FORGIVENESS: Forgiving As A Reconciling Practice, by Terrence W. Tilley

From The Disciples’ Jesus

And then they brought him a paralytic lying on a stretcher, and having seen their faith, Jesus said to the paralytic, “Cheer up, child!  Your sins are forgiven.” (Matthew 2:4)

Sin is essentially the creating of separation, of fissure, between sinner and sinned against.  One can sin against oneself, one’s relatives and friends, one’s community, strangers, the environment.  In any and all of these, one also sins against God.  The forgiveness of sins is the restoration of right relationships.  It is a crucial practice of reconciliation.

Mathew 9:2-8 (and parallels) portrays Jesus’s forgiving sin – and the accusation of blasphemy by some scribes.  To show that he has the authority to forgive sin or at least to meditate or announce the forgiveness of sin, Jesus tells the paralytic to rise and walk, as if to say, “That’ll show ’em.”  And the paralytic walks home.

This story, however, doesn’t quite “work.”  The story doesn’t spend time saying why Jesus first forgave sins before healing the paralytic.  The situation seems to call for a practice of healing, not of forgiveness.  After all, the obvious problem was paralysis.  Nor does the Gospel spend time discussing why the newly healed person could go home; most of us assume that it is simply because the paralysis was cured and the sufferer could now walk.  But if that was all the paralytic needed, why should Jesus forgive the paralytic’s sins?  Perhaps the healing practice was not sufficient.  Perhaps it had to be connected with forgiveness of sin so the paralytic could return home.  The unexpected action of Jesus and the unexamined action of the paralytic make for a good confrontation story.  However, the odd order of events suggests that more is at play than first meets the hearers’ ears.

Forgiveness of sin is one of a set of compassionate reconciling practices.  Jesus heals both sin and paralysis.  His compassion is for both a sufferer and a sinner.  Here the healing practice is nested with another reconciling practice of the reign of God, forgiveness.  Forgiveness and healing have a real connection.  And when God reigns, fissures of sin do not open up and swallow the community into the fiery depths.  Sin is not merely a separation; it is also a social (or psychological) disease that needs healing; sins are not only offenses, but causes of ruptures.

It is clear that Jesus was remembered as forgiving sins.  That he may have claimed divine power in doing so is possible.  However, the Gospels never report the disciples’ forgiving sin.  While the Gospels report preaching, exorcising, healing, and other reconciling practices of the disciples, forgiveness is omitted.  If forgiveness is so essential as a practice of reconciliation, if it is a practice of those who live in and live out the reign of God, how could Jesus not have taught them how to engage in the practice of forgiving?  We can look at four texts to show that forgiveness is a distinctive practice not only of Jesus but also of the Jesus-movement.

Practicing Forgiveness

First, forgiveness is mutual.  The Lord’s Prayer implores God to forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. (Matthew 6:12; Luke 11:4)  Mark has a similar injunction, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father also who is in Heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25)  Those searching for historical-Jesus material could argue that this multiple attestation (the Lord’s Prayer in Q, Mark) at least suggests that Jesus himself was remembered as urging his followers to engage in the practice of forgiveness as well as of prayer.  The centrality of the Lord’s Prayer in the life of the community meant that this injunction would often be repeated.  Praying for forgiveness, as one forgave others, would be reinforced repeatedly.  The Jesus-movement certainly remembers mutual forgiveness as a key practice.

Second, forgiveness is not a one-time thing but an ongoing practice.  The Q material preserves sayings of Jesus urging repeated forgiveness, (Luke 17:3-4; Matthew 18:15, 21-22).  In the Matthean version of the saying, the sinner is to be rebuked until the sinner “hears” it.  Matthew then introduces Peter to ask how often he must forgive – seven times?  No, Jesus replies, “seventy times seven” times.  In the Lukan version, Jesus instructs the one sinned against to rebuke the sinner.  But then he adds that if the sinner repents, the one sinned against is to forgive him – even seven times a day!

Interestingly, only the Lukan context notes that repentance is a condition of forgiveness.  This fact, along with the other differences, leads James D. G. Dunn to note that the tradition is fluid and that the tradition frozen in Q is just one stage of that fluid tradition, a tradition Matthew and Luke did not simply copy.  Dunn also suggests that the Matthean version, at least, is shaped by consideration of tensions in the emerging community at the time Matthew was