On this anniversary date of the unprecedented terrorist attack our country experienced in 2001, it is appropriate that we memorialize the events of that day. We also should always remember to keep the issues in perspective. That perspective (for Christians) includes the question of forgiveness for the terrorists; should we forgive, or should we not?
There is a story told by Jewish teachers that illustrates the difference between forgiveness of something that has been done to you, personally, and that which has been perpetrated on someone else. The story goes…
No one can forgive crimes not committed against him or her personally….In the history of the Jewish people…there has hardly ever been someone considered as saintly as the Chafetz Chaim. A Polish rabbi and scholar of the late 19th and early 20th century, he was universally revered not just for his piety but more importantly for his extreme concern for the feelings of his fellow man.
[The Chaim] Rabbi Kagan was traveling on a train, immersed in a religious book he was studying. Alongside him sat three Jews anxious to while away the time by playing cards. The game required a fourth hand so they asked the unrecognized stranger to join them. Rabbi Kagan politely refused, explaining that he preferred to continue his reading. The frustrated card players refused to take no for an answer. They began to beat the poor Rabbi until they left him bleeding.
Hours later, the train pulled into the station. Hundreds of people swarmed the platform waiting to greet the great sage. Posters bore signs of Welcome to the Chafetz Chaim. As the rabbi, embarrassed by all the adulation, walked off the train with his bruises, the crowd lifted him up and carried him off on their shoulders. Watching with horror were the three Jews who had not long before accosted the simple Jew sitting in their cabin, now revealed as one of the spiritual giants of their generation. Profoundly ashamed and plagued by their guilt, they managed to make their way through the crowd and reached their unwilling card player partner.
With tears, they poured out their feelings of shame and remorse. How could they possibly have assaulted this great Rabbi? They begged for forgiveness. And incredibly enough, the rabbi said no. The man who spent his life preaching love now refused to extend it to people who harmed him and regretted their actions. It seemed incomprehensible. So the three Jews attributed it to a momentary lapse. Perhaps, they thought, it was just too soon for the rabbi to forgive them. He probably needed some time to get over the hurt. They would wait a while and ask again at a more propitious moment.
Several weeks passed and it was now close to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Even the simplest Jews knew that they had to gain forgiveness from their friends if they wanted to be pardoned by God. With trepidation, the wicked three wrangled an appointment and once again were able to speak to the Rabbi. They pleaded their case. Still the Rabbi said no. He would not forgive them.
The rabbi's son was present as this strange scene played itself out. Puzzled by his father's peculiar behavior, he couldn't contain himself. It was so unlike anything he had ever witnessed before. Why did his father suddenly act so cruelly? Why would he persist in tormenting people who only asked for a simple expression of forgiveness?
The son dared to ask. His father explained. "Do you really think I don't want to forgive these poor Jews before the High Holy days? If it were only in my power to do so, don't you know that I would have forgiven them when they stood before me at the railroad station? Of course I, Rabbi Kagan, forgive them for what they did to me. When they learned who I was, they were mortified and filled with shame for what they had done. But the man they beat up was the one they presumed to be a simple, unassuming poor person with no crowd of well-wishers waiting to greet him. He was the victim and only he is the one capable of granting them forgiveness. Let them go find that person. I am incapable of releasing them from their guilt."1
According to the rabbi, most of us do not have the right to offer forgiveness for the 9/11 attack. Some would make the case that, since we are Americans, and the attack was directed at American culture and “our way” of life, that we all were attacked. That may be so; however, you still cannot offer forgiveness on someone else’s behalf. And….just to be sure we cover the other side…you cannot judge another’s sin either. Both of those are God’s territory.
But that still leaves the questions of what to do with our heartache over what happened to the victims of 9/11, and how do we grieve the terrible wrongs done in this life. What about forgiveness? What about picking-up the pieces of life and going forward? What do you do?
Forgiveness is at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There are countless examples of forgiveness in the Old Testament. Esau forgave his tricky brother, Jacob. Joseph forgave his nasty brothers who sold him into slavery. In the New Testament, the Gospel is filled with forgiving. Jesus forgave sins – he forgave Judas in advance – he forgave his executioners from the cross – he forgave Peter for his denial.
Where does forgiveness start? The dictionary defines "forgiveness" as: "to grant pardon, to cease to blame, to cease feeling resentment towards." Those are verbal descriptions of what happens when forgiveness is given, however, it doesn't answer the question of how forgiveness comes about.
Where does forgiveness begin? The Bible answers clearly (as with every other important question of life), that forgiveness begins in the heart. The Jews, God's very special people, wrote most of our Bible. In Jewish thought the heart was the "hidden spring of the personal life."
In the Jewish wisdom library we find the Book of Proverbs; 30 chapters of the collected wit, lore and God-inspired thought of the race. In those thirty chapters are more than eighty references to the heart as the center of living.
The Jewish concept of the heart is organized into three fields:
Reason or logic is the understanding. In Western thought we say it is the mind. This is our mental and spiritual makeup.
Emotion is the viscera. Much of our lives revolve around such emotions as love, anger, compassion, and instincts of self-preservation.
Will the place of the soul. This is that part of us which makes decisions of morality – of right and wrong.
When we understand the different concepts of the heart of man, it is then much easier to understand that, for the heart to truly forgive, all three (reason, emotion, will) must be involved. It is the surrender of the total, threefold heart.
Let’s unpack that this morning…
The surrender of our reason means allowing our thinking/mind to be controlled and governed by God's Word. Jesus told a parable where a man owed a debt to a king; the king knew that the debt was not payable. In today’s economy it would be $10 million.
21Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. Matthew 18:21-22
Peter knew the Jewish rule, forgive a wrong once, twice, three times, then take revenge. He thought he was being magnanimous by more than doubling it to seven. Jesus told him to forget his scorecard, and just forgive. We are commanded to forgive.
The point is reconciliation – not who is right or wrong. Scripture tells us that’s how God acts; He…reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. 2 Cor 5:18 (NIV) Our business as the church is the ministry of reconciling people to Christ. We cannot imagine to even begin to talk of reconciling others to a God we cannot see if we cannot forgive and be reconciled to the brothers we can see.
Unforgiveness hampers the work of the Holy Spirit of God in us. There are some things that do not break our fellowship – these hardly need to be considered. However, if there is something that continually eats away at your insides, it must be dealt with. A good rule of thumb is: Anything that can't be forgotten is probably not forgiven either! It must be driven from your relationship with your brother in open, face-to-face reconciliation.
Surrendering our reason means allowing God to have final say in our thinking process. In our text, the unjust steward, who wouldn't forgive his fellow servant (who only owed him about $20 in today’s money), didn't reason well. He had been forgiven much; he wouldn't forgive even a little.
Jesus said "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart." Matthew 18:35 (NIV) We have always heard how the Father's love is unconditional; this is not the case with His forgiveness. When we refuse to forgive, we refuse to be forgiven.
A preacher wrote, Can you humbly beseech God, and with tearful eyes look up to Him for pardon while you have your foot upon your brother's neck or your hand at his throat?2 We must surrender our human, imperfect “reason” for God’s commands!
The text says the servant's master took pity (had compassion) on him. It is not easy to surrender your emotions, especially when you believe you've been wronged or hurt. It is perhaps the most difficult part of forgiveness to place yourself in the other person's shoes, and feel his pain.
It is not right to fake compassion, attempting to manufacture or manipulate feelings that aren't really there. However, The Bible demands (and integrity dictates) that we earnestly seek to surrender our emotions, and let God help us with feeling for those whom we need to forgive. There are two disciplines we can enter into in order to help our compassion:
Remember how much you’re forgiven
The wicked servant owed $10-12 million (in today’s money). That's a large debt! When someone has wronged you, it will be easier to surrender your emotions if you first consider how much Jesus has forgiven you.
Imitate God’s forgiveness
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Ephesians 4:32 (NIV)
The family of God is tied from individual to individual with a bond of love. Love is verbal, visceral and visible. To surrender our emotions to each other means we cannot be "cold fish"; nor can we be seething hotbeds of anger. We must seek to imitate the intensity of the love of Christ.
· It was He who wept over Jerusalem who stoned the prophets.
· It was He who wept over Lazarus.
· It was He who groaned for each of us in the Garden of Gethsemane.
To imitate the intensity of Jesus' love is to act that way until we feel that way. C.S. Lewis wrote,
"The rule for us all is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you 'love' your neighbor; act as if you did...When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love them. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less."4
Surrender of Reason and Emotion, and finally…
In the story of the wicked servant, the king wiped out the debt and allowed the man to start over. A lady once told me that her family had a dozen children. When they were grown, whenever one was ill, or had other trouble, the other eleven would band together to help with the bills. When the trouble or illness was over, there was nothing to repay.
This is the way God forgives us when we act in faith. In Exodus we read of God's people being "passed over" by the death angel. Moses had instructed the people to kill the lamb and put the blood on the door posts. Those that did were released from their debt of sin, and the death angel would pass over that household. Forgiveness demands that we:
Have a Passover
A man's wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense. Proverbs 19:11 (NIV)
We need to have a Passover sometimes. Sometimes you are absolutely right; sometimes the other person is absolutely wrong. He hurt you, she was wrong, they should be hung! Let it go under the blood.
I want to assure you that the details are less important to Almighty God than the relationship of your brother and you. In the early part of this chapter the Lord said if your brother offends you (even if he's dead wrong) you go to him and begin to get it straightened out!
Make it a Priority
Experience tells us that reconciling and forgiveness require all three parts of a person’s heart.
· When we forgive only with the reason, or mind, it will fail us when our emotions flare up.
· Forgiveness that is based solely on an emotional tug of the heartstrings will fade with time.
There must be reason, emotion AND a definite choice of the will. When we submit that will to Christ, and humbly forgive, our prayer is heard in heaven.
Now, in the rubber meets the road department….
How do you forgive with the mind, emotions and will, and actually make it stick?
Five Suggestions that work with your neighbor and the tragedy of 9/11:
1. Pray - Nothing great is ever accomplished without God.
2. Choose to forgive, and then choose to never again be willing to hold it against your brother. Remember, when God forgives He casts our sin into the deepest part of the sea and puts up a "No Fishing" sign.
3. Seek for some good quality in your brother to dwell on. Consider him your former adversary.
4. Relax (Don’t judge) Let your own goodness be the only thing the Holy Spirit has to use to convict your brother of his wrongdoing. Be willing to talk to your brother.
5. Do something sacrificial for him.
According to ancient Oriental tradition, whenever a debt was settled, either by payment or forgiveness, the creditor would take the canceled bond and nail it over the door of the one who owed it. Anyone passing by could then see that it had been fully paid.
Jesus did that for us. That is exactly the meaning of the word Jesus cried out from the cross: tetelestai – it is finished! We should do it for each other. We should do it now!
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen!
. 2. 2. Marcus Dods, The Parables Of Our Lord, (NY, Fleming H. Revell Co, c.1900) 130
3. 3. The Bible Illustrator, (Hiawatha, Ia, Parson's Technology, 1990) 2200-2209