The Anglican Cathedral of Second Life

The hard task of forgiving

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At noon SLT today, Sunday September 11 2011, we gathered in the Anglican Cathedral in Second Life to remember the events of ten years ago and to pray for peace. Though governments may go to war to right wrongs, in the end that’s not a policy that actually solves the problem. It costs more lives and perpetuates hatred. Jesus’ way is far more costly to each of us in a way that’s closer to us than a distant war fought in our name. It’s a battle to give up our right to revenge and instead to forgive anyone who harms us in any way. It’s the way that Jesus taught and the way that he lived. It’s a challenge but brings us freedom and abundant life.

The readings for the day were Psalm 103:1-13, Genesis 50:15-21, Matthew 18:21-35. My reflection follows:

2,976 people died in the 9/11 attacks. A sobering statistic.

The US and coalition attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq had claimed the lives of 919,967 people by August 2010, based on the lowest credible estimate.

In World War I, the ‘war to end all wars’, approximately 17 million people died.

In World War II between 50 and 80 million people died making it the deadliest war ever.

The wars fought in the past and going on now have not ended war; they have not brought peace but perpetuated hatred. But that’s the way that governments use to try to solve difficulties.

Going back 2000 years, the Jews were hoping for a Messiah, one who would wage war on the Roman occupying forces and restore Israel’s independence. Jesus really didn’t fit the description of the Messiah at all because he didn’t do what was expected, but he did do what was needed. He knew that the battle was not against occupying powers or individuals who harmed others but against the evil which inspired the destructive actions. As Paul said in his letter to the Ephesians, the battle is against principalities and powers, not flesh and blood. Attacking those who attack us is like dealing with the symptoms of a disease without attempting to deal with the cause. Those stark statistics I quoted show that it doesn’t work.

There’s no doubt that Jesus could have ridden into Jerusalem on a war horse, not a donkey, with legions of angels wielding swords to support him rather than crowds of pilgrims waving nothing more deadly than palm branches. The Romans wouldn’t have stood a chance against him. Instead Jesus chose to deal with the problem at source, in the hearts of people. He helped individuals to change by showing them love and a different way to live. Perhaps the greatest and most difficult lesson he taught was about forgiveness.

Having lived with Jesus for some time, listening to him, watching him, Peter seemed to think he had begun to understand the message of his Master. Probably thinking how kind hearted he was being, Peter took the most generous teaching of the day on forgiveness and asked Jesus if he should do as it suggested and forgive seven times. Imagine his astonishment to be told 77 times! There would be no way to keep a count up to that number and that was probably the point Jesus was making. “If you need to keep count, Peter, you’ve got it wrong, you’ve not arrived yet. You don’t yet understand the magnitude of the forgiveness necessary.”

The parable which follows illustrates just that point. The first servant mentioned owed ten thousand talents to the king. A talent was a small fortune; ten thousand was totally beyond the dreams of any but the richest person. It was certainly beyond the means of a slave to repay. The king would have been aware that despite grovelling on his knees and promising to pay, in practical terms the slave was uttering empty words. It would have been impossible to pay the amount back. Even selling the man and all he owned was going to make little impact on the debt. The king wiped out an unpayable debt and effectively gave the man his life back. The forgiven slave then demanded the repayment of a debt amounting to one hundred days’ wages, which was only a six-hundred thousandth of what he had just been forgiven.

The point is clear. We have been forgiven an unimaginable debt by God. He has shown us immeasurable grace, even though it cost him the cruel death of his Son. We are not in a position to demand the repayment of the debts others owe us. As we pray often in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’

This is not to minimise the cost of forgiving others. Forgiveness is extremely costly, probably the most costly action we will ever take. It’s not something that can be forced. It may take months – perhaps years – to even get to the point of wanted to forgive if a very grave wrong has been perpetrated against us. It can be doubly hard if the person who has wronged us doesn’t even seem to notice and doesn’t ask for forgiveness. There are three recognised steps in forgiveness which some have identified: recognising the worth of the person who has wronged us; surrendering our natural wish to get even in some way; putting ourselves on the same side as the one who has wronged us. Each of those steps could cost tears and deep struggle to attain but Jesus’ teaching is seldom easy to follow. It challenges us at the deepest levels of our being.

Some people have really understood what is needful as an answer to the evil in this world. Joseph, faced with his brothers’ fear that he might use his power against them, looked at the bigger picture and said: ‘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. 21So have no fear.’ Mahatma Gandhi took the non-violent route to counter the occupation of his country and said: ‘A non-violent man can do nothing save by the power and grace of God. Without it he won’t have the courage to die without anger, without fear and without retaliation.’ Nelson Mandela, when asked why he showed no resentment for his years spent in prison, said: ‘Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for it to kill your enemy.’ The widows of Graham Staines, the Australian missionary burned to death in 1999 by a Hindu mob in Orissa, and of Tilman Geske, the German missionary tortured and murdered by Turks in 2007, responded as Jesus did to his executioners: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Revenge looks like the easy route to take when we suffer at the hands of others. Somehow it makes the unfairness of life seem a little fairer and restores the balance in some way. However, as Proverbs 14:12 reminds us: ‘There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death.’ The way of Jesus, the way of the cross, is the costly way of forgiveness which is the only road to freedom, abundant life and the coming of the kingdom of God.

Helene Milena – Lay Pastor

Author: Helene Milena

Lay Pastor of the Anglican Cathedral in Second Life. Teacher, counsellor, wife, mother and grandmother.

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