God's and Human Forgiving
October 21, 2012
But if you unintentionally fail to observe all these commandments that the Lord has spoken to Moses—everything that the Lord has commanded you by Moses, from the day the Lord gave commandment and thereafter, throughout your generations—then if it was done unintentionally without the knowledge of the congregation, the whole congregation shall offer one young bull for a burnt offering, a pleasing odor to the Lord, together with its grain offering and its drink offering, according to the ordinance, and one male goat for a sin offering. The priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the Israelites, and they shall be forgiven; it was unintentional, and they have brought their offering, an offering by fire to the Lord, and their sin offering before the Lord, for their error. All the congregation of the Israelites shall be forgiven, as well as the aliens residing among them, because the whole people was involved in the error. An individual who sins unintentionally shall present a female goat a year old for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement before the Lord for the one who commits an error, when it is unintentional, to make atonement for the person, who then shall be forgiven. For both the native among the Israelites and the alien residing among them—you shall have the same law for anyone who acts in error.
But whoever acts high-handedly, whether a native or an alien, affronts the Lord, and shall be cut off from among the people. Because of having despised the word of the Lord and broken his commandment, such a person shall be utterly cut off and bear the guilt.
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. “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—
who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.
As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children,
to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.
The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.
Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, obedient to his spoken word.
Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his ministers that do his will.
Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the Lord, O my soul.
The Bible passages for this morning concern forgiveness. I can think of two ways to consider the theme of forgiveness: God’s forgiveness of us, and our forgiveness of one another.
In Psalm 103, we hear that God “forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.” Healing our diseases corresponds to healing our spiritual evils. And in the passage from Numbers, we hear about sacrifices to atone for sins committed unintentionally. In Matthew, the Lord tells us about a king forgiving the debt of his servant—and we also heard about this ungrateful servant failing to forgive his fellow servant.
It is in God’s very nature to forgive humans when we sin unintentionally. God is mercy itself, and God wants to enter into a loving relationship with the whole human race. God created us in order to form a heaven from the human race. And “being in heaven” does not refer to a place; being in heaven means being in a love relationship with God. So being in heaven is the same thing as being in a love relationship with God!
This is what salvation means. Salvation, from our tradition’s perspective, is nothing else than being in a love relationship with God. This love relationship is what God longs for. So we can say that God wishes to save the whole human race, for salvation is that very love relationship. Swedenborg tells us that
Jehovah, or the Lord’s internal, was the very Celestial of Love—that is, Love itself, to which no other attributes are fitting than those of pure Love, thus of pure Mercy toward the whole human race; which is such that it wishes to save all and make them happy for ever, and to bestow on them all that it has; thus out of pure mercy to draw all who are willing to follow, to heaven, that is, to itself, by the strong force of love. (Arcana Coelestia 1735)
A power emanates from God that lifts everyone up toward Himself. It is always operating. We may not be aware of it, but all through our lives, God has been elevating us toward Himself, into that heavenly love relationship.
There is actually a sphere elevating all to heaven that proceeds continually from the Lord and fills the whole natural world and the whole spiritual world; it is like a strong current in the ocean, which draws the ship in a hidden way. All those who believe in the Lord and live according to His precepts, enter that sphere or current and are lifted. (True Christianity 652).
Out of pure mercy, God forgives us and draws us upward toward Himself by the strong force of love. But this forgiveness does not excuse wrongs that we continue to commit. We have a part to play in God’s saving love for us. We need to cooperate with God’s love and take action, using the power God gives us. We need to restrain ourselves when we are moved by unholy desires. We need to ask God into our lives. And we need to ask God to lift us out of sin and error and into goodness and truth. We need to act as if our salvation were completely in our own hands—all the while acknowledging that it is God who actually acts to bring us out of our errors.
