The Church of England has been grappling with the issue of forgiveness in a recent document called ‘Forgiveness and Reconciliation in the Aftermath of Abuse’. The issue of abuse by priests and church organisations is a live one in many denominations. Reports into events from the distant, and not so distant, past have revealed shocking behaviour which seems to bear no relationship to the faith which Christians hold.
This report is trying to address the issue of forgiveness when considering churches which have shared in abuse in some way, those who have abused and those who have been abused. These are very tricky questions to answer. As the chair of the Faith and Order Commission, Rt Rev Christopher Cocksworth, states even though forgiveness is “at the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ” it shouldn’t be used to collude and cover up abuse in the Church and “forgiveness needs to be seen in relation to justice, healing, and repentance”. As you can imagine, in considering the theology which relates to this issue, our Gospel passage for the day is considered.
Forgiveness is a very difficult practice of the Christian life. Our first response, on a human level, is to retaliate if we are hurt by someone else. We might think of it as sticking up for ourselves, not being a doormat that everyone can just walk all over. Forgiving can often seem to be too soft a response to those who have wronged us.
However, as Christians, we are trying to be ‘little Christs’. We look to Jesus as our example of how we should behave. It was Jesus who gave the teaching to Peter about forgiveness, telling him to forgive seventy-seven times (or seventy times seven in some translations). Either way, it’s a big number, way beyond Peter’s generous suggestion of seven times. Jesus didn’t just teach on the subject of forgiveness; he lived out his teaching. On the cross, after a mock trial which was a travesty of justice, Jesus prayed for forgiveness for those who had wronged him. He didn’t do it because he was weak. He had told Peter that he could summon twelve legions of angels, should he so wish. Jesus was stronger than anyone who had ever lived and he showed his strength by not retaliating but forgiving. In this way he gave us our example, and a huge challenge.
The parable of the unforgiving servant is used to press home the point. This servant owed the king an extraordinary amount of money. Ten thousand talents was several years’ wages – an unpayable debt. Debtors were thrown into prison or sold into slavery. When the servant begged for mercy from the king, he was begging for life and liberty for himself and all those who depended on him for their well-being. As we know, he got what he asked for – a huge amount of mercy. All his debt was wiped away and he walked out of the king’s presence as a free man with a load lifted from his shoulders. You might imagine that such a person would have a big smile on his face all day, would be kind to everyone because of the kindness he had received. However, he immediately rounded on a colleague who owed him about 100 days’ wages. He didn’t listen to the plea for mercy but simply threw the man into prison. As a result of his actions, the first servant was thrown into prison for his debt. He forfeited the wonderful gift of forgiveness because he couldn’t bring himself to extend the same gift to someone else.
Parables, by their very nature, tend to speak to us in different ways. It would be wrong to box this one into a corner but one of its meanings has surely to be that vengeance imprisons us. Some of the saddest people we are likely to come across are those who are locked into resentment towards someone who has wronged them. It colours every part of their life. It spills over into many relationships, not just that with the person who did wrong. It limits life and certainly does not provide the abundant life which Jesus promised us. As I said last week, Nelson Mandela recognised this when he walked out of prison. Without letting go of any resentment for his years in prison, he would have remained imprisoned.
We may be advised by well-meaning friends to forgive and forget. It sounds like a fairly easy thing. Just ignore it, move on, let it go, get on with your life. Forgiveness is not that easy. It may take an awfully long time to get to the point where we can forgive something and we can only do the forgiving if we remember the painful experience. It needs the action of the Holy Spirit working in us so that we can come to the point of forgiving. We may think that one day we have reached the point of forgiveness, only to slip back again the next day. Forgiveness is hard work and brushing the offence under the carpet does not give us the opportunity to do the necessary work.
Forgiving does not mean allowing a perpetrator to avoid the consequences of their actions. Too often in the past, women have been sent back to abusive husbands by well-meaning but foolish priests. Too often, those women have been murdered as a result. Alternatively, the victim of some abuse or crime is advised not to tell the appropriate authorities as that would not be ‘forgiving’. As the Church of England report makes clear, forgiveness does not mean that justice has no place. People need to face the consequences of their actions, whether that be abuse or some other crime. In doing so they have a chance to consider what they have done and perhaps seek help to avoid repeating the same behaviour.
In the midst of considering just how tough forgiveness is, and what difficult problems it faces us with, we must not lose sight of the good news. God is the merciful king of the parable and if we ask him, we are sure that he will forgive us, even more readily than we forgive ourselves. We are not asked to forgive others in a vacuum but as a response to what has been given to us unconditionally.
St Paul said that ‘each of us will be accountable to God’ which is quite a sobering thought. Jesus reassures us that, if we ask for mercy, we will be granted it so we have nothing to fear when we stand before the judgement seat of God.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor