“For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” Matthew 6:14-15
According to Jesus, we don’t have a choice about forgiveness. If we forgive others, we will be forgiven. If we do not forgive others, we will not be forgiven. This is explicit. There is no wiggle room. There is no option. Forgiveness for the Christian is a command, not a choice.
It’s not like this is the only place where Jesus says this kind of thing. When Peter asks about forgiving his brother seven times, Jesus drops an ideological bomb on him in response—not seven, but seventy times seven (in other words, so often that you’re not counting anymore). Then he tells that chilling parable about the guy who owed a lot, was forgiven, and then went on to choke the other guy who owed him a little. The story finishes with the lord, moved to anger, handing “him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.” Wow—but that’s not all, because Jesus completes the parable with the following stunner: “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”
Huh? If we don’t forgive from the heart the Father of Jesus will hand us over to the torturers to make us repay what we are owed? Not forgiving others invalidates our own forgiveness like that? Apparently this forgiveness business is serious stuff.
Even in the Lord’s Prayer, which is the passage immediately preceding the scripture quoted at the top, there is a subtle hint to this—one that our traditional translations obscure. You’ve heard this clause as, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” One small problem—the word “forgive” in the second part is in the perfect tense. That means it’s something that has been done and completed already. A better translation would be, “Forgive us our transgressions as we have already forgiven those who transgressed against us.” Before we even ask for forgiveness, Jesus commands, we must deal with our own forgiveness issues. This is serious, tough stuff.
It’s such tough stuff that some have attempted to write these passages off entirely by dividing the teachings of Jesus into two categories—they argue that all the teachings before the cross fall under law, while the Christian life is all about grace. Passages like these three certainly have a force like law, and this equips these readers to dismiss them with a clear conscience. “Jesus came to free us from the law,” they say, “and these words are law. Therefore we aren’t bound by them.”
This seems inadequate, even laying aside the fact that such a reading invalidates most of the New Testament. So, presuming that as followers of Christ we must take the words of Christ with utter seriousness, how will we make sense of such a statement? What do we do with this “law” of forgiveness?
Let’s begin with the immediate context—the Sermon on the Mount. The first time Jesus lays down this law of forgiveness is in the section of the Sermon where he talks about three aspects of the Christian religious life—almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. In each of those teachings he makes a specific point to talk about not performing these actions “to be seen by men.” Instead, we must focus our attention solely on our Father “who sees what is in secret.” Our model for bad spiritual practice in each case is the Pharisees, who love to give in order to be seen, who love to pray in public places, and who love to disfigure their appearances when they fast. This is noteworthy: in each case the Pharisees are taking advantage of their power—whether status, visibility, or position—in order to make themselves look better. This is perhaps most clear for us in the passage on almsgiving. The only way to be seen giving to someone in need is to make the need of the other person highly visible. If I were to give today in the Pharisee fashion, then I could stand in front of my church, summon a needy member to come forward, then make a show of offering this poor person some portion of my grand resources, perhaps in the form of an oversized cheque. In that circumstance I would look big at the other person’s expense—my magnification would be one of perspective only, a righteousness achieved through injustice. This seems to be the heart of Jesus’ rejection of the Pharisees. It is a rebuke of their abuse of power.
To take this and apply it to the other three teachings is straightforward—we cannot ever give, pray, or fast in such a way as to either shame others or seek to make ourselves look good. Our religious life is designed to focus our attention on God alone, and not our fellow man; that is its “secrecy.”
So then, how does this impact the law of forgiveness? Observe that in the middle of a passage about the abuse and right use of power—especially religious power—Jesus speaks a word about human forgiveness. The placement of Jesus’ command begs the question: if we are not to use our religious power to make ourselves look good or others look bad, how are we to use our religious power? The answer is forgive. This is the proper use of power—and not just a proper use, but the mandate of human power. We are not in control of our circumstances or our futures, of what will happen tomorrow, of what others will do to us—but the thing over which we do have control is whether or not we will forgive. In this place, the place where we do possess control, our Lord commands us to forgive.
Even the word for forgive is interesting—it is aphiemi and it means “let go.” In the place where you do have power, hold your hands openly. In the place where you might hold a grudge, or be tempted to keep something, you must let it go. In the same way that we are commanded to trust our Lord with provision for our lives, we are also commanded to trust him completely with the wounds and grievances we bear. We entrust absolutely everything to our Lord and King, and perhaps our greatest obstacle to receiving and living out these words—the reason we ignore them and invent theological motifs to remove them from consideration—is that we recoil in fear from the radical submission required by absolute forgiveness.
The command to forgive is a command that humbles, convicts, and challenges God’s people. You can never shame someone when you are forgiving them. It is not possible to make yourself look good when you forgive someone from the heart. Forgiveness is the power that makes us powerless, and this, perhaps, is one of the innermost foundations of this thing called “Church.” How will we survive if we do not forgive one another? How will we preach a message of forgiveness from sin if we refuse to forgive at home? Will we allow our lack of forgiveness to invalidate the message we are commanded to bring? Would we be like that wicked servant who choked the other servant for a pittance, forgetting that we have been forgiven an amount that cannot possibly be repaid?
The Law of Forgiveness. Lex Aphesis. The law that breaks, and makes, the People of God.