Friday, May 08, 2009

As We Forgive

The necessity of forgiveness in human affairs is a recurring theme in the New Testament and our continual human experience suggests that all aspects of life could be greatly improved if there were a lot more of it in human affairs.
Matthew’s Gospel gives us the parable of the ‘king’s’ remitting a servant’s debt of something like half a million dollars in today’s currency, only to report that same servant threatening court action against someone who owed a mere ten thousand dollars. (18.21ff). And Luke reports Jesus’ using, as so often, an everyday illustration of forgiveness: “Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over will be put into your lap;
for the measure you give will be the measure you get back”. (6.37f)

Forgiveness not a Contract

Misunderstandings of the biblical position are frequently to be found, for example, the common tendency to assume that forgiving others is a condition for God to forgive us, as though this were some contractual arrangement, implying that God will not forgive us
until we act forgivingly.
Close attention to what Luke says tells us that that was not in any way the position of Jesus. The scene was well known to Jesus’ hearers: a woman buying grain would hold out her apron as a kind of shopping bag. The description of what is poured in suggests an unlimited supply (which only God could give, and the passive, “it will be given” may well reflect the Hebrew usage for the action of God). The words ‘pressed down’ and ‘shaken together’ (think of trying to get the end of a bag of sugar into a canister that already looks full) in each case translate the perfect tense –
pepiesmenon, sesaleumenon - which implies “something done whose effects continue into the present”. Interestingly, the final characteristic of this ‘overflowing’ gift is a present participle – “continuing to overflow”, that is, on and on and on (indefinitely). So God’s forgiveness is beyond our human imagining.
But what of the supposed contract? All this bounty has to be earned, it is regularly held, by our forgiving actions. This Lukan saying contradicts such a notion: the size of your measuring cup is crucial. If you use one of those one-cup Pyrex measures, that is how you go about things: giving with a small measure and capable of receiving far less than is offered. If you have, and regularly use, an eight-cup Pyrex measure,
that, is your modus operandi.

The Gift & the Reception

So the central message of the Gospel says something very different from our usual contractual understanding: God’s forgiveness, it says, is free, unlimited and immediate, and what is at issue is our ability to receive it; this ability, moreover, is indissolubly linked to our
own pattern of forgiving. A fundamentally unforgiving person cannot properly understand the meaning of forgiving and thus finds it difficult to receive forgiveness. The first words of Jesus in our first Gospel to be written are, “Repent, because the Rule of God is coming on you”. The word translated ‘repent’ in the Greek means “change your mind”, but, because of the history of its use in Greek translations of the Old Testament, it carries the much stronger connation of “turn yourself around”: it calls, in effect, for a conversion, which is the Latin form of the order, “about turn”.

Divine Providence & Forgiving

Everyday, in our personal lives, in national affairs and on the international scene, events occur that seem inexplicable for religious faith, events that raise two linked issues: our capacity to forgive, and God’s involvement in human affairs (Divine Providence).
Two events in particular, in the last eight years have shaken the American sense of immunity from the sort of disasters that have flooded across Europe and Asia for the last century.

Of course, it is not just 21st century American Christians who find events like the destruction of the World Trade Center towers and the devastation of hundreds of miles of coast lands, including a major city a serious problem for their understanding of the love and justice of God: events that put an immense strain on our ability to forgive whoever we feel bears the responsibility. Natural disasters, plagues, famines and war have not only tested our capacity to forgive, but have always raised questions about the Nature of God and the extent of divine direction of human events and natural phenomena. In the face of disaster, anger with other human beings, and, perhaps, ultimately with God, is very common but such questions have become particularly problematical for Christians of the 21st century. In the face of both natural disasters and also the catastrophic situations that we bring upon ourselves and on one another, if we cannot at least make a start towards forgiveness, we are left with the alternative: an attitude of revenge and an assertion of power on the human level, and for some an assumption that God punishes wickedness by these means.

New Testament Ambiguity

That the New Testament itself is not unambiguous in this matter is clear. Among the Synoptic gospels, Matthew echoes the “contractual” approach to the dealings of Yahweh with the people of Israel seen for example in
Deuteronomy, and a vengeful approach explicit in Joshua and Judges (total destruction of the Canaanites, for instance). On the whole, however, the emphasis falls on a recall to repentance and an assurance of the limitless love of God. It is true that St. Paul speaks frequently of the wrath of God, but it is clear that his meaning is far from a personal vindictiveness. Many contemporary scholars have suggested that wrath ('οργη) is, indeed, impersonal in Paul’s usage, an inevitable result of ignoring the moral structure of the world. Moreover, against this must be set Paul’s teaching about the grace of God, a theme that underpins almost everything he says: “For God has shut up everyone in disobedience, in order to be merciful to everyone (τους παντας)” (Rom. 11.32).

