Grace and Forgiveness
Thanks to my friend Evan Garner for reminding me how important it is to read a Gospel passage in context with the surrounding verses, in order not to lose or distort the real purpose of the passage. The Gospel recommended in the Common Lectionary for this past Sunday was Matthew 18:15-20 in which Jesus tells his followers how to deal with a person who sins against them.
Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Think about the implications of bringing your offender before the entire church. The mechanics are good, but the act could be awkward, to say the least. If we look at the passages before and after, however, we begin to see a larger story. We see a story not just about “how to confront a sinner,” but, one about how to give as well as receive forgiveness.
In Matthew 18:10-14 we read Jesus’ parable about the lost sheep, in which God searches out the one lost sheep and rejoices in heaven when it is found.
‘What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.
“So the purpose of Jesus’ process of confrontation is not just about setting up an elaborate process for seeking reconciliation, or excommunicating the sinner but about showing the great lengths to which one must go for forgiveness.” (Evan Garner, A Long Way From Home) In fact, Matthew moves us quickly to a piece that pulls Jesus’ message together, ‘the question of forgiveness.’ Then 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?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18:21-22)
Jesus’ message is not about rooting out sin, but about showing forgiveness.
The Amish response to the killing of 10 young girls in 2006 brings Jesus’ message of forgiveness to our day in a very powerful way.
In the hours and days following the tragic Amish school shooting of 10 young schoolgirls in a one-room Amish school in October 2006 , an unexpected story developed.
In the midst of their grief over this shocking loss, the Amish community didn’t cast blame, they didn’t point fingers, they didn’t hold a press conference with attorneys at their sides. Instead, they reached out with grace and compassion toward the killer’s family.
The afternoon of the shooting an Amish grandfather of one of the girls who was killed expressed forgiveness toward the killer, Charles Roberts. That same day Amish neighbors visited the Roberts family to comfort them in their sorrow and pain.
Later that week the Roberts family was invited to the funeral of one of the Amish girls who had been killed. And Amish mourners outnumbered the non-Amish at Charles Roberts’ funeral.
It’s ironic that the killer was tormented for nine years by the pre-mature death of his young daughter. He never forgave God for her death. Yet, after he cold-bloodedly shot 10 innocent Amish school girls, the Amish almost immediately forgave him and showed compassion toward his family.
In a world at war and in a society that often points fingers and blames others, this reaction was unheard of.
Me: “How many times must I forgive one who sins against me?” Jesus, “As many as it takes.”