Revenge and Forgiveness

Webster's Dictionary Forgive

If you sit still for a while, and recall your personal history, then it’s possible to pull up memories that are almost too painful to bear, memories that bring back the hurt of a yesterday long past.

One such memory for me is of a summer day, playing with neighborhood friends, an older brother teasing a younger brother, until the younger brother was provoked to retaliate. He hurled a broken half-brick at his older brother, who ducked. The half-brick traveled over its intended target, striking me just below my right eye. When I wink at you, you can still see the dimple and discoloration. At the moment of impact, I didn’t know how the right side of my face would swell, or how my eyeball would be half-covered in blood for several weeks. What I remember is shock giving way to rage. I chased my friend until I caught him. If he hadn’t looked so scared, and if his big brother hadn’t pulled me off him, I’m not sure how much damage I might have done to him, and he to me. At that moment, the desire for revenge was very strong. Even after all these years, the memory of my rage makes me uncomfortable.

Somewhere in your personal history, you probably have a story of pain. You don’t have to live very long in this world before someone hurts you. And when someone hurts you, or hurts someone or something you love, one of the most natural feelings is a desire for revenge.

The first scripture reading provided by the Revised Common Lectionary for this particular Sunday offers a delicious story of revenge. It’s the story that many of us picture in terms of the Cecil B. DeMille film The Ten Commandments, with the image of Charleton Heston dressed as Moses, raising his arms and staff. After the Israelites have endured the agony of slavery, and the anxious journey across the parted Red Sea, the waters roar back and sweep away the armies of Pharaoh. There may not be a better portrayal of divine justice in all of film history. “That’s right,” we think. “That’s what God does to all who oppose God’s people, LIKE US.”

Just when we’re feeling righteous and vindicated, the lectionary leads us to a story about forgiveness. The quality of forgiveness that this story advocates doesn’t appear to be simple. It’s not just letting go of a minor hurt for a one-time infraction, but rather a pattern of forgiving a chronic, repeat offender.

The story that Jesus tells is known as “the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.” It packs a punch because of the way it inverts common expectations. In the first part of the story, a king wants to collect a large debt from his slave. Wonderful surprise – the haughty, stuffy king actually forgives the slave his debt. But in the second part of the story, the same slave, the one whose massive debt was forgiven, goes out to find a fellow slave who owes him a much smaller debt. Awful shock: the slave who is LIKE US, chokes his fellow slave, demands repayment, and throws him in prison.

The parable follows a short dialogue between Peter and Jesus. Peter asks, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus replies, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy-seven times,” or as some translations say, “up to seventy times seven.”

There are many difficulties to practicing forgiveness as a large group or society. If banks forgive the loans of delinquent borrowers, won’t that promote personal irresponsibility? If courts dismiss cases of criminal activity, doesn’t that promote even worse behavior in the future? It’s not easy to balance the need for forgiveness against the need for justice, the need for compassion against the need for order, the need for mercy against the need for responsible behavior.

On a personal level, forgiveness makes a certain amount of practical sense. We all are imperfect, so the one I forgive today may be the one who forgives me tomorrow. Forgiveness is possibly redemptive and transformative for the one forgiven. It’s for our own good, too, in the sense that bitterness and anger are corrosive. Most of all, forgiveness is at the heart of the good news we have received, and Christ calls his disciples to practice it. But when someone hits you with a brick, forgiveness is not the easiest concept to believe or practice.

There’s a pertinent passage in Corrie Ten Boom’s autobiography entitled “The Hiding Place.” I don’t recall it from my teenage reading of the book, but rather was pointed to it by Presbyterian pastor Joanna Adams, in one of her sermons. After World War II, holocaust survivor Corrie Ten Boom was preaching at a church on the subject of forgiveness. As she left the pulpit and came down to the center of the sanctuary, she noticed a man coming toward her, his hand extended. She recognized him as the chief guard at the prison camp where her sister had died and both of them had been enslaved. His face was beaming. “How grateful I am for your message,” he said. “To think that, as you say, ‘He washed my sins away.’” Corrie Ten Boom found herself paralyzed as the guard thrust out his hand to shake hers. She could not raise her hand from her side. “Even as the vengeful thoughts boiled through me,” she writes, “I saw the sin of them …. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of love or charity. And so I breathed a silent prayer. “Jesus, I cannot forgive him, give me your forgiveness.” She was able to move her hand, and as she touched his hand, flesh to flesh, she writes, “from my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him … and so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on (Christ). When he tells us to love our enemies, he gives, along with the command, the love itself.”[1]

In recent weeks, the troubling events in Ferguson, Missouri, often have been in the news and on our minds. So much has been said and written that I find myself still pondering information, and doubting that anything I might say would be an improvement on what has been spoken. I read the words of Jesus, and wonder what forgiveness might look like for the people involved in this particular drama. When deep hurt leads to rage, and rage leads to a desire for revenge, it may not be humanly possible to forgive. But with God all things are possible. Corrie Ten Boom said, “When (Jesus) tells us to love our enemies, he gives, along with the command, the love itself.” We need that gift. As each of us deal with the memory and suffering of personal pain and unjust treatment, may God grant to us such love.

[1] Corrie Ten Boom, The Hiding Place, as quoted by Joanna Adams, “On Not Keeping Score,” a sermon delivered to the Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, 15 September 2002.


~ by JohnH1962 on September 14, 2014.

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