Sunday of Forgiveness, March 1, 2020
Romans 13:11-14:4; Matthew 6:14-21
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matt. 6:14)
When the gospel began to be preached, forgiveness from God was a revelation, something new that was outside of anyone’s expectation of how a god should operate. And it is still so even now.
In the ancient world, forgiveness from your god was not the norm. Revenge was the norm. And so revenge dominated every level of society. Why? Because you become like the god you commune with. And when people participate in sacrifices to pagan gods, they commune with those gods. So that is why revenge was the norm in the ancient world.
And what is revenge about? It is about control. If I want to take revenge, it is because I feel hurt, because I have lost control over something that is mine or that I see as mine. I want revenge because I want justice. And what is justice? It is to set things right. So if I have been hurt, setting things right means that I will exact justice. But because I am the one hurt, “justice” becomes personal, and it is about making me feel better.
But this is not the justice of God. And God even goes so far as to tell us that we are not allowed to get revenge, saying “vengeance is mine” (Rom. 12:19). God does not have His feelings hurt, because He is perfectly humble. And so He alone is the perfect Judge. And so He alone perfectly forgives.
Because what is forgiveness? It is not to take revenge.
Forgiveness is not to take revenge. This is an important point, because I believe that forgiveness is much misunderstood in our time. Many believe that forgiveness is essentially an emotional experience. I have heard people say many times, “I just can’t forgive him” or “I don’t know how I’ll ever forgive her.” And by that they mean that they cannot imagine feeling anything but hurt toward that person. And the hurt is often accompanied by anger. This hurt/anger combination is understood to be what has to go away for forgiveness to happen.
But here’s the big secret about forgiveness: You can forgive someone no matter how you feel about him.
Forgiveness is one way we can be like God. Do we imagine that God looks upon our sins against Him and says, “Let me cool down a while. I just can’t forgive you right now”? It is unthinkable to ascribe emotions to the Father or the Holy Spirit, but we know that the Son of God incarnate has emotions. He exhibits both sorrow and anger in the Holy Scriptures. Yet we never see Him having to go somewhere to blow off some steam. We never see Him making choices based on how He feels.
So forgiveness is not dependent on emotion. Forgiveness is the choice not to take revenge—by word or by deed. Even if you feel great hurt and anger toward someone, you can choose not to get back at him. You can choose not to speak evil of him to other people. If you make those choices and follow through with integrity, then you are forgiving. That’s what forgiveness is.
That is why when, as we hear in today’s Gospel that we ought to forgive others or else God will not forgive us (and which we pray every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer), God is not telling us to do something impossible. He is not saying “Have these feelings or stop having these other feelings, or else I won’t forgive you.” Even less is He saying, “Change your feelings so that I can change My own feelings about you.”
Forgiveness is not taking revenge, not exacting payment, not demanding justice for yourself—however you conceive of it. Forgiveness is an act, not a feeling.
And that brings us back to how God is not like the pagan gods. God does indeed reserve vengeance for Himself, but that does not mean that He is two-faced about forgiveness, acting like a vengeful pagan god sometimes and like a forgiving deity at others. He is not.
So how is He different, if He says that He is going to enact vengeance? God is different in that He offers us the gift of repentance, which is the means by which we receive His forgiveness. In ancient pagan religions, you could not say to your god, “Hey, I’m sorry, and I won’t do it again.” Well, you could, but it wouldn’t go over well. But in Christianity, God offers exactly that opportunity.
But why does He still take vengeance? It is not because He has hurt feelings. It is because He is the Vindicator. It is because He is going to bring justice to those who harm and oppress His creation. That includes us. That we are sinners means that we have victims. There are people we have harmed through our words, our actions, our inaction, our selfishness, etc. Now, if we do not want to be on the receiving end of God’s justice, then we have to repent. We have to set things right. We have to behave like God and not like the false gods—the demons.
So what is repentance, then? It is not only to say those words to God but then to act upon them. And He tells us right here how to act upon them—forgive. Forgiving others is an act of repentance. Why? Because we want revenge. We want to be like the demons, who in their rebellion thirst for vengeance. But we turn away from idolatry, turn away from the communion of demons. We turn toward God and imitate God by forgiving. This is a form of repentance.
Finally, I want to say something here about repentance and forgiveness in light of now standing upon the very threshold of the Great Fast. Some may believe that the point of all the fasting and almsgiving and prayer and worship of Lent is somehow to attain God’s forgiveness in exchange. If I do all these things, surely God will forgive me and not exact vengeance upon me.
That is now how Lent works. That’s not how any of this works.
If Lent were really about trying to get God’s forgiveness in exchange for all the things we do, then shouldn’t Forgiveness Sunday be the reward at the end? Yet here it is at the beginning, almost as though the Spirit-inspired Holy Fathers who designed our liturgical life were saying that forgiveness is the way to start Lent, to do Lent well. And I believe that is exactly what is being said here.
We ask forgiveness from God and receive it from Him by being forgiving ourselves here at the beginning of Lent because Lent is about purification, about growth in grace. Forgiveness is the beginning of our purification, not the result of it. Forgiveness cleans out the cup so that it may be filled.
Lent is called the “school of repentance” because we are now entering into what our life should be like all the time. One does not go to school in order to learn something that one forgets immediately—which I think unfortunately happens all the time in schools. Rather, the point of this education is to be formed in a new way of living, a new way of thinking, a new way of being so that we can be something that we were not before.
And what is this new life, this life of repentance and forgiveness? It is life in constant movement toward Christ. If we stumble or get off the path—and we will—then we get up and get back on it. It is only with the one true God that this constant correction is even possible. His message to us is not “Be good or else!” His message to us is, “I am coming in glory to bring righteousness and vindication to the downtrodden. And I am offering the opportunity for forgiveness rather than revenge. Come and receive it by living My life with Me.”
To the Christ Who is Himself the Life be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.