a slightly different perspective from within the body of Christ. You disagree from time-to-time, and so you have a discussion. There were such discussions in Jesus’ day. They were there in the early church (e.g. Acts 15), and they’ve been there ever since.

Well, I’ve been privy to a number of such discussions over the years – anywhere from whether to remodel the front of the sanctuary to carpet color; to divorce and remarriage; to the genre of a particular portion of Scripture and its proper interpretation; to theological disputes about God; to whether to vote; to war and peace; to women’s roles in the church; and everything in-between and back again. The hot item of “discussion” right now in many churches is, of course, human sexuality, or depending on your region, immigration; who knows what it will be a decade from now?

Now, as I’ve thought back over these “discussions” – these “faithful controversies” – I’ve noticed something. Sooner or later, every discussion – whether it’s remodeling or salvation (and no, the two are not the same thing!) – separates into two sides: head coverings vs. no head coverings, the obsessed-with-purity folks (or so we stereotype them) vs. the secular-notions-of-justice side (or so we stereotype them), mechanical vs. metaphorical interpretation, peace vs. war, blue carpet vs. purple carpet. To stone or not to stone the woman caught in adultery. “What do you say?”

We love to think in terms of two choices in this country. You’re a Democrat or a Republican, or else you’re an irrelevant. So everybody has these two choices set before them, and we must choose or else get sidelined. “Well, what’s it gonna be, Jesus – Death or Life.”

Drawing in the Sand
Someone’s life is on the line; the very fabric of morality is bursting at the seams. If ever there were a time to come out and say “Yes” or “No;” “Death” or “Life” with confidence and clarity, it is now. Now is the time to rise to action, to take the lead, to stand up for the correct interpretation of God’s Law! “Death or Life, Jesus. You gotta choose.”

But Jesus takes a knee and starts drawing doodles in the sand! A woman’s life is on the line and the authority of Scripture is in the balance, and Jesus appears to be oblivious to it all – or worse stalling out of cowardice to act.

I had a junior high teacher, and this teacher, whenever there was a discipline issue that would come up, he wouldn’t deal with it right away, but instead he’d say to the student or students in question in a very calm voice, “Come see me after class.” He wasn’t about to play into a student’s goading or hidden cry for attention.

Jesus wasn’t about to spring the trap that had been set. He refused to play the game of fear and anxiety and political posturing. That was their game; not his. How often does someone come up to you with a problem that has to be dealt with now, and it’s your responsibility and yours alone to fix it? And without thinking, you get worked up and jump in and make a quick decision. Maybe a good decision, but who knows? And how often is there time – not always – but how often is there time to sit down, make a little sand art, and decline to play the game of anxiety and emergency, and then deal with it creatively and responsibly?

I don’t know what Jesus drew in the sand. Maybe he wrote, “where’s the man?” Maybe he wrote, “Guilty.” Maybe he wrote, “Life.” Maybe he wrote, “Thou shalt not commit adultery” or “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Maybe he drew a cross or a fish or a dove. Maybe it was just a little swirly doodle. I don’t know. Whatever it was, it didn’t answer the questions of the woman’s accusers, who keep badgering him. “Death or Life, Jesus. You gotta choose, pal.” This is what it’s all about. Nothing else matters.

From issues to idols
How quickly do issues become idols? How quickly do they become the lens through which we see life, church, Scripture, one another? How quickly do they become all that matters? Everything that is said, seen, heard, spoken, or read, we perceive through the idol of the issue instead of through the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16; Php. 2:5). Through the lens of which issue are you perceiving this story and this message this morning?

I have watched with astonishment at how church members – myself included – will divide into their blue and purple carpet camps, each laying claim to the authority of Scripture for their position, and yet, at the very same time, they utterly evade or outright disregard the consistent claims of Scriptural authority that we bear with one another in love in making every effort possible to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.4

Sometimes we use claims to unity to water down discipleship into a saltless, lifeless mush, and that’s certainly not what Jesus wants.5 But more often in American Christianity, the other extreme is the case. “It’s the other person’s responsibility to start a conversation, not mine!” “I would seek reconciliation, but how will I know if they’ll play by the rules?” “Why do I have to – they started it!” How much greater still is the ironic tragedy when the object of discussion is related to peacemaking, and yet we fail in seeking peace in dealing with it. Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we must repent of our hypocrisy, for this should not be.

(And if I or you or anyone here happen to be thinking of someone who really needs to hear this, then I suggest that perhaps we have missed the point.)

As I continue to read through the gospels, I become more and more convinced that the Pharisees are like an early generation of the slight distortion of religious devotion that plagues the church in every age:

  1. We take a page from the scribes and Pharisees and undermine the authority of Scripture by turning it into an encyclopedia of religious answers (John 8:5a) instead of a way of life and a story in which we immerse ourselves, and we turn God’s Word into ammunition for whatever happens to be the most recent stone-throwing contest.
  2. In a practice as old as scripture itself, we bend and manipulate the Word of God to fit our points of view, our perceived entitlements, our preconceived ideologies (John 8:6). We assume we have the correct interpretation and others are wrong, and we don’t even bother talking with the folks over in camp blue carpet about their perspective because we’ve already decided that they’re just wrong and they aren’t interested in talking with us anyway.
  3. We want shortcuts in interpreting Scripture (John 8:5b). We do not want to do the work of submitting ourselves to the discernment of the community in the Spirit, and we would rather sip on the milk (1 Cor. 3:2; Heb. 5:13-14) of spoon-fed answers (which Jesus rarely saw fit to provide6) than digest the Scriptures together by carefully and prayerfully testing interpretations and conclusions in our shared life of faith. We would rather have our own ideas confirmed than be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Rom. 12:2); otherwise, “Thank you, but I think we’re done here.”
  4. We cheer while others are called “on the carpet” before the crowds to repent and suffer judgment (John 8:3) while maintaining the facade that we ourselves are in no need of repenting.7 We call for votes on things so we know if you’re in the blue club or in the purple club, but we’re not particularly interested in finding out how you got there, or if you might have an entirely different way of seeing things! Maybe we need green carpet, or maybe no carpet at all!
  5. We yearn for displays of strength of conviction that are worldly (John 8:5), rather than patterned after the amazing power of the cross.

The church in America is rapidly declining in relevance nearly across the board – Protestant, Evangelical, Catholic, even the Pentecostal movement has peaked, it seems, leaving the high-commitment churches to thrive for the time. The decline is not because the church doesn’t take a stand on the relevant issues of the day (because it does!), but in large part because the church has been co-opted by culture around us, feeling as though the only options available are the ones presented to us, rather than seeking to proclaim the astonishing, powerful, and life-altering gospel to the culture around us, with grace, clarity, courage, compassion, and open, inviting hands.

Third Way
Time after time Jesus was pressed to define himself, to trap himself in the terms, in the choices the world offers.8 “Pay taxes, or don’t pay taxes?” “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Yes or no.”

I believe that Jesus thought there was a definite line between a right and wrong answer to each of the above questions and to those we face today (except for maybe carpet color!). I believe he thought they were all of great importance. We know his answer for the woman is “life,” even though he doesn’t answer in that way. He is the only one who could justifiably cast a stone, yet he chooses not to because there was a line between right and wrong. His courage, however, was not merely in taking an unpopular stand, but in taking a stand that surprised everyone and wasn’t supposed to be an option to begin with.

What’s it going to be, Jesus: “Death or Life. You have to choose.” And Jesus does choose, but it’s neither life nor death – at least not directly: “Let anyone among you who is without sin cast the first stone,” and then he kneels again, putting the choice back on the mob. Jesus declined to play the game of anxiety and political posturing presented to him and instead chose to speak the life-altering gospel into an intractable situation.

And there was silence.