Apocalypse of St. John

A New Testament book that seems to endorse revenge,
The Revelation of St. John the Divine, is, perhaps, closer to an Old Testament theodicy than any other part of the New Testament. John Sweet (Commentary) argues, fairly persuasively I think, that the strong language of condemnation and judgment of a vast part of human kind, is offset by a repeated call to repentance, and by the fact that the destruction is held back again and again, as in the plagues of Egypt where the final fate of the death of the first-born is put off as “smaller” afflictions fail to produce repentance.

A very different view is expressed by Marina Warner in a
Times Literary Supplement Review article (August 19 & 26, 2005, p.14).
She writes: “Armageddon…will engulf all of them Satan, the Beast, the Dragon, the Whore of Babylon, the unchaste and the lukewarm, dogs and sorcerers, and all those other famous embodiments of evil”: all these will go and only a tiny minority will survive. She concludes, “The language of denunciation, ostracism, anathema on the enemy amounts to this: a spell of exclusion”.
To what extent the Seer did mitigate his strong emphasis on the horrific judgments he predicts is largely academic when one considers the later history of the Book and its influence on sectarian Christianity. After a hesitation of several centuries, the book was finally established in the New Testament suggesting that the disasters that we agonize over are the judgments of God on a sinful world. This view of Divine Providence was not the only, but by far the most influential, until the 16th century when Luther, awakened from his “dogmatic slumber”, recalled (some of) us to St. Paul’s central message, (and, challenged the dominance of a “contractual” view of forgiveness). Luther’ work, however, left much of the older approach in place, and Armageddon, a predication of the final great battle which will engulf us all, became the key word for millenarian Christianity.


In the last century and a half, most thinking Christians have found such a view increasingly intolerable; most, but not all. Conservative Evangelicals remained quiet about the destruction of New Orleans; however, several voices were heard after the catastrophe of September 2001 affirming it as God’s judgment on wicked New York. Perhaps the cry of outrage from many US citizens on that occasion has led to a muting of the response over the New Orleans disaster.

At issue is how far we can have the faith and courage to dare to re-read and re-fashion our theological structures, (and, therefore, our entire Christian orientation) in the light of the vastly increased knowledge that we have been given in recent centuries. In many ways the Anglican church has undertaken this task beginning in the1850s, often timidly and with enough over-reaching, followed by retractions, for its critics to say it has no mind of its own. A contrast is frequently drawn with the apparently monolithic church of Rome by Anglo Catholic apologists, and there have always been those who insist on the immutability of dogmas and the inerrancy of the biblical record.

Need to Refashion Dogma

Not only do we need to take contemporary science seriously, and there are reassuring signs from President Obama’s administration that such is now the case, but we also have to read the New Testament with all the tools that scholarship has given us in the last two centuries. One of the dogmatic readjustments that is paramount is how we understand God’s action in the world. Unless we can, as it were, make some space between God and the divinely created universe, we shall be locked into a view of God as punishing by means of natural disasters and human folly, a viewpoint opposed to what we learn of Jesus from the Gospels. The author of the 4th Gospel gives us the answer of Jesus to a question from Philip, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father”. (Jn. 14.9) When we look at Jesus, we do not see vengeance and destruction, but love and healing, and we hear words of forgiveness.

Thinking About God

David Jenkins writes, “God is not the mastermind of a great construction activity … moving on inevitably to a predetermined end ….. [God] is much more like a master artist...committed passionately, launched by love ….making ways forward by freedom and in freedom” (
God, Politics and the Future, SCM, 1988, p. 109). The freedom is ours as well as God’s, and this, of course, is where forgiveness becomes crucial. It would be little short of blasphemy to attribute the terrible human suffering in the wake of Katrina to God’s wrath. Meteorological conditions are one thing; physical and social structures brought about by human activity are quite another, though there is mounting evidence that human activity is significantly affecting meteorological conditions. In October 2004, Joel, K. Bourne wrote a long article in the National Geographic Magazine which began: “The Louisiana bayou, hardest working marsh in America, is in big trouble-with dire consequences for residents, [and] the nearby city of New Orleans.” Other scientists have pointedly told us that if global warming continues, other coastal cities round the world will share the fate of New Orleans.

The Way Forward

So it is crucial for Christians not be drawn into the “blame game”, seeking retaliation on others or blaming God. I think a poem of R.S. Thomas, in a collection called
Frequencies, 1978, catches something of what I want to say about our way forward. It suggests a coming to maturity in our theological speaking; precise statements ‘falsify’; ‘God’ explains everything, and when things prosper, God is praised: it is a different story when disaster strikes. So we need to be much more reticent, more tentative, and much less certain that we can produce a blueprint of the inner workings of the Godhead.


Face to face? Ah, no
God; such language falsifies
The relation. Nor side by side,
Nor near you, nor anywhere
In time and space.

Say you were,
When I came, your name
Vouching for you, ubiquitous
In its explanations. The
Earth bore and they reaped;
God, they said, looking
In your direction. The wind
Changed; over the drowned
body it was you
they spat at.

I pronounced you. Older
I still do, but seldomer
Now, leaning far out
Over an immense depth, letting
Your name go and waiting,
Somewhere between faith and doubt,
For the echoes of its arrival.

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