Scripture: Luke 26, 32-38
Jesus makes this forgiveness business seem so easy, doesn’t he?
As we meet him in today’s Scripture reading he’s just been betrayed, arrested, and abandoned by his disciples; he’s been brought before the Jewish leaders and led away to the Roman governor, Pilate, and accused of treason; he’s been handed over to Roman soldiers to be crucified, at the demand of an unruly mob. We’re skipping ahead a little bit in the story, here. Next week, as Holy Week begins, we’ll take a step back and march into Jerusalem with Jesus for Palm Sunday, and we’ll move with him through those events of that last fateful week in Jerusalem. But today we have Jesus already on the cross, and as Luke tells the story, the first thing Jesus does is pray this prayer of forgiveness for the people who put him there.
There goes Jesus, making us all look bad, as usual. Because there he is on the cross, forgiving people as it’s all happening – not a year later, or 20 years later, post-resurrection, after he’s had a chance to gain some perspective on the whole thing, but right then. And meanwhile if I’m honest I’m still a little bit mad at that guy who said that thing to me in middle school that one time.
And to tell you the truth, I’m not so sure about this prayer: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Because whether he means the Jewish leaders or the Roman soldiers or the unruly mob, surely they knew what they were doing. They might not have realized the cosmic significance of what they were doing, killing the Son of God. But surely each of them knew deep down that this wasn’t someone plotting revolution against the empire; that this wasn’t someone who was deserving of death. It doesn’t seem to me that we can so quickly exonerate them, and yet Jesus does.
Well, in any case, we might say, it’s Jesus, and so while this prayer for forgiveness from the cross may be one whose power comes from its very questionability, it’s not like Jesus expects the same kind of forgiveness from us. Except where he does: like in that part in Matthew where he talks about loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you (5:44); or that part where he says to forgive someone not seven times but seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22); or like in the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer he taught that we now repeat every week in worship: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Jesus may have special forgiveness powers, but that doesn’t let us off the hook.
This Lenten season, our focus is on turning back to God and the people God calls us to love. We’ve talked about turning back to our neighbor, turning back to creation, and turning back to the stranger. Like it or not, part of turning back to God is also turning back to our enemies and the people who have hurt us. And that means learning how to forgive a little more like Jesus.
I guess I shouldn’t just assume that we’re all just looking for excuses. I think, for the most part, we know that forgiveness is something good Christians are supposed to do. We know that forgiveness isn’t just about meeting some impossible divine expectations, but that it’s for us, and our own well-being; we know that it doesn’t do us any good to go around carrying that burden of resentment and bitterness. We know that that’s not the abundant life that God wants us to have.
On one or two occasions I’ve had conversations with people who knew all of these things. They came to me and shared a story about a person who had hurt them and they said, “I know that I need to forgive this person.” And then they said: “So how do I do that?”
And I answered, <shrug.>
Because the thing is that Jesus really never tells us how to forgive. He tells us to do it. He gives us reasons to do it, like the fact that God has already had mercy on us (Matthew 18:23-35). He gives us examples, like this prayer from the cross, and maybe that example can inspire us – but he never really tells us how. It seems to me that the Bible rarely gets into the how-tos of discipleship. Maybe that’s because these are things that it’s best for God’s people to figure out ourselves, in any given place and time.
But in light of these conversations I’ve had, I’ve started thinking that this question of how to forgive someone would be a really good question to be able to answer as a pastor. I can believe that a lot of us might be stuck right in that same place: wanting to forgive, but not quite knowing how to actually make it happen. So in the name of turning back to God and our enemies this Lent, I decided to do a little research.
If you’ve heard my story of my call and journey into ministry, you know already that part of it includes reading Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s book No Future Without Forgiveness, about his time chairing South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the end of apartheid. His involvement in that process established him as a global expert in forgiveness and restorative justice, and the powerful stories he told of black and white South Africans forgiving each other for heinous crimes made me believe, somehow, that I could forgive people in my life who had hurt me in much smaller ways.
But at some point someone must have asked Archbishop Tutu that same question I couldn’t answer, because a couple years ago he and his daughter Mpho wrote this book together, The Book of Forgiving, which is all about the how-tos of forgiving someone. In it they tell different stories of journeys to forgiveness: some from the context of post-apartheid South Africa, but some more personal, as well – like the Archbishop’s struggle to forgive his father, now deceased, who had been physically abusive to both him and his mother in his childhood.
The books describes what the Tutus call the “fourfold path” of forgiveness:
First of all, you have to tell your story. Telling your story is how you begin to piece things together and make meaning out of what has happened. It might not be completely linear; you might not be able to put all the pieces together all at once; the way you tell the story at first might not be the same way you tell it later. It doesn’t matter. The important part is to tell it, because, they write, “if I tuck my secrets and my stories away in shame or fear or silence, then I am bound to my victimhood and my trauma” (78).