Divine mercy is pure mercy toward the whole human race to save it, and it is likewise with every person, and never recedes from any one; so that whoever can be saved, is saved. And yet no one can be saved but by Divine means, which are revealed by the Lord in the Word. Divine means are what are called Divine truths; these teach in what manner man is to live in order that he may be saved; . . . So far, therefore, as a person abstains from evil, so far the Lord out of pure mercy leads him by His Divine means, and this from infancy to the end of his life in the world, and afterward to eternity. (Heaven and Hell 522)
So when we think of God’s forgiveness, or of God pardoning our sins, we are to think of the process of regeneration. We need to think of moving out of darkness and error and into light and truth. Regeneration purifies us from all that blocks the Lord’s inflowing love and wisdom—all that blocks love, in other words. So we can think of sin as anything that stands in the way of love, anything that inhibits our reaching out to our neighbor and to God with open arms and love. When we remove those blocks, love and truth enter us from God, and we are reborn. Then what we did in the past is forgiven as we accept new life from God. So Swedenborg writes,
The pardon of sins . . . is nothing else than purification from evils and falsities, implanting of good and truth and their conjunction, thus regeneration. (Arcana Coelestia 10042)
One obstacle to love for our neighbor is when we harbor a grudge or resentment against them. We can build up in our minds anger against others, so that it is hard for us to face them, let alone reach out to them with love. Forgiveness is an essential aspect of love for our neighbor. When we feel we have been wronged, we can react in several ways. The first is this: We can bury that wrong in our hearts, letting it build and build until it poisons our relationships with the person and makes us resentful, angry, and vengeful. William Blake wrote a poem, entitled “A Poison Tree,” that captures this attitude well.
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I watered it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.
And into my garden stole,
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see,
My foe outstretch’d beneath the tree.
We can take perverse delight in meditating on all the things wrong with someone else and all the things they did to wrong us. If we do, however, we are just making poison trees in our minds and hearts, filling ourselves with disturbing and unpleasant thoughts. If we don’t forgive, we carry around with us the people we are upset with—we give them free rent in our heads. Swedenborg tells us that whoever we are thinking about is present to us in spirit. This means that if we are thinking about someone in anger, they will be present. And that’s the last thing we really want! We need to release ourselves from bondage to the other person and release them from our own bitterness. Only then will we find peace of mind. Then, when we confront that person again, we can feel refreshed in our relationship, as if it were the first time we were seeing them, having let go of the difficult past.
Sweet forgiveness is the answer. We may feel that we have been wronged, but we need to let it go. We need to release the bitter feelings that can develop. We need to forgive. Jesus tells us to forgive seventy-seven times. The number seven means holiness—and the act of forgiveness is a holy act. It brings with it holy peace. Even on the cross, Jesus forgave the human race.
Here are a few strategies to help us forgive. One is simply to stop thinking of the other person. Don’t fill your consciousness with them. Think of something else, something happy. Don’t dwell on them. Out of sight, out of mind; out of mind, out of heart.
Another way is to consider why that person bothered us. When Jesus forgave the human race on the cross, he made allowances for our terrible actions. He said, “They don’t know what they are doing.” Sometimes someone will cut me off in traffic, and I’ll say to myself, “He must be in a hurry to get somewhere.” Or, “Maybe he’s late for work.” At other times, I may say other things to myself, but this is a talk about forgiveness! If we could look into another’s heart, we would understand why they do the things that hurt us.
But forgiveness does not mean that we are to be doormats and let people walk roughshod over us. In Blake’s poem, the offended poet confronts his friend: “I told my wrath, my wrath did end.” We do need to draw boundaries between what we find acceptable behaviors and what we will not tolerate. Even the forgiving Jesus confronted the Pharisees—sometimes with strong language. In Matthew 23:25-26, we find one such confrontation:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.”
Here, Jesus isn’t just denouncing the Pharisees. He is modifying their behavior. He tells them how to act in the future. “First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside will be clean.”
It is hard, sometimes, to live and let live. But this is what Jesus asks us to do. Only by forgiving can we live in peace with our neighbors. Only by forgiving can we reach out in love to our brothers and sisters. Only by forgiving will we re-form ourselves in the image and likeness of God, who forgives us continually. Let us not build poison trees, but instead let resentments fall away. We are forgiven, so let us then forgive. Amen.
Gracious God, though we have not loved you with our whole heart, nor our neighbors as ourselves, yet we pray that you will forgive what we have been, help us to amend what we are, and direct what we shall be; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
- John Hunter (1849-1917)
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete