Sunday, September 7, 2008
The Road to Forgiveness
I’m often amazed at just how childish grown-ups can be sometimes. When we look at politicians debating with each other, refusing to listen to what the other is saying and resorting to just slagging each other off, it often has little more maturity or sophistication than a playground brawl. Unfortunately, we Christians seem to be right up there with the politicians when it comes to not listening to, not understanding and not forgiving each other. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve spoken to who don’t go to church because of a comment that was made to them (often many years ago) or because they sat in someone else’s seat and were belittled for doing so, or because the church building that they used to worship in has closed down and they are angry at those whose building remained open. I’m afraid to say I even watched an event a couple of years ago when some people who had newly moved into the parish sat in the seat of a well-known parishioner, who then proceeded to make a lot of fuss about it, even though there were many many other seats to choose from. Not surprisingly, those people have never been back. Ironically, even people who finally get around to coming back to church after a long absence are ‘welcomed’ (in inverted commas) in such a way as to not make them feel welcome but instead to feel bad for having been away! Of course I am telling just one side of the story, I am pleased to say that for every mishap like this, there is much that is good and that must bring delight to the Lord, such as the way that most visitors and newcomers are indeed made immediately to feel at home as they worship with us.
It saddens me when I visit a home that is fractured because of unforgiveness, nearly always due to a simple misunderstanding, often over a piece of land, or unnecessarily harsh words uttered in pain or distress and taken out of context by the one who was hurt. We are so easily hurt aren’t we, so proud, so ready to be forgiven by those we have wronged but so reluctant to forgive those we have trespassed against... ?
I am reminded of author Harper Lee’s classic book “To kill a Mockingbird”. A very important lesson that we learn from that book is the one that the father, Atticus tells to his children; that “in order to be able to understand a man you need to be able to ‘walk in his shoes’”. If we were willing to step into the shoes of a person whom we had wronged or who had wronged us we would understand their point of view and therefore be able to diffuse the situation much more quickly. For example if the offended visitors who sat in a parishioners seat were able to understand that that parishioner had sat in that very seat for many many years, that their spouse and children had sat with them there too, that the spouse was long dead and the children a long time flown the nest and that when the parishioner sat there on a Sunday morning to everyone else it looked as if they were sitting on their own but in actual fact to the parishioner it was as if their spouse was still sitting next to them and the children, in their Sunday best sitting in a row alongside... If the visitors had realised this then surely they would have not been offended to the extent of never coming back, in fact they might even have made it their duty to return in order to show their love and support for the parishioner in question. Now if the parishioner had been able to ‘step into the shoes’ of the visitors who had newly moved into the parish, it would be clear that there were many seats available and that it was quite all right to sit wheresoever they chose, surely we come to church to worship God, and things such as seats don’t matter - yes children may fight over seats in the classroom, but surely not mature adults!? They probably convinced themselves not to return because they didn’t want to worship in a church where seats were more important than visitors! But of course if only they had been able to step into the parishioners shoes and had seen things from the parishioners perspective and if only the parishioner had been able to step into the visitors’ shoes and seen things from their perspective then things would have turned out differently - they might even have become friends and now be sitting alongside each other to this day...
And how many other instances are similar to this? It’s hard for me to think of anyone in the parish who hasn’t at some time told me about how another parishioner has upset them at some stage - I’m serious, and often we’re talking about things that happened so long ago that the actual details of the disagreement have long since been forgotten!
When someone upsets us we naturally want revenge, we want to get our own back - we may not actually do anything but we may secretly rejoice when some kind of mishap comes to that person later on, we even convince ourselves that they deserved it!
Okay then what does the Lord Jesus think of that? Well He makes it very clear - He wants not revenge, but reconciliation, not dislike, but love. He says:
“If your brother sins against you, go to him and show him his fault. But do it privately, just between yourselves. If he listens to you, you have won your brother back...”
If someone wrongs us we want to get them back and we want to tell others in a gossipy kind of way what they have done, we try to turn other people against that person. But the best thing to do is not to tell anyone else at all, but to go and talk to that person directly, don’t phone or write or email, these are too impersonal, go directly to that person and as unaggressively and gently as possible talk with them and explain to them why you are hurt by what they said or did. Often such a humble and frank conversation will lead to a deepening and strengthening of the relationship that you have with them. It is much better to talk with the person rather than them hearing from someone else that you have gossiped to that you are upset with them...
Sometimes though the person will stand their ground and refuse to admit that they did anything wrong. Well, the Lord Jesus tells us what to do then, we take along two other persons with us as witnesses (v.16). Now these two other persons should not be body guards to ‘duff up’ the person who has wronged you, merely witnesses. The idea is that this will exert a little more pressure on the individual to admit their wrongdoing and thus be reconciled with you.
I must admit that I have no experience of stage two, just stage one, (where I have been both the wrongdoer and the person who has been wronged against). I have to admit that it isn’t very comfortable being told what you have done wrong and a close friend telling you how upset they are - but it is a very good environment to admit your mistake, just between the two of you rather than all sorts of other people being involved too.
Stage three is altogether more serious:
And if he will not listen to them, then tell the whole thing to the church. Finally, if he will not listen to the church, treat him as though he were a pagan or a tax collector. (v.17)
I don’t know if we have anyone from the Revenue Commissioners here, but be assured we love you because you are quite different from the type of tax collector that Jesus is talking about. Likewise any pagans, so long as you are not the child-sacrificing type you’re okay to stay too!
Certainly I have no experience of stage three, but of course we have all heard about or read about people who have had to be ejected from a Church community because of persistent, unrepentant wrongdoing. It is very sad and thankfully quite rare - sometimes the person is reconciled eventually to the Christian community, sometimes not.
In the last couple of verse from our reading (Matthew 18:15-20), the Lord Jesus reminds us of the greatest of all tools for mending broken relationships - prayer:
“And I tell you more: whenever two of you on earth agree about anything you pray for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, I am there with them.” (v.19,20)
How strange it is that an all-powerful God, who could so easily fix our human messes by Himself, actually does nothing unless someone, somewhere starts to pray! Perhaps He wants to give us the honour of working in partnership with Him?1
How many friendships would have remained intact, how many marriages not broken down, how many churches and Christian communities remained worshipping and living happily together if only they had listened and not shouted, if only they had stepped into the others shoes rather than on them and if only they had not fought or gossiped but prayed?
Let us pray now:
Lord, next time I’m involved in a quarrel and someone upsets me, remind me to tell you first, then the person who hurt me, but please prevent me from telling everyone else.2 Amen.
1 From Scripture Union notes, “Closer to God”, vol. 23, p.80, 2004
Also helpful was Michael Green’s book: “Matthew for Today”, Hodder & Stoughton 1989