Forgiveness: The New Natural Reaction

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) – February 20, 2022

St. Paul – Lyons, KS

1 Samuel 26:2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23; Psalm 103; 1 Corinthians 15:45-49; Luke 6:27-38

The Natural and Unnatural Reaction: Vengeance vs. Forgiveness

Have you ever been in a snowball fight? Probably. Pretty common thing, especially as a kid. And in a snowball fight, there are some common rules, but implicit. Like: don’t aim for the face, don’t throw hard-packed slush-balls (because, you know, that’s just a rock), and don’t put rocks in the middle of your snowball. Common things! Well, as a kid (I was probably about ten) there was one time when I was having a snowball fight with my brother (who would have been about fourteen at the time), and he chucks this hard-packed slush-ball with a rock in the middle of it…and hits me right in the face. And I cannot even replay for you the blood curdling, murderous shriek that came out of me…but I went after him ready for blood. And I am chasing him down ready to fight him to the death.

Now, in your mind you’re probably like, “Yeah, I can see that.” And why is that? Because it’s a natural reaction to that sort of thing. It’s natural. None of you are like, “Oh, that is so unreasonable of a ten year-old kid to respond like that.” And as adults, we have the same things, but usually less violent (usually), more sophisticated versions of snow-ball fights; and instead of screaming bloody murder and getting into physical fights we attack people’s character with gossip or slander, or we punish them through resentment and shunning them, or whatever. Whether it’s your workplace, whether it’s your family—you know you’ve hurled some hard-packed slush-balls, and you’ve had some hurled at you. And it hurts!

And when you get “hit,” when you are hurt, what’s your natural reaction? You get angry, feel hurt, feel betrayed, feel humiliated—and you want to get even. And that’s what I did with my brother. And who can blame you? It’s the natural response! No one has to teach us that. I didn’t have to sit there and think, “Hmm, what should I do to my brother?” No, it’s our natural, inbuilt need for justice, to make things right, to even things out. This is the exact kind of thing that’s going on in our first reading: David is on the run from Saul who wants to kill him, because David is much more popular than him. So pretty unjust: David is running for his life because he’s popular. And in this story, David and his companion Abishai sneak into Saul’s tent, and Abishai goes, “Look at this! Saul, completely helpless. God has delivered your enemy into your grasp this day. Let me nail him to the ground with one thrust of the spear.” Great image there: let me nail him to the ground. Here is this unjust situation (Saul hunting David down to murder him, just because David is popular), and here is the natural reaction: let’s take him out before his unjust plan.

But there is a very unnatural reaction—when we are hurt, when someone hurts us, flings their hard-pack slush balls at us—and that is to forgive. It is very unnatural. There is no “natural urge” to forgive someone. You have to work at it, develop it, practice it. As disciples, followers of Jesus Christ, it comes “second nature” to us. And the question is why? Why would you do something so unnatural? Why would Jesus teach us to do something so unnatural? And it doesn’t make sense if you don’t follow Christ. But if you do, it makes all the sense in the world.

Jesus Forgives

Can you think of a moment in Jesus’ life when he was being hurt, when other people were hurling their “slush-balls” at him, and it hurt him, and he chose to forgive? When he did this very unnatural thing? In a few chapters, we will get to this story, “And when [Jesus and Roman soldiers and Jewish leaders] came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ And they cast lots to divide his garments” (Luke 23:33-34).

So here is Jesus in a moment of pain, having violence done to him (that makes my story look like child’s play, which it was), being murdered unjustly, a sham of a trial, false charges, sentenced to death on these false charges, being nailed to a cross, humiliated, abandoned by his friends—and he prays that God would forgive the people doing this. And the people don’t care, because they go on to humiliate him even more—throwing dice for his clothes. This is so unnatural!

But in this moment, Jesus is walking his talk. Jesus taught his own followers to do this very thing. There was a prayer he taught them, the only prayer, which says: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” My favorite prayer and my least favorite prayer, because of that one line we skip over: “Forgive us…as we forgive.” Every day, praying, “Father, you know how forgiving I am? Yeah, I want you to forgive me just like that!” Today, his sermon on the plain (go back and read it again), but Jesus says, “Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.…For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.…Be merciful, just as your heavenly Father is merciful.” In Matthew, Jesus says, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Luke clarifies what he means, “Be merciful.” (I’ve had so many funerals this year. And it has really struck me, the opening prayer says, “O God, whose nature is always to forgive and to show mercy, we humbly implore you for your servant N.” God’s nature, his perfect nature, is “always to forgive and to show mercy.”)

What Is “Forgiveness”?

What does Jesus mean when he asks us to “forgive”? I’ve told you before, but I’m a huge nerd; study Greek in my free time. So, no pun intended, but forgive me for inflicting this on you. The Greek word is aphiemi. This word, in its most basic meaning, means “to release, to let go, to drop.” This is very interesting. In English we have different words. If I’m holding a rock, and I do this (gestures dropping it), we say, “You release it.” If I have a backpack and take it off, “I let it go. I drop it.” But if our relationship is broken because I wronged you, but then you choose to do something to overlook that wrong in some way, we have a different word: forgive. Not in the language of the Bible; it’s the same word. To release (the rock), to let go or drop (the backpack), and to do that thing where you overlook the problem—all of that is aphiemi.

So stop and think: Jesus prays, “Release these people who are killing me. Let it go.” Release what? Rock, you drop it. Backpack, you let it go. But if you wrong me, if Jesus is subject to this incredible injustice, murder, sin, etc.…aphiemi what? What am I letting go? What is Jesus asking the Father to “let go”?

And the language Jesus uses, and the language we use, is money—a debt. For example, it’s Christmas and you just just got the iSamsung 25. And you’re showing it to a friend. And in a moment of jealously and anger, they break it. (This is stupid story. I know that.) And then they say, “Oh sorry. My bad. But no big deal.” Then they try to walk off. But it’s like, “No, not ‘no big deal.’” And you say what? “You owe me.” Literally, you owe me a few hundred dollars.

In life, in broken relationships, and sin, and hurt, betrayal—to forgive means to release someone’s debt to you, to “let go” of what they owe you. When someone wrongs you, or when your brother launches a hard-packed slush-ball at you—all of a sudden, they are “in your debt.” And in a situation of hurt, betrayal, violence, etc., there are two ways out: one, the person who wronged you can “pay” (and that’s what we call justice); or you can “pay” (in other words, you absorb the debt, you pay—this is forgiveness). And this sounds like a really dumb idea! In these stark of terms, it’s clear how dumb it sounds. “Why would you do that?”

Why Forgive? It Is Our Share In the Cross

But the reason why Jesus calls his disciples, calls us to that, is because of the meaning of that moment on the cross. On the Cross, Jesus enters into solidarity with the condition of human sin, and violence, and malevolence—in its most extreme case, death—he endures everything. That’s what the cross symbolizes: Sin and Death doing their worst. This is “The Cross.” And in this moment, Jesus can forgive because of one fact: his absolute and complete faith, complete trust in the Father, that the Father will will make it right, that the Father can “cover the cost.” And He does. He raises Jesus up. Even in death, there is Resurrection. The purely human way of looking at things says, “If you don’t get even now, you never will.” But Jesus says, “The Father will make it right.” And the resurrection is the promise of that.

Ok, so as disciples, followers of Jesus, we see these moments where we are called to forgive as our own participation in The Cross. But also, you have to remember: as much as “they” deserve it, I deserved it too—and Jesus still died for me; sinful as I am, Jesus did not take his pound of flesh from me. Go read the Psalm again, “He pardons all your iniquities, heals all your ills. He redeems your life from destruction, crowns you with kindness and compassion.…Not according to our sins does he deal with us, nor does he requite us according to our crimes.” Right? And so I, you, we who share in Christ’s life through Baptism, who share in his mission through Confirmation, who are conformed to him in the Eucharist—we are called to embrace The Cross, which means forgiving others, knowing the Father will bring justice.

The great act of God’s justice, God making everything right, God avenging us for all that we have suffered and endured, ultimately, the great injustice of death itself—the great act of God’s justice is the Resurrection. And so if I’m going to follow Jesus, share his life, share his mission, share in his death and resurrection…I too must forgive. It is fine to get angry, react, feel how you feel, call out the wrong…but then I am called to forgive; to release their debt, and to hand it over to the Father.

Only when we know that we are the recipients of God’s forgiveness—only when we know that the Father will makes things right—only when the resurrection is real…only then does forgiveness make any sense. And, in fact, forgiveness become necessary. “I have greatly sinned,” and yet Christ still died for me. As we share in his life in this Eucharist, we begin to share in his act of forgiveness as well.

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