Wednesday, March 15, 2006

neither will your Father forgive you

Finding something to focus on in the third luminous mystery feels like trying to sip water from a firehose on full blast. "The proclamation of the kingdom" just covers so much. We have the "kingdom parables", "the beatitudes", "the Lord's prayer", "the sermon on the mount", and puzzles like "the messianic secret" to choose from.

In fact, there is so much here that one can almost understand how Gandhi revered these teachings so much that issues like "the divinity of Christ" and "the atonement" received little attention and credibility. One can understandably read Jesus speaking of turning the other cheek and so forth, focus too much on the moral teachings, ignore everything else, and then come to believe,like Prince Charles who is slated to head the Church of England, that Christianity is just "another world religion" and that Jesus occupies no special place above other prophets.

But in his moral teaching, Jesus says something that separates himself and his teachings apart from all others. This concerns forgiveness. We hear Jesus speak of forgiveness and we think how wonderful it is, especially to receive it. But we get all tripped up when it comes to forgiving someone who has done something "really bad" to us or a loved one. Often, the best we can manage is to convince ourselves "it wasn't all that bad". To forgive someone for doing something "really bad to us" would be inconceivable. Though perhaps we do not know what that word means ("forgiveness", not "inconceivable").

Why do we receive God's forgiveness so eagerly and yet offer it to others so reluctantly? The first, easiest, most common, and perhaps only excuse is to think or say that what we have done isn't really bad but what others have done is really bad. But Jesus sternly warns us in the sixth chapter of Matthew that if we do not forgive others, neither will our Father in heaven forgive us. Why would Jesus threaten us with damnation over our refusal to forgive others? Isn't salvation free? Aren't we saved by grace alone? Once we repent of our sins, doesn't the Lord promise to forgive us?

If salvation is a free gift, then the those who are not saved must not have received the free gift. If we are saved by grace alone, then those who are not saved must have rejected God's grace. If the Lord forgives those who repent of their sins, then those who do not get forgiven must not have repented of their sins. In particular, refusal to forgive others must somehow, in some way shape or form constitute a rejection of God's free gift of grace. It must in somehow mean we have not repented of our sins.

Let us recall the all too common excuse "what I did was understandable, what they did was unforgiveable". In this excuse lies the most dangerous understanding of forgiveness possible (perhaps this is why Jesus threatens us with hellfire over it). It is all too easy to believe that Jesus died for us because we were pretty good people who needed a little extra help. It is all too easy then to think that those who are not as upright as ourselves do not make it in to heaven because they, unlike us, did something really bad. But if we believe that we are not deserving of hellfire, then we do not really understand forgiveness, and in some sense have not really asked for forgiveness.

And so, by refusing to forgive others, we make it clear that we have not accepted God's forgiveness. To my knowledge, Christianity is the only religion or ideology which proclaims forgiveness for heinous crimes. Every other system either treats crimes as not heinous or refuses forgiveness for the offenders.

So even as Jesus warns us that we may not receive forgiveness from heaven (i.e. threatening us with damnation), he also points us to the most unique and beautiful of all Christian teachings: pardon for the sinner.

No comments: