Forgiveness is not weakness
—Gavin Koh, 17 September 2017
Matthew 18. 21–35.
Let me tell you a joke:
When I was a little boy, I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realised, the Lord in his wisdom doesn’t work that way. So I just stole one and asked Him to forgive me...and I got it!
I can’t take credit for that joke: It was written by the American comedian, Emo Philips, in the early 1980’s.
To get you to understand why I told that joke, I’m going to tell you a story. I have a Dutch friend who went to a church service under great sufferance. After the service, we were chatting and this is what she told me:
I don’t like Christianity. It seems like it's all about forgiveness. Whatever you do wrong, in the end it's forgiven. There is no justice in Christianity. I don’t see the point of that.
This is not an objection that I had ever heard before, so it got me thinking. Humans instinctively rebel against the concept of forgiveness, because we see it as unfair. Human nature demands justice. In fact, you can say that it is an animal instinct.
Now that is a contentious statement isn’t it? Justice and fairness are animal instinct? Let me back that statement up. Let me tell you about an experiment performed in 2002 by the Dutch scientist, Frans de Waal.
He put two capuchin monkeys in separate cages. Both monkey were given the same task to do, and if they performed the task correctly the monkey was given a reward. Now capuchin monkeys like cucumbers, but they like grapes even more. If both monkeys are given cucumbers as a reward, then both monkeys are happy to go on doing the same task for cucumbers as a reward.
So what happens if you give one monkey cucumbers as a reward, but to the other money you give grapes? Well, the monkey who was happy receiving cucumbers as a reward now gets upset. Cucumbers are not enough, because it sees its friend getting grapes instead for doing the same task. That monkey has a temper tantrum. It starts throwing things about and it refuses to do the task anymore.
So let me tell you this: Monkeys have a well-developed sense of fairness. Monkeys have a well-developed sense of justice.
If you have access to the internet,
you can go watch the video yourself.
Equal pay for equal work. Fairness. Justice. The experiment has been repeated in chimpanzees, dogs and in birds. Of the species tested, all show the same behaviour. Animals do indeed have a sense of fairness and justice.
Let us look at the gospel story. How much was owed? The daily wage for a labourer was 1 denarius or 1 silver penny. There were 6000 denarii in a talent or 16 years’ labour. This man would have had to work for 160,000 years to pay back 10,000 talents. This was equivalent to the gross domestic product of whole of the Eastern Roman Empire.
That is the size of debt that was forgiven.
So I am now going to tell you a second story. I’m going to read to you from a book called, The Forgiveness Project.
On 25 Aug 1993, Amy Biehl, an American Fulbright scholar working in South Africa against apartheid, was beaten and stabbed to death in a black township near Cape Town. In 1998, the four youths convicted of her murder were granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commision after serving five years of their sentence —a decision that was supported by Amy's parents.
These are Linda Biehl’s words:
When we heard the terrible news about Amy, the whole family was devastated, but at the same time we wanted to understand the circumstances surrounding her death. Soon afterwards we left for Cape Town. We took our strength in handling the situation directly from Amy. She was intensely involved In South African politics, aAnd even though the violence leading up to free elections had caused her death, we didn’t want to say anything negative about South Africa’s journey to democracy.
Therefore, in 1998, When four men convicted of her murder applied for amnesty, We did not oppose it. At the amnesty hearing we shook hands with the families of the perpetrators.
A year after the four men were released from prison, an anthropologist who was interviewing them sent us a message to say they'd like to meet with us. ...we took them out to dinner.
Easy Noemela and Ntobeko Peni, two of the convicted men, now work for the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust in Cape Town. This charity was set up by Amy’s parents, and dedicates its work to putting up barriers against violence.
[Linda Biehl says,] ...I've grown fond of these young men. They’re like my own kids.
It may sound strange, but I tend to think there’s a little bit of Amy’s spirit in them. Some people think we are supporting criminals, but the Foundation that we started in [Amy's] name is all about preventing crime among youth. I have come to believe passionately in restorative justice. It’s what [Bishop] Desmond Tutu calls ‘ubuntu’: To choose to forgive rather than demand retribution…
I was a member of Azanian People’s Liberation Army… Our slogan was ‘one settler, one bullet’. The first time I saw them in TV I hated them. ... But they didn’t even mention wanting to hang us. I was very confused. I decided to go to tell our story and show remorse. Amnesty wasn’t my motivation. I wanted to say in front of Linda and Peter, ‘I am sorry, can you forgive me?’ People are shocked I work for the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust. I tell them that I work here because Peter and Linda came to South Africa to talk about forgiveness.
This is the message I want you to take home: mercy is not weakness; forgiveness is not weakness; and they must never be mistaken for weakness. I’m not saying the justice is wrong: don’t misunderstand my point. Our need for justice, perhaps even our need for revenge, comes from our fallible, mortal flesh. It is entirely natural, that we hunger and thirst for justice. But this is the point of today’s Bible readings: claim justice if you want; claim what is due to you; but if you reject mercy and forgiveness, then you must ask yourself whether you have any right to ask for mercy and forgiveness from God our Father. That is why in The Lord’s prayer, we pray, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Mercy and forgiveness do not come easily: to forgive is very very hard.
God tells us that our natural human need for justice and fairness must be tempered by mercy and forgiveness. I’m saying that our capacity to forgive comes from the immortal, divine spark that is planted in our souls by God himself. Let me quote the late Terry Pratchett:
Humans are the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.
Jesus died that our sins may be forgiven: that is the central message of the gospels.
As Christians, we may thirst and hunger for justice and righteousness.; but our God-given capacity to forgive, our capacity for mercy, makes us more than just monkeys.