Monday, 11 September 2017

Forgiveness, Up Front - Sunday 10th September 2017

There is a long established understanding in western culture that forgiveness needs to be asked for. Just like groceries have to be paid for, forgiveness comes at a price. In order to be forgiven, you have to apologise, and you have to give reasonable assurances that you won’t do it again (whatever it was). This transactional approach to forgiveness runs deeply in our everyday lives. We allow relationships to fall into ruin while we wait for the other person to say 'sorry' - firm in our resolve that we can't forgive until they repent. 
This is not how God understands forgiveness.
In Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, the young man finally sees the error of his ways and carefully constructs a proposal that he hopes will bring about a partial reconciliation with his father. (It appears that ancient Judaism had a similar idea of forgiveness to ours). However, as soon as the young man came within sight of his home, Jesus departs from the usual script. The young man never gets to express his apology or to propose his compromise. Instead, his father runs down the road to welcome him with a vast embrace and showers him with gifts. No apology is needed, nor any promise of reform. In Jesus’ story, forgiveness is an expression of the father’s love, and not the fruit of the son’s contrition. The young man had been forgiven all along, but only came to know that when he finally went home.
This idea that forgiveness is given, not asked for, is played out in the story of St Paul’s ‘conversion’. While Paul was actively working on the downfall of Christianity, God reached out to him and recruited him as missioner to the Gentile world. Any apologies or promises of reform came later in the process; what came first -for Paul - was God’s overwhelming forgiveness.
When we hold back, waiting for apologies and promises, we allow valuable relationships to shrivel and die. Godly forgiveness is pro-active. It is given before it is asked for. And, if the offender fails to reform, God asks us to keep on forgiving them.
St Peter asked Jesus how many times it was reasonable to forgive a repeat offender - as many as seven times? “No” Jesus replied. (I suspect with a wry smile.) “Seventy times seven times.”
Waiting for people to reform before we forgive them is not God's way. God’s way is to keep forgiving people until they reform.

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