Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Forgiveness (饶恕, rao shu)

"For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." (Matthew 6:14-15)
Last Sunday in Church, the preacher observes that the forgiveness emphasis in the Lord's Prayer was mentioned in his followup (Matthew 5:14-15). We may be asking: "Isn't the kingdom important? How about heaven? Perhaps the will of God?" Why aren't these relatively 'important' things deserve a second mention? Why did Jesus choose to expound on the part of forgiveness above all other things? One thing to learn is to read around the verses. Theologically, this means trying to locate and understand the context of the gospel passage. Reading Matthew leads us to understand that Jesus is trying to reach a Jewish audience, well familiar with Old Testament laws. Their greatest need: Forgiving one another.

Context of Matthew
Matthew writes the gospel primarily to the Jewish believers around AD 70-80. These people are steep in Old Testament law keeping, and forgiveness comes with a strong sense of justice in terms of 'an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth.' (Matt 5:38). Let us trace the emphases of Jesus in Matthew. As Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount, there are multiple references to Old Testament Torah, or the Law. All along, Jesus tries to educate his hearers that the fulfillment of the Law will be done through Jesus (Matt 5:17). Freely they have received, so freely they ought to give. However, it will not be in the ways taught by the Pharisees but in the Person of Christ. Look at the range of works that are affected by relationships.
1) WORSHIP: Jesus sheds light on the need to be reconciled with one's brother before worship (Matt 5:23).
2) MENTALLY: Adultery is not only the physical act, but a mental trap (Matt 5:27-30). In other words, if one interprets the law like the Pharisees, all of us will be limbless.
3) VERBALLY: Swearing by the law is no use, for we cannot save ourselves
4) NON-JUDGMENTALLY: Instead, love our enemies rather than judge them.

Jesus seems to be making these points to highlight that the way to observe the Law of Moses is in Jesus Christ. That is how the law becomes COMPLETE in Christ. As long as the Jews were insistent on the Pharisaic interpretation of the Law and the practices thereof, the Law will be lopsided. It is only when the Law is seen through the eyes of Jesus, we get a fulfillment of the Law. The law is not cancelled, but completed through grace. Unlike some preachers who speak vehemently against the Law, insisting in their interpretation of 'grace' in such a way that the Law needs to be 'deleted' from the Christian faith, the Scriptures is fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. The word is not cancel the law or erase the Pharisee from our hearts. The word is FULFILL. This is not mixture of law and grace. It is the accomplishment of the law in Jesus, not elimination. In other words, we need to hold the law on one hand, and grace in Jesus on the other hand. It is thus not syncretism but fulfilling of the Word of God in Jesus. Whenever any party over-emphasizes either hand, their theology will be lop-sided.

Parable of the Unmerciful Servant
As long as we insist on our own sense righteousness, we are under the Pharisaic version of the law. However, if we put on Jesus, we see the Law being one that is redeemed in Christ. The way to be redeemed is to recognize firstly that we have already been redeemed in Christ. In other words, when we realize that we have been truly forgiven and cleansed of our dreadful sins, we will be able to forgive others. Once we have been forgiven, should we not forgive others as well? In Matthew 18, Jesus responds to Peter's query on forgiveness. The answer is not only seventy-seven times (interpreted perpetually) but a sense of always wearing on our head-bands "I FORGIVE YOU."

The parable of the Unmerciful servant is meant to address our very need to forgive. It talks about 3 persons, the Master, his servant and the servant's servant. For simplicity, let me call them the Master, the Big servant and the small servant. After begging for forgiveness, the Master decided to cancel the big debt (10000 talents) of the Big servant. Instead of showing mercy to the small servant who owes the Big servant (100 denariis), the Big servant insisted on the repayment of the debt, conveniently forgetting the big debt he has benefited from the Master. The contrast is stark.

- Big servant is relieved of 10000 talents. He insisted Small pay back 100 denariis
- Numerically, the number is huge. Currency wise, the amount is incredible.
- Currency wise, the amount is like Big Servant owes 'millions' in contrast to Small servant's 'few dollars.' If Big Servant has been forgiven millions of dollars, should not he be forgiving of other people's dollar and cents? This is the context of forgiveness.

