Sunday, August 24, 2003

What is forgiveness?

Every superficial Christian loves the passages where Christ talks about not judging others and about forgiveness. (In fact, I think that most people hear the Sermon on the Mount like this: "Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah judge not blah blah blah blah blah.") We tend to think that forgiveness is some kind of warm feeling: "If I get cut off in traffic, or if someone saysa sharp word to me, I'll just `forgive' him." I will feel warmly towards him, but I won't actually do anything about it. Forgiveness usually doesn't mean that I have to do anything, and so is a very convenient virtue.

But is this what Christ had in mind? I don't think so. Today in the Byzantine church we heard the parable of the unforgiving servant, Matthew 18:23-35: That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt.
At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.' Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, 'Pay back what you owe.' Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.' But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt.
Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?'
Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.
So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart."

Note that the servant, who owed "a huge amount"--the Greek for this gospel makes it clear that the debt owed might as well have been infinite, for all the hope the servant would have of ever paying it off--is not condemned for any failure of feeling. Perhaps he felt warm feelings about his fellow servant. Perhaps it was just business. But the wicked servant was condemned eternally (since his debt was so great it could never be repaid) because of actions that he did. Forgiveness is not a matter of feeling but a matter of action.

So, how can a Christian truly forgive from his heart? He needs to act forgivingly. So, if someone hurts me, I need to love him despite the hurt. By love, of course, I mean "do actions for his own good." Love isn't a feeling either, but a matter of action. We must love those who hurt us. That's forgiveness.

Think about this the next time you are tempted to sue someone.

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