Anyone who was at the family service last week will remember that I talked on the previous passage of Matthews to today’s. That passage concerned reconciliation and resolution and how we should deal with conflict between individuals.
Jesus said to his disciples (Matthew 18: 15)15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.
Wise words indeed, who can deny that any disagreement is best solved by discussion between the parties involved. And if that proves to not be possible then bring in others to hear the story. If you cannot see sense beyond your own opinions sharing it with others will often help you to be more objective and you can see how this lays the ground rules for many of our modern principles and practices around counselling and arbitration.
Todays reading takes this further. But note that the reading says – Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church* sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven* times.
And it starts – Then Peter came and said to him – in the previous passage Jesus was speaking generally to the disciples but this reading is in direct reply to a question from Peter. And as so often Peter makes it personal – what if another member of the church sins against me – So often Peter is concerned for himself as we all are, we well remember the time he denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed yet Jesus keeps on forgiving him and puts him at the front of his mission when preaching to the crowds on the day of Pentecost.
So Jesus takes this opportunity to explain forgiveness to Peter in front of all the disciples and one of the most important factors he takes pains to explain is that forgiveness places an obligation on the forgiven and the forgiver.
This trait of forgiveness is often seen as being one of the differences created between the old and new testament by Jesus, but let’s look at todays reading from Genesis.
We often see the old testament as being full of vengeance and retribution and we all remember such passages as ‘Vengeance is mine said the Lord I will repay’ and ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,
But lets think for a moment about that first one. ‘Vengeance is mine said the Lord I will repay’ and reflect on the passage from Genesis. The brothers come to Joseph begging for forgiveness and he says to them ‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear’
Joseph says ‘am I in the place of God’, meaning is it my place to exact retribution, and he concludes that it is not, what god intends is what god intends but Joseph is able to forgive.
Looking at the other phrase, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ we need to interpret this in line with the custom and tradition of the time. In contrast with our time when an assault is treated often with a fine and a murder with a prison sentence, an equivalence in punishment is seen as harsh.
But look at the time of Joseph where vengeance and retaliation were seen as normal where the slightest harm could develop into a vendetta escalating rapidly between families and we can see the words very differently. If we see that you are being told that if an enemy punches you and knocks out a tooth the MOST you are entitled to is to knock out his tooth in return and then that will be the end of the matter we can see these words as advocating moderation in punishment and reconciliation in terms of the punishment bringing a conclusion to matters.
Not the usual view we have of the violence of the old testament.
One cannot read todays lessons without being reminded in the modern world about the truth & reconciliation commission set up in south Africa and run by Desmond Tutu, himself a victim of a violent, drunk and abusive father and Desmond often said that one of his biggest regrets was that he never told his father he had forgiven him.
He said ‘Forgiving is not forgetting; it’s actually remembering–remembering and not using your right to hit back. It’s a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you don’t want to repeat what happened.”
One of the problems we have with forgiving is that we link it inextricably with repentance and punishment. We close it up in our hearts and say ‘when they repent, when they are punished, then I will forgive.
But the important part of the truth & reconciliation commission was that there was no punishment, if you owned up and told the truth of what you had done you were granted reconciliation and amnesty, forgiveness without punishment.
This principle follows the teaching in both readings today that where sin is admitted then forgiveness should follow. This is not to say that the Bible precludes or is opposed to punishment, indeed just and reasonable punishment is advocated frequently. No, the point the readings are making is that punishment is neither a condition nor a pre-requisite for forgiveness. It was Nelson Mandela who said ‘A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dreamt of’.
In a week when the murder of David Haines by Islamic State and the frankly incredible claim this was being done in the name of God stretches the ability to forgive to and beyond the limit we also remember the life of Ian Paisley.
Those who remember the seventies will know Rev Paisley as an intransigent, dogmatic and aggressive opponent of the republican cause. He promised on many occasions that he would never negotiate with terrorists. Yet in his later years he talked with, worked alongside and eventually became friends with Martin McGuinness, himself an extremist heavily involved in violence in his younger days. Whatever your view of their personalities, politics and attitudes they stand together as an example of what can be achieved through forgiveness and reconciliation.
In many ways, this text raises more questions than it answers concerning our life together as children of God. Perhaps the basic application of this text is to indicate that all of us fail to be as merciful and forgiving as God requires of us towards each other. We are not superior to any other believers. We cannot “lord” it over others. However, this sinfulness exposed in us is precisely why we are in need of God’s never-failing mercy and forgiveness.
I want to finish with another quote from Desmond Tutu who in many ways has been the best example to the modern world of what forgiveness means and what forgiveness can achieve. Despite all its problems there is no doubt South Africa would have been a more embittered and embattled and bloodier place with truth and reconciliation.
Desmond tutu said…..
‘Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing’. Amen
Gerry Stacey LLM
Matthew 18:15-20 & Genesis 50:15-21