When we find it hard to forgive other people's few dollars against us, remember that we have already been forgiven millions. Isn't that a case of penny-wise pound foolish? What right do we have to bear a grudge against people who hold a small debt against us, when we, of all people, have been forgiven millions of debt we owe God? The key to forgiveness is indeed to recognize that we have already been forgiven. We have already had our insurmountable debts fully cleared. Shouldn't we show grace and mercy to others who has a smaller debt against us?

Forgiveness: From the Heart
The Chinese translation for Matthew 6:14's verse on forgiveness is 饶恕 (rao shu). 饶 (rao) means to be rich. The word 恕 (shu) has a 'heart' 心 (xin) which can be interpreted as from the bottom of the heart. The word above 如 (ru) means 'in compliance with. So when one's actions is in compliance with what is needed in the heart, the act of forgiveness is liberating. 饶恕 (rao shu) literally means richly forgive, or forgiving others with a big and generous heart. Those who have been pardoned will be called to pardon others. Hence from a THEOLOGICAL standpoint, we have already been forgiven, hence we should freely forgive. PSYCHOLOGICALLY, our forgiving of others has a healing effect on our emotions and mental state of mind. Forgiveness must be from the heart.

Lewis Smedes has said that forgiveness is freedom from prison in the sense that it frees a relationship from the tangles of bitterness and pain of bearing grudges. Moreover, through an act of forgiveness, one realizes that the prisoner set free is actually oneself. Indeed, true spiritual richness lies in being rich in heart, to have a big heart to forgive.

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” (Lewis Smedes)

Forgiveness: As Initiative
Another Chinese word for forgiveness comprises of 2 words: 原諒. The first word '原' (yuan) means primary, original or first. The other word '諒' refers to forgiveness and understanding. In other words, when the two words are put together, it tells us the way forgiving needs to be done. True forgiveness is the act of deciding to take the first step in understanding the need to forgive and then truly making the primary initiative to seek and to exercise forgiveness in all. In other words, it is not a question of waiting for others to recognize they are wrong. It is our initiative to take the first step to understand where the other party is coming from, and whether we felt grieved or unfairly hurt, we take the first step to seek reconciliation. This must come with no conditions attached. The only reason in our minds is: We forgive because we have been forgiven. It is because our God (the Master) has forgiven us our debts, we (Big Servant) need to learn to forgive others (Small Servant) their smaller debts. If we continue to harp upon our justified positions, claiming that we were never wrong in the first place, remember that we have been bought at a great price, redeemed with a huge sacrifice. Only then can we realize that the offenses others made against us, will be strangely small and dim. In fact, why should we allow small offenses to become a barrier (for them and us) to our relationship with God?

The Greek (ἀφίημι, aphiemi) for forgiveness can also mean 'to neglect, leave alone.' It tells us that forgiving has an element of choosing NOT to remember past offenses. This is not the same as forgetting. There are things in life that can never be erased. However, we can certainly commit ourselves NEVER to let them get in the way of giving our adversaries or our offenders the neighbourly love we are called to give. I enclose two prayers for your reflection. The first is a simple Nigerian prayer about the need to ask God to forgive us in our hearts. The second is a prayer for God to help us forgive in our relationships, through Christ alone. This second prayer is another way to summarize my message on forgiveness. It is worth the reading, the thinking and the praying.

#1 - Prayer of a Nigerian Christian
"God in heaven, you have helped my life to grow like a tree. Now something has happened. Satan, like a bird, has carried in one twig of his own choosing after another. Before I knew it he had built a dwelling place and was living in it. Tonight, my Father, I am throwing out both the bird and the nest." (Oxford Book of Prayers, p107)

#2 - In Christ Alone
"Almighty God, Spirit of purity and grace, in asking thy forgiveness I cannot claim a right to be forgiven but only cast myself upon thine unbounded love.
I can plead no merit or desert:
I can plead no extenuating circumstances:
I cannot plead the frailty of my nature:
I cannot plead the force of the temptations I encounter:
I cannot plead the persuasions of others who led me astray:
I can only say, for the sake of Jesus Christ they Son, my Lord. Amen.
John Baillie (Scottish theologian, 1886-1960)

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