On Forgiveness

It isn’t every day that forgiveness makes headlines, but it does happen occasionally. This week saw the case of the Bradford teacher, Vincent Uzomah, who was stabbed by a 14-year-old boy in the classroom. The teacher, a practising Christian, says he has forgiven his attacker:

Mr Uzomah said: “I have forgiven this boy… I pray he will make use of the support provided to him to become a changed person.”

We may also remember the story of Gordon Wilson who lost his daughter, Marie, and was himself injured when a bomb planted by the Provisional IRA exploded during Enniskillen’s Remembrance Day parade in 1987. Mr Wilson spoke movingly of his daughter’s last moments and said

“I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge”

He said he had forgiven those who planted the bomb, that he would pray for them, and called for no reprisals from Loyalists. He later went on to meet members of the IRA in order to try to understand their views and motives.

I have no idea how I would react if I found myself in circumstances anything like those described. I still haven’t seen the BBC drama, A Song for Jenny, which tells the story of Julie Nicholson, a vicar whose daughter was killed in the London ‘7/7’ bombings. Ms Nicholson resigned her post and poured her anger and grief into the memoir on which the TV drama is based. She said

“I can’t pretend I have much forgiveness in my heart for the person who took my daughter’s life”

Her response is probably easier to understand.

One of Jesus’ disciples, Peter, asked him

“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” (Matthew 18:21)

Knowing Jesus to be a generous sort of guy, Peter sets the bar high:

As many as seven times?

he wonders. But he’s way short of the mark.

Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’ (Matthew 18:22)

Jesus tells the story of the king who settles accounts with his officials (Matthew 18:21-35). One of them owes him millions – money he can never pay back. The king orders him and his family, and everything he owns, to be sold, but the official begs for mercy. The king is moved by his plight and sets him free.

In scene two, this same guy comes across one of his fellows who owes him a few quid. He is deaf to the man’s pleas for mercy and has him thrown in debtors’ prison. When news of his behaviour gets back to the king, we’re not surprised that the king’s anger falls on the man who, having been forgiven, refuses to forgive.
Jesus concludes, rather uncomfortably, that’s that what God will do to us if we do not forgive others. It’s a tough lesson, but it links the forgiveness we get with the forgiveness we give. Of course, our forgiveness and God’s are not on the same scale. We’ve racked up millions in debt. God in Christ forgives us our unpayable debt. We then are expected to forgive the trifling sums to which others are indebted to us.
This should come as no surprise; every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray:

Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.

It’s like the old story of how to catch a monkey. Apparently, you hollow out a coconut through a small hole and put some rice inside. You then tie the coconut to a tree. The monkey comes along, squeezes his hand through the hole in the coconut and grabs the rice. But with a fistful of rice, the monkey’s hand is now too large to pull out of the coconut. The monkey has a choice: let go of what he is holding on to or remain trapped.

To forgive means letting go and getting free.

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