Then the dull thud of the stones being dropped to the ground, and with them their arrogance, their pretense, their self-righteousness.

Left alone, Jesus straightens up once again, and puts the question to the woman:

“Where have they all gone? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, Lord.”

“Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on sin no more.”

New Testament scholar Gail O’Day sums it up this way:

Both the scribes and Pharisees and the woman are invited to give up old ways and enter a new way of life. Both stand under the power of the old ways, the power of sin. . . but the present moment. . . invites both to a new way of life. The woman is invited to live not as a condemned woman but as a freed woman [– freed to live a faithful, transformed life]. The scribes and Pharisees are invited to give up the categories by which they had defined and attempted to control life.9

Jesus is neither weak on sin – the woman’s or the crowd’s, who are all invited to a new way of life – nor is he a brutal, cold-hearted legalist. He neither trivializes sin nor condemns the people involved (cf. John 3:17), but rather offers a compassionate invitation to a new way of life. We don’t know how any of them responded. No doubt, what Jesus did further enraged a goodly portion of the authorities, who were already seeking his death. His efforts to save the woman and the mob were a demonstration of the costly self-giving love of God, and therein lies the heart of the Gospel. That is what defines us (cf. Php. 2:5-11), and there we may place our hope. And that is the perspective from which we may proclaim the astonishing, powerful, life-altering gospel with grace, clarity, courage, compassion, and open, inviting hands.

Notes:
1. E.g. Matthew 3:7; 9:11-13, 32-34; 12:1-8, 9-14, 22-32; 15:1-12; 21:33-45; John 2:13-25; 5:2-47; 7:14-52.
2. E.g. Matthew 19:3-12; 21:23-27 (// Mark 11:27-33; Luke 20:1-8); 22:15-22 (// Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26), 23-33 (Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-39), 34-40 (// Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-28); 41-46 (Mark 12:35-37; Luke 20:41-44).
3. Which they do anyway, e.g. Luke 23:2.
4. E.g. 2 Chr. 30:21; Psalm 133:1,3; Prov. 18:13; Mt. 5:23-24; 16:18-20; 18:15-20 (restoring a breach in fellowship); John 15:12-14; 17:20-23 (unity even bears witness to God); Acts 15; Rom. 14:1-8, 10-12, 17-19; 15:1-7; 1 Cor. 1:10; 3:16-17; 6:1-6; 2 Cor. 5:14-21; Gal. 6:1-5; Eph. 2:11-22 (unity and atonement are connected); 3:5-6, 10 (unity reveals God, cf. 1:10; Rev. 19); 4:1-6 (unity reflects the reality of God and is our calling), 13-16; 5:21; Php. 2:1-11; 3:15-16; 4:1-3; Col. 3:12-17; James 1:19-20; 5:16; 1 Peter 3:8-9. See also appeals to the law of love: Mt. 22:34-40 (// Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-28); Rom. 13:8-10; 1 Cor. 13; Col. 3:14; James 2:8; 1 Peter 4:8 (love even covers sins).
5. See sermons on Jonah 3 and Jonah 4 for more on this.
6. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus never directly answers a question. The two possible exceptions are the treatest commandment (12:28-34), in which Jesus provides two instead of one and the question before the Sanhedrin about whether he is the Messiah (14:61-62), to which Jesus’ response “I am” could also be translated “Am I?”
7. See, e.g. Mt. 6:2, 5, 16; 7:5; 15:7-9; 23:1-7, 13-15, 23-24.
8. See Note 2, above.
9. Gail R. O’Day, “John 7:53-8:11” in Journal of Biblical Literature (1992:111/4), 637.

Categories: Sermons Tags: , ,

Echoes of Forgiveness

March 15th, 2011 No comments

“Echoes of Forgiveness” (Matthew 18:21-35)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
March 6, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

“Pay what you owe!”
Next week, we’ll get to look at the prequel to this story – Jesus’ famous teaching to his disciples about how to deal with conflict and discipline in the church. Well, after class, Peter was looking over his notes, and he had a question – a good question, really. How many times must I forgive? How much grace is needed before someone finally must come under judgment and face the full brunt of consequence for his actions? Where do you draw the line? How long before you say, “Look, this just isn’t working”? Seven times sounded like a generous, nice, round number. How many times must I forgive?

Well, Jesus had a story to help Peter out with this one – a challenging parable about the king of a large kingdom and his servants – probably his regional governors. Well, to skip ahead in the story a bit, one of these governors had been generous enough lend some money to a fellow governor when he had come up short – a hundred denarii, maybe a few thousand bucks. Not exactly pocket change, but among governors, not exactly a life’s savings either.

When the loan comes due, the governor discovers that his debtor is a deadbeat. He isn’t good for it. He doesn’t have the cash. Finally the governor has had enough of it. He takes hold of this delinquent debtor and demands payment. When his fellow governor still can’t pay, he does what any sensible creditor or bank would do. He forecloses on him and throws him into debtor’s prison until his family pays off the full balance of the debt.

That’s what you have to do with delinquent debtors. If you let everyone’s debt slide, soon you go bankrupt yourself. It is his money, after all. Why would he let it slide? Wouldn’t that let the debtor off the hook? Wouldn’t that encourage others to do the same? Wouldn’t that be dethroning justice? Wouldn’t that be condoning the delinquent behavior?

Why should he forgive the debt? Forget forgiving seven times. Why forgive even once? Besides, don’t most of the wounds we carry run much deeper than our bank account balance? Sure, maybe it makes sense to forgive when someone unintentionally hurts us. But even so, why let offenders off the hook? Doesn’t it send the message that their actions have no consequences? Moreover, doesn’t forgiveness passively condone evil? What about abusers, murderers, terrorists, and the world’s evil dictators? Surely their unspeakable crimes are unforgivable. Wouldn’t forgiveness deny the suffering of their victims? Wouldn’t it be a horrible offense to justice? How does forgiveness help the victim?

We are left with the question, Why should we forgive? What’s wrong with enthroning the claims of justice? What’s wrong with reclaiming the debt?

So also to every one of you
Well, as you and I know, the king in this story has ten thousand reasons why this governor was wrong to reclaim the debt, and to our satisfaction, he hands this ungrateful governor over to be tortured until he can pay the full balance of his debt. That’s all fine and good, but the way Jesus wraps up the parable has always been challenging for me: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you,” he says, “if you do not forgive your brother o sister from your heart.”

It’s one thing to cancel someone’s loan, or to forgive a minor offense. It’s quite another to be deeply physically, emotionally, or spiritually violated. What I wanna know is, Why place this added requirement on someone who has already been so deeply wounded? Why burden the wounded with the guilt of hurting too much to be able to forgive? Isn’t that like saying to the victim, “It’s your responsibility to fix this”?

We followers of Christ may utter the words “I forgive you” freely enough, but do we every truly forgive from the heart? Do we ever really let go of the resentment? Think of those people who have hurt you over and over and over throughout your life? Wouldn’t it be great if someone would finally put ‘em in their place? Don’t we say to ourselves in the secret of our hearts, “Forgive them not, Father, for they knew what they did”? Can we ever truly forgive from the heart?

In Jerusalem, we met a man named Rami. One day, there was a suicide bombing in his community, and his 14-year-old daughter didn’t come home. He went searching from hospital to hospital, but finally found her at the morgue. How could anyone expect Rami to even begin to forgive those who had planned and executed such senseless destruction and murderous evil, which robbed him and his family of their young daughter, let alone to forgive from the depths of his heart?

Maybe our question isn’t just, “Why should we forgive?” but also, “How can we truly forgive from the heart?”

10,000 Talents
Well, I think that the king in our story would answer both of these questions with the same 10,000 reasons. Back up to the beginning of the parable. There was a powerful king who wanted to settle accounts with his regional governors. Well, there was one governor – the one we’ve gotten to know already – who owed 10,000 talents, an unbelievable sum of money comparable to the national debt.

But what’s even more unbelievable is his plea: “Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything – all 10,000 talents.” “Just give me a few more days, and I’ll pay off the national debt.”

Yeah, right.

Now the king had in mind to confiscate all the governor’s possessions, and to sell not only the governor, but also his wife and children, into slavery. At least he’d recover some of his losses and get something for this pathetic governor. But upon hearing this miserable governor’s outrageous plea, which was clearly a lie, he decides to cancel the debt – all 10,000 talents. Apparently this king is a poor judge of character. Or he has a merciful sense of humor.

Well, as this fortunate governor is scurrying out before the king changes his mind, he runs into another governor, who owes him a relatively small sum of money, another governor who makes the vary same plea: “Just a little longer, and I’ll repay you.” And we know how the first governor chooses to respond.

10,000 Talents vs. 100 Dinarii
Back to the first question. Why should we forgive? To put it simply, we should forgive others because God has uncalculatingly and immeasurably forgiven us. “I forgave you all that debt,” the king said to the governor. “Should you not have had mercy as well?” We should forgive others because God has immeasurably forgiven us, because the vastness of God’s ocean of grace washes over all sin.

And there is also more, I think, to why we should forgive. It’s true that forgiveness is a sort of injustice in the strict sense. I give up my just claim on the guilty party. But the problem with justice is that it too quickly becomes retribution. It’s all too easy to charge interest on the debt. But more importantly, others’ lives – even those of our offenders – are so infinitely more complex than we can imagine that we mortals cannot possibly contrive true justice for any situation (more on this in a bit).

And in most cases, strict justice is simply impossible. The governor couldn’t possibly pay the king. No one could restore Rami’s 14-year-old daughter to him. We cannot undo the wounds we deal to one another, however much our hearts may ache to be able to do so.

But forgiveness enthrones justice. Forgiveness implies that the standard of justice is good and valid, and it has been violated. The king named the debt that was owed. That’s why it hurts a little to hear someone say, “I forgive you.” Forgiveness carries with it a condemnation of the wrong. Otherwise, there would be nothing to be forgiven. Perhaps that’s also why it’s difficult for some of us to say, “I forgive you,” for fear of being judgmental. It’s also why forgiveness can be manipulative. But when offered from the heart, forgiveness upholds God’s scandalous justice and grace.

A friend told me the story of his mother, who was afraid of death not because of God’s judgment, but because of God’s scandalous grace. She was afraid of seeing her husband again, who had abused her for many years before he died. A victim of Fidel Castro’s regime, worrying that Castro might repent before he died, bluntly said, “If Fidel gets to heaven, I don’t want to be there.”1

God’s forgiveness is truly a scandal to our cool sense of retributive eye-for-an-eye justice. And that is why our own forgiveness should not look like cool justice, but rather enthrone God’s scandalous justice and grace.

The Power of 10,000 Talents
But the second question still lingers: How can we forgive from the heart, when we have been wounded so deeply? Back to the 10,000 talents. The governor’s unbelievable debt had him destined for debt slavery. But the king’s merciful cancellation of the debt freed the governor. Without the burden of immeasurable debt hanging over his head, he was free to show mercy to his fellow governor.

I don’t know about you all, but I’ve made my fair share of poor decisions I wish I could reverse, said my fair share of things I wish I could take back. But I can’t. My decisions, my choices, my words, the things I say, are irreversible. As I was reflecting on this text, I was reminded of a time in Jr. High, when a very poor choice of mine hurt a good friend.

Years later, this friend talked with me about it, and I discovered that I hadn’t realized just how severely I had hurt him, a wound that he continued to carry. I wished with all my heart I could redo it, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t. My friend had every reason to carry a grudge, had every reason never to want to see me again, every reason to blame me, to despise me. But he didn’t. “I want you to know we’re still friends,” he said.

What happens when we are forgiven? That surprising gift of forgiveness, though only a fraction of the 10,000 talents, has inspired and challenged and empowered me to forgive others as well. It has freed me, I think and I hope, to be more compassionate.

In Mark 2, Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic. The scribes in attendance complain in their hearts, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus didn’t disagree. It is God alone who can truly forgive sins.

Try as we might, we simply cannot. We cannot scrub all resentment from our hearts. Our scars remind us of our pain. We cannot overcome the anger and desire for revenge. As the great healer, Jesus knows that guilting hurting people into forgiving their offenders is not true forgiveness. I think he knows that true forgiveness from the heart is impossible.

He also knows that with God, all things are possible. I used to get frustrated when people would say that. It sounded like an easy answer, too simplistic. Now I see it just the opposite. I see how challenging it is. I see how difficult it is to let go of control, anxiety, pride, pain, and resentment, and yield to God’s purposes and Spirit. I see how difficult it is to put myself completely into the hands of God.

Yang-Won Son, one of the Korean martyrs, placed himself in God’s hands. Almost all his ministry was centered on the spiritual and material care of the residents of leper colonies. He resisted bowing down to the Japanese emperor, and suffered six years of imprisonment and cruel treatment. . . Son’s two teenaged sons were shot to death by. . . rioters when they witnessed to their Christian faith. . .Instead of being engulfed by hatred and revengeful thoughts, however, Son forgave the shooter, petitioned for his release from the death penalty, and adopted him as his son. We know how hard it is to forgive others. . . [yet] to even the hint of a suggestion that we cannot forgive, Jesus still responds, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26)2

The forgiveness we extend to one another is but an echo of Christ’s forgiveness.

Paul once said it in a different way: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me” (Gal. 2:20). We might say, “It is not I who forgive, but Christ who forgives within me.”

And that is powerful. We may need to be angry at our offenders for a while. We may even join the Psalmist in raging against God. But anger placed intentionally in the presence of a God who cares looks different than the sort of anger that runs amok in people’s lives. Indwelt by the healing presence of Christ, 10,000 talents become power to forgive.

77 Times
When we’re hurt, we want justice. Often we want to claim retribution upon those who wound us. Rami, whose 14-year-old daughter was killed by a suicide bomber, wondered what he would do with his burden, with his anger. Would he get even? Would killing someone bring her back? Would causing pain to someone else ease his own?

He chose instead the difficult and costly path of forgiveness and reconciliation. Rami joined 500 other bereaved families from both sides of the conflict, who hope to spare others their pain. Family members donated blood to victims on the other side. When asked why he would give blood to the enemy, they responded, “It is far less painful to donate blood to the needy than to spill it unnecessarily.”3

That is the power of forgiveness. Rami could have returned the volley of hatred, but forgiveness causes cycles of vengeance and retribution and enmity to come to a stop. All the awkward posturing can come to an end now. The deathly tit-for-tat games we play can stop. We no longer need to bury the our resentment under a smiley veneer.

And finally, regardless of the benefit of inner peace, of inner freedom, of forgiving, forgiveness is costly to the forgiver. This Ash Wednesday, as Lent begins, we will be reminded of the cost of forgiveness as we receive the sign of the cross. In his forgiving grace, Christ has put to death hostility, broken the power of vengeance, and made peace.

The old spiral of vengeance broken by Jesus is as old as human history, Genesis tells us in the story of Lamech, who boasted of repaying murder for a mere wound, and vowed to avenge himself not merely sevenfold, but 77-fold. One day after class, Peter asked Jesus, “How many times must I forgive? Seven times?” Jesus responded, by undoing the legacy of Lamech: “Not seven times, but 77 times.” May it be so.

Notes:
1 Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge, 178.
2 In-Yong Lee, Chrstian Century (6 September 2005), 18. http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3251
3 http://www.theparentscircle.com/stories/Rami_Elchanan.doc