Why Forgive? …Jesus
WHY FORGIVE? I LIST HALF A DOZEN GOOD REASONS in an early section of my Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Forgiveness: Freed to Love (April 2023). One gets a mere passing mention: the teachings and actions of Jesus of Nazareth. Whether or not Jesus is a compelling model for you, that essay aimed to reclaim the ideal and practice of forgiveness. Today, I’ll share how forgiveness helped redeem the Bible for me, and drew me back to Jesus.
As a sceptic and agnostic in my thirties, I learned that if nothing else was good or relevant in the stories of Jesus passed on to me in childhood, forgiveness was pivotal. Forgiveness still matters today in our modern relationships, communities, and efforts for social change.
A friend had recommended a controversial book by a collection of scripture scholars across Christian denominations and expertise. They considered and voted on every word attributed to the rabbi Jesus in the four Christian gospels, plus the newly translated gospel of Thomas. Like other publications, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, printed some of Jesus’ words in red, but for others they used pink, grey and bold black. The gradations reflected the historians’ sense of agreement on which words were most likely actually spoken by this radical preacher in the first century CE. Red print meant, “Yes, Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it.”
Other claims on Jesus’ words are meaningful, of course! And I’m not here to debate those authors’ assumptions, process, or conclusions. What caught my attention in ‘90s and turned me around was how the theme of forgiveness was most often in RED or PINK. Everyone agreed that this ancient Jewish rabbi said these things, or things very like them. I can’t find the little line in the book that pointed this out, so maybe it was a Spirit-prompt. But, WOW, the old Bible teachings leapt to vibrant life within me. I’m embarrassed it took me so long to recognize forgiveness is central to my faith heritage.
Taking Jesus Seriously
That’s when I began to take Jesus seriously again. I learned to love the Bible through Jesus as wisdom teacher, God-lover, cultural critic, and circle-widening way-shower. Mine is a “low Christology” that takes seriously Jesus’ humanity, teachings, and actions. I started to lean into forgiveness. What does it mean? When is it relevant? How does it happen? What part do we play? What part does God play? I wrote of an early experience in forgiveness and reconciliation here.
Jesus’ take on forgiveness wasn’t easy or passive: “Remove the timber from your own eye first,” invites self-awareness and inner work at the very least (Matthew 7: 3-5, Luke 6: 41-42). A couple of Jesus’ parables illustrate extravagant forgiveness—of a son returned after spending his inheritance (Luke 15), and of a master who forgives huge debts. “Forgive and you’ll be forgiven,” is tough counsel. We are asked to forgive “seventy times seven times”, or an infinite number in ancient Hebrew thought (see Matthew 18).
A favorite story of mine is of “a woman caught in adultery” (John 8: 2-11). Instead of condemning her as required by social norms and religious codes, Jesus turns to the audience to say, “Whoever is without sin should throw the first stone.” Even though these exact words may not be traced to Jesus, they follow the theme: Judgment of others is not helpful; gracious inclusion and forgiveness are how things work in the culture of the Holy (also known as the “kingdom of God”).
Jesus’ “greatest commandment” includes loving one’s “neighbor,” and I imagine Jesus’ meant the gnarly ones too (Mark 12:28–34, Matthew 22: 36-40, Luke 10:27). He went so far as to teach, “Loving your enemies” (Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27). Actually, I wonder if loving anyone is possible without practicing forgiveness. Jesus taught that loving relationships with other people, a shared life, are as important as our individual relationships with the Holy One he called “Papa”.
Called to Community
The ever-present life and power of the Spirit draws us toward others, connects us. Early communities following Jesus’ Way wrote eloquently on forgiveness too: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, …be kind, compassionate, mutually forgiving…” (Ephesians 4: 31-32), and “Bear with one another; forgive whatever grievances…” (Colossians 3: 12-15).
But there’s something paradoxical about being part of a faith community. When we share in the same Spirit of Love that Jesus embodied, we’re still humans who make messes. In the Christ-Spirit, our differences and normal relational tangles can become opportunities to practice loving better. That means practicing forgiveness. It may be obvious, but I’ll say this as well: I trust that authentic Christianity informs how we live with each other right now.
What has come clear over my decades is that Jesus’ emphasis on forgiveness was controversial. It was a big shift away from cultural norms of first century people with strict behavioral codes and conditional forgiveness paradigms: “Do this, then you’re forgiven.” Forgiveness is a big pivot away from cultural norms today too.
Forgiving others, ourselves, the times we live in, the systems and structures that weigh us down, is an outward expression of participation in the reign or culture of God here and now (Luke 17:21). Or at least we’re learning how to join that Divine flow of mercy and grace.
Jesus’ way of forgiveness won’t win any popularity contests these days. Maybe we can imagine forgiveness with our own families, friends, and community affiliations. But who’s up for forgiving politicians? Or those “crazy” folks down the street who vote differently, look, or live differently? Or the people pushing violence against women, black and brown people, immigrants, or those with varied expressions of gender and sexuality? Or economic inequities, bloated military or medical-industrial systems that do such harm?
I’m exploring the implications of forgiveness in efforts toward social justice. My Pendle Hill essay tackled personal growing edges in addressing historic wrongs—colonial genocide and racism. Forgiveness is helping free me to act in loving solidarity with the oppressed, as Jesus did. In contemporary American culture, there’s a lot of anger and vilification of polarized “sides.” That’s just not like Jesus, even when Christian nationalists claim it’s so.
If we’re not forgiving, we’re not free in the Spirit as Jesus preached it. If we’re stuck about forgiveness, we need to recognize and own that in soul and truth. We can untangle it with discernment, supportive community, and prayer. But it’s not helpful to ignore, minimize or justify lack of forgiveness.
Bible stories and sayings in both the Hebrew and Christian testaments continue to spark my spiritual imagination. Though I left the church of my childhood and have journeyed with Quakers for more than thirty years, the Bible means a lot to me. It has weight or authority for me about forgiveness. But if it doesn’t for you, I invite you to search out the voices and traditions that do!
Let’s lend a hand to Commonwealth of God with less bitterness, anger, blaming, or paralyzing anxiety. Forgiveness is a time-tested tool for that.
Forgiveness on Retreat—Apply Now
July 31-August 3, 2023 in Union, WA, on Hood Canal near Tacoma. Explore this powerful tool in supportive, prayerful community. Housing limited. Details and Application Here