Sometimes telling your story might mean telling it to the person who hurt you. But not always. For one thing, that might not always be possible – if something happened a long time ago, that person might not be in your life anymore, or might not even still be alive. It also might not always be helpful, and might even put you in physical or emotional danger again. Still, you can tell your story to a counselor; or a trusted friend; or me; or you can write it down. Again, telling it somehow is the important thing.
Then, you have to name the hurt. As we tell our stories and begin to put the pieces of the past together, we have to be able to say “This is how I was hurt. This is the harm that was done.” The alternative to being able to name how we were hurt is denial, and as they write, “A harm felt but denied will always find a way to express itself” (96).
For Mpho Tutu, one of the biggest struggles with forgiveness she faced was when a woman who worked for her, Angela, was murdered in Mpho’s own house by the man they had hired as a gardener. While the harm done to Mpho wasn’t the same as the harm done to Angela and her family, there was still plenty of anger and plenty to forgive – the fact that the killer had robbed her family of their sense of safety in their own, traumatized Mpho’s children, forced Mpho to be the one to deliver the news to Angela’s family. She had to be able to name those things in order to move forward.
The next step is granting forgiveness. Forgiveness is about starting to be able to tell a new story: “a story that recognizes the story of the one who hurt you, however misguided that person was. It is a story that recognizes our shared humanity” (133). It’s not about justifying or excusing what happened, but being able to see that person’s brokenness as well as your own as part of a bigger picture. In fact, maybe that’s what Jesus was doing with his prayer from the cross – not excusing the people who put him there, but also acknowledging that what put him there was bigger than any one leader or soldier or person in the crowd; it was about the brokenness of this world and what happens when that brokenness meets the pure and radical love of God.
Finally, you have to decide whether to renew or release the relationship. Both are valid options. Forgiving someone doesn’t always mean entering back into a relationship with them, especially, again, if your physical or emotional safety would be at risk for doing so. It can mean simply that you let them go and wish them well, or at least wish them no harm. But even renewing the relationship, the Tutus say, doesn’t mean that relationship looks exactly like it did before. It can’t. It’s more about writing a new story together.
I want to be clear – and the Tutus are also clear on this – that none of this is about “forgiving and forgetting.” Forgetting sounds suspiciously like denial to me. Rather, the whole process is about accepting what happened – not as something that is OK, but simply as something that happened. That gives us the power to not be imprisoned by it anymore.
Maybe all of this still sounds too simple, like if you just put in your problem and turn on this forgiveness machine you can crank forgiveness out the other side. I think we all know that’s probably not the case, even if we wish it were. We’ve probably all had someone we thought we had forgiven that maybe it turned out we hadn’t; we’ve thought we were over something just to have something bring it back up. Life is messy like that, and maybe that’s another reason the Bible doesn’t give us that many how-tos: because it knows that life is messy and none of this is that simple.
The Tutus also say that we shouldn’t expect the process to be linear. Sometimes we’ll find ourselves stuck between step two and step three; sometimes we’ll have to work through the steps multiple times. Linda Biehl is a mother whose daughter Amy went to South Africa as a Fulbright scholar to do anti-apartheid work there and ended up being murdered in one of South Africa’s townships. Linda ended up not only forgiving the people who killed her daughter, but establishing a foundation in Amy’s memory and hiring two of the men who killed her. “I have forgiven them,” she says. “Every day I wake up and my daughter is dead. Most days I have to wake up and face her killers. Some days I have to forgive them over again” (54).
That sounds like real forgiveness to me – it’s raw and it’s messy and it’s not linear, but it’s real and God is there in the midst of it. Because in the end, without forgiveness, we can’t really have any community or society at all, much less one that reflects the Kingdom of God.
The truth we come back to is that we need mercy and forgiveness as much as we are called to give it. That the “they” in “they know not what they do” is us, all of us. We know enough that we can’t just be let off the hook for the decisions we make that hurt other people, at least not all the time. We’re not always even sorry. But still Jesus died the way he lived: extending grace and mercy, no strings attached.
Knowing that, how are you going to turn back to your enemies this season? How are you going to write a new story?
In a few minutes we’re going to have communion, and communion is a time for reconciliation as we all get to come to God’s table and receive God’s grace in tangible form, together. You don’t have to have your whole life in order or be at peace with everyone you know in order to come – that is never a prerequisite for receiving God’s grace. At the same time, as you come to the table today, I invite you to think of someone with whom you need to make it right or who you need to forgive. Then resolve to go start that process when you go out those doors today. It may be imperfect and messy and that’s OK, because God likes to work in the midst of imperfect and messy.
In today’s Scripture reading we meet Jesus on the cross, but the cross is never the end of the story. You know what is? Resurrection, and life and love on the other side. In the end, our sin and brokenness can’t stand up to the power of eternal and abundant life. And neither can anyone else’s – like it or not.