Forgiveness and reconciliation: in Scripture and in ordinary life


Scripture: Genesis 25: 24-34 and Matthew 18: 21-22 Nigel Bunce

Christian forgiveness


Forgiveness and reconciliation lie at the heart of the Christian faith. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus counselled us to say, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”  But reconciliation is more than forgiveness.  It implies coming together again.

Esau and Jacob

Jacob and Esau, from www,churchofjesus

Today, we met Isaac’s twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau was a hunter. In today’s language, he had a job. Jacob was a devious and unattractive character. Scripture describes him as ‘living in tents.’ He’s the 25 year old in the basement playing video games. 

Jacob took advantage of Esau.  When Esau was hungry, Jacob tricked him into selling his birthright for a bowl of stew. Later, Jacob tricked his father Isaac on his death bed. He dressed in animal skins to resemble the hairy Esau. Isaac, who was now blind, gave Jacob the blessing and the inheritance that were rightly Esau’s. Esau was so angry that he threatened to kill Jacob, who had to run away.

Peter’s question about forgiveness

In today’s Gospel reading, Peter asked Jesus how often should he forgive someone who has done him dirt. Would seven times be enough? “No,” says Jesus, “not even seventy times seven.” That’s an unimaginably large number of times. Jesus counselled unlimited forgiveness – a very hard concept for we mortals who have to put up with awkward people or unfair situations in our daily lives.

Forgiveness raises difficult questions. How soon should someone be prepared to forgive? Must the person who did the wrong ask forgiveness, or express remorse for his or her actions? These questions always make me think about a news item from about 15 years ago.

Someone murdered the son of a Christian pastor (I think it happened in Alberta). Even before the funeral, the pastor publicly offered forgiveness. In the rawness of his grief, it seemed too soon to me. The murderer had not expressed remorse. I have always wondered – was the offer sincere? Or did the pastor feel obliged to make the statement because he was a Christian “professional”?  And, because there was no involvement of the other party, it cannot be said to have been reconciliation.

God’s forgiveness through Confession

We believe that God forgives our sins. Through Absolution, God sets them aside, and wipes the slate clean. We do not have to confess this week’s sins again when we return to church next week. But there are caveats.

The words of Confession stress that Absolution requires repentance. We have to be sorry for our unworthy actions. In the words of the Book of Common Prayer. “Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead the new life …”

Without repentance, the Absolution has little meaning. In his book The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhöffer called Absolution without repentance an example of cheap grace. Something without value or meaning. Repentance means to “turn around”. At a minimum, therefore, it must mean a sincere effort not to repeat the bad behaviour. An example of cheap grace. An example: Absolution for a Roman Catholic couple who confessed their use of birth control, without any intention of abandoning the practice.

Absolution, forgiveness, and reconciliation

Absolution is God’s offer of forgiveness. To turn around the telescope, it is the way in which we become reconciled to God. So I have to ask myself: does forgiveness between people have similar constraints? Is it necessary for the wrong-doer to ask forgiveness or to show repentance? If not, should I forgive them anyway? Must I do so over and over again?

My take on this – but it is only my take – is that unconditional forgiveness can be of value to myself. It helps me avoid the corrosive effect on my psyche or my soul of an unforgiven action. What I am trying to say is that a sincere offer of forgiveness – spoken or unspoken – is always a balm to the soul of the forgiver. It may also soothe the soul of the wrong-doer, especially if that person expresses remorse.

Unlimited forgiveness is not the same as being a doormat

However, I have a further caveat. Jesus replied to Peter’s enquiry about forgiveness, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.” Taken to literal extremes, this tells the person wronged to be a doormat. Too often, that is the message of a sermon on this text. The abused spouse; the employee with the belittling boss; the person of colour who experiences racial slurs. “Suck it up, Buttercup. Forgive and forget.”

I don’t think so. Just before today’s short reading, Jesus had said that if you cannot get satisfaction for your grievance, “Let the other person be to you as a Gentile or a tax-collector.” In other words, it may be necessary to break the community – to set the wrong-doer apart. Thus, in the case of spousal or child abuse, the family ‘community’ may have to sever because of the grievous behaviour. It may be necessary to fire the belittling boss or send the racist to prison.

So, NO! The abused spouse does not have to “forgive and forget.” Nor does the person with the overbearing boss, or the person who is the subject of racial slurs or other forms of discrimination. Unlimited forgiveness is not always appropriate in such cases. Also, it makes sense to be wary of the person who has hurt you once, not just to forgive and forget, especially without repentance.

Jesus’ reply to Peter, a contrast with the old way of behaving

But I don’t think that Jesus was being pollyanna-ish when he spoke of unlimited forgiveness. Because his “seventy times seven” comment was made in a context that his Pharisee hearers would have understood immediately. Jesus was referring to the story of Lamech, a descendant of Cain, who had killed his brother Abel. Lamech, like Cain, committed murder. If Cain’s deed required seven-fold vengeance, Lamech’s crime should need vengeance seventy-seven times over [Genesis 4: 8-17; 23-24].

The twist in the story is that Lamech’s response was unlimited, or at least, increasing vengeance for wrong. The old values led to an increase in vengeance – from seven to seventy times seven times. But Jesus told Peter to follow a new way. It would lead to a corresponding increase in forgiveness.

Forgiveness and reconciliation, then and now

It was many years before Esau and Jacob reconciled. I assume that Esau’s hurt at how Jacob treated him was very deep. He could not just shrug it off and forgive Jacob with a piece of cheap grace. When they finally met, Esau did not formally say, “I forgive you.” But he showed Jacob genuine love and friendship and accepted him once again as his brother [Genesis 33: 1-17]. But, as commented elsewhere, it took almost a lifetime for the brothers to reach the point of forgiveness and reconciliation.

In Canada today, the word reconciliation gets bandied about a lot with respect to the relationship between “settlers” and our Indigenous peoples. Prime Ministers and Church leaders have offered apologies to Indigenous people for the many and persistent wrongs committed against them by the governments and people of Canada. But like Esau, they feel the hurts very deeply. We have to accept that it will be a very long time before they will feel able to say with sincerity, “We forgive you.”