Friday, 12 September 2008

Pure Forgiveness

Jesus comes across a bit on the excessive side at times. Hyperbolic, we might say. If someone takes your coat, give them your shirt also (Lk 6:29); turn the other cheek (Lk 6:29); how many times should I forgive my brother or sister? (Matt 18:21-22) And, in one of the parables Jesus uses to teach about forgiveness (Matt 18:23-35), notice the ridiculous amount of debt that is forgiven. (10,000 talents = 150,000 years of a labourer's wage!)

It is easy to set our sights too low when it comes to forgiveness. (Or difficult to set our sights higher.)Most forgiveness is that which is 'earned' in some way. We find it easier to forgive someone who has shown remorse or repented their actions, than if they remain unrepentant. We are then able to respond with a suitable response of forgiveness, and a bridge over the trouble is built through this 'negotiation' of repentance and forgiveness. Note though, in this process the repentant person has already moved on from the sin and the kind of person they were. We are not forgiving the sinner per se, but an improvement on them! This is our usual modus operandi in respect to forgiveness. There is nothing wrong with this, and it is very practical in all areas of human life, ranging from the interpersonal to the public and political. Saying 'sorry' has become part of the political landscape, and we find it easier to move on with the apology than without.

But there is a purer forgiveness. It is implied in the imperfection of the 'negotiated' forgiveness above.This is the utterly gratuitous forgiveness of the sinner and the sin without prior repentance. This is forgiveness worthy of the title forgiveness. How difficult it is to forgive the sinner who has not repented and continues to be the person capable of recommitting the sin. Purer forgiveness, but much harder. We rarely see it, even more rarely (if ever) live it ourselves.

The Bible is full of the less pure forgiveness. 'Repent, and believe ..." And, again, there is nothing wrong with it. It is very practical. But it is not the purest form of forgiveness. The purest forgiveness is implied in this less perfect form of forgiveness, but is displayed to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is God forgiving us before we repent, before we make ourselves worthy of forgiveness, before we have left the sin and the sinner behind. (Rom 5:6-11) In Jesus Christ the pure forgiveness of God is made manifest and efficacious for all. (Rom 5:18-21)

When we repent it may feel as though the forgiveness we receive from God comes in response to that repentance. And while this is true to an extent, the possibility of repentance is a gift we received within the gratuity of pure forgiveness. That is, God's forgiveness is pure, and it leads to repentance, to that very practical kind of forgiveness we are all so familiar with. No matter how hard we try, and no matter how successful in changing, all of it comes to us through the gratuity of pure forgiveness. (Lk 7:36-50)

[Pentecost 18(A), Matt 18:21-35] See J. Derrida, 'On Forgiveness'.


1 comment:

Stephen James Bloor said...

I think what you are saying here is really important. I think often, at least in my experience of Anglican Churches and Schools, we see forgiveness as something that comes after repentance. Once you've scratched the surface with people about what they actually think this is what we find. It is also very hard to get beneath the Armour to actually teach that while we were still far off as sinners God loved us.

When people realise that God loves them despite everything that is wrong in their life, the things they've done and then things others have done to them, there is tears. How can we not cry when we experience the unconditional love of God. The pure forgiveness that you speak of.