Faith & Worship Faith & Worship



'When a person forgives someone, they respond to wrong by going beyond what normal justice would seem to demand,'

Read Genesis 45:1-15, Matthew 6:6-15

There’s an enduring image in my mind of the Vietnam War, a picture taken by an American cameraman of a young Vietnamese girl running along a road. There is terror and excruciating pain expresses in her eyes, and her body is on fire with napalm. Even if she were to jump into a river the napalm would continue to eat into her skin, and the picture left little to the imagination as to the likely outcome of this indiscriminate bombing attack. It shocked the people of the USA when it was published there, and may well have been a catalyst in the stirring up of anti-war feelings within the States.

The surprising thing was that the young girl survived, albeit terribly scarred. More surprisingly she was featured not so long ago in a magazine article in the States. Now grown up, she has come to terms with all that happened on that dreadful day, and is able to say that she feels no hatred towards the crew of that plane.

Gordon Wilson lost his daughter in an IRA bombing on Remembrance Day some years ago, and is remembered for the immense courage he was able to show both then and later, as he sought not retribution for what had happened, but love and forgiveness - and through that love was able to do a great work towards peace in Northern Ireland.

In our reading from Genesis chapter 45 we find that the tables have been turned dramatically on Joseph’s brothers. They’d sold him into slavery for 20 shekels of silver to a band of traders on their way to Egypt, and now because of famine they were at his mercy and feared for their lives. Joseph could, no doubt, because of his position have had them put to death or imprisoned, after apparently accusing them of being spies, but he rewards evil with good. His acceptance of them is surely one of the bible’s great stories of reconciliation and forgiveness.

No doubt Joseph’s thoughts were directed towards a reunion with his father and younger brother, who had not made the journey to Egypt, but there was a wider purpose in his mind based on his knowledge of his heavenly Father’s will for his life. He could now see that it was God’s will that had brought him to Egypt, and his brothers’ treachery had been a part of that wider story. A little later in chapter 50 we have Joseph telling his brothers "You plotted evil against me, but God turned it into good."

The several Hebrew and Greek words which translate as "forgive" fall into two general meanings. The first one refers to financial dealings, and deals with the canceling of a debt. Like today, people got into debt for a variety of reasons, but as far as loans were concerned the lender had discretion whether to show "grace and favor" when approached with a request. Any terms agreed would naturally enough depend on the relationship between lender or borrower, but God had instructed the people of Israel to generous in their lending. The second meaning is much more frequently used, and this is concerning the making right of a relationship that had been harmed through some misdeed.

Both meanings are used in the bible concerning God’s pardoning or canceling of people’s sins, and if we look at one of the most well known of passages in the New Testament where Jesus talks to his disciples about prayer, we find in Matthew’s gospel a version of the Lord’s Prayer which says "Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors." and then if we turn to Luke’s gospel in chapter 11 we read "Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us." and within these two meanings lies the overlap that the Israelites too often felt or were reminded about.

That through Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, a debt was incurred which required the people to show their appreciation of God’s love to them by the kind of life that they led. Failure to comply with the terms of repayment by forgetting all that God had done for them ultimately led to Jesus dying on the cross for the sins not only of God’s chosen people, but for the sins of the world. And at this point it touches us as well.

The Lord’s prayer as we have it handed down says "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Do you notice the subtle difference between these words and those as translated in Luke’s gospel? For in Luke it doesn’t say "as we forgive" but rather "For we also forgive everyone who sins against us." The implication is that this forgiveness comes naturally to man.

So what did Jesus mean when he talked about forgiving people and being forgiven?

Jesus told the story of a servant who had got into serious debt to his master, and was now faced with the prospect of having to sell all that he had in order to service the debt, or go to prison. He went to his master and pleaded to be released from this burden, and no doubt to his surprise was granted his request.

When a person forgives someone, they respond to wrong by going beyond what normal justice would seem to demand, and act in sheer grace - and what is grace, but "undeserved favor". It doesn’t mean that the wrong or sin is considered as unimportant, rather that the relationship is far more important.


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