We have been discussing a particular passage from Matthew's Gospel on Sunday mornings in Bible School. It's from chapter 18 and if the subheading in my TNIV is correct this passage deals (exclusively?) with 'Dealing with sin in the church.'
If this passage does in fact lay out conditions for how to deal with sin in the church then it seems to me it has very little to do with how I relate to some random person who isn't in the church and who happens to sin against me–either deliberately or otherwise. If this is true, then it appears that Jesus might be suggesting there are conditions on the nature of forgiveness offered by Christians to one another within the church. (Although, to be sure, I don't think that is true.)
So I've been thinking about this forgiveness and it's rather tricky nature. I don't really think forgiveness is tricky. I also do not think forgiveness requires any steps on the part of the person needing forgiven. I think forgiveness is a choice that we make proactively. In other words, I forgive and refuse to hold on to my rights. I know it's a peculiar idea here in America that I refuse to cling to my rights for vengeance, my rights for recompense, my rights for justice.
I know that here in America if I don't require repentance before I forgive someone then I am giving them license to do whatever they want. I know that it appears that without requiring a change in behavior I am simply inviting that person who sinned against me to continue living in a state where they might (likely, will) continue sinning against me over and over again. Here in America that's how we roll. We have built an entire industry on the basis of the eye for an eye.
But Jesus has undid this, hasn't he? Think about it for a moment. All the way back in that book that some tell us is irrelevant, we read the story about a fella named Lamech who killed a young fella one day. Seems that the young fella looked at him cross-eyed one day and Lamech went all Mayweather on him and killed him. Then he uttered these words to his wives, "If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech is avenged seventy-seven times" (Genesis 4:24). Well this is interesting isn't it?
Lamech was born and bred for the home of the brave and the land of the free; the land of Judge Judy and The People's Court; the place where we all hope someone scratches our car so we can sue. We are rights happy in America; furthermore, we are especially fond of following the way of Lamech: I demand my rights. Sadly, church folk have fallen into this as well. We demand our rights–rights that Christians in other parts of the world do no enjoy and, therefore, cannot have enforced.
Then here comes Peter and he's all down with Lamech: Lord, I want to be generous so how often should I forgive someone who tramples my rights? Like, what, seven times? (I guess keeping track is a good way to count that you don't break the law. So that on sin number 8 Peter would have been fully justified to not forgive.)
Then here comes Jesus in response and listen for echoes in his words, "No, Peter. Not seven times. Seventy-Seven times." (Or maybe 490, but clearly without limit.) Now if we are to forgive someone this many times we have clearly not placed demands upon them. But note the echo: Lamech said I demand my rights without limitation and that was the culture that reigned. Then Jesus said, let go of your rights to ridiculous lengths. Don't demand justice. Don't demand the eye. Let it go. Forgive. Be generous with forgiveness. Jesus is saying, and we should be listening: "With my arrival here on earth I am bringing a new ethic to your relationships, I am giving you a new way to live. Gone is the culture of rights and demands for personal justice. Gone is the way of Lamech. Arrived is the new way. My way. It is about forgiveness."
Of what benefit is it to anyone for me to demand my rights?
So, something like five years ago the church I was serving, and had served for nearly 10 years, decided they could live without me but not without their building. They believed I could live without the house I had just bought with my wife, but they could not live without the building where they met for worship on Sundays. So they did the only logical thing: they fired me. Without warning. With only six week's severance. And with the tag line, "It's nothing personal."
Now here I am, five years removed from that. We have lost our house. I lost my career. I nearly lost my family because I had to live apart from them for a while to work. And we have lost much more besides. Two things have never happened: I have never been told why I was fired (it wasn't doctrinal at all or because of some discovery of an outrageous sin) and the neither the church nor any single individual member have/has repented and asked for my forgiveness to this very minute on September 12, 2014, 9:40 PM.
By the logic of conditional forgiveness, that church and every single member of that church who sinned against me and my family should remain in a state of unforgiveness. By the logic of conditional forgiveness, I never should have forgiven them for absolutely wrecking my family. But I don't think that's what Jesus had in mind. Stanley Hauerwas wrote, "Accordingly, the forgiveness that marks the church is a politics that offers an alternative to the politics based on envy, hatred, and revenge." In other words, those who claim Christ have no claim to rights.
The only thing we have a right to do is forgive. Much like Stephen who asked Jesus not to hold against his murderers their sin–even as they were stoning him to death. Much like Jesus who said, "Father forgive them they know not what they do." Much like Jesus who said, "If someone punches you on the right cheek, turn the other also." In other words, the Christian has no claim on individual rights.
And who knows, maybe our proactive efforts to forgive people who sin against us will actually lead someone, or some church, to repentance.
But even then we shouldn't hold our breath. I'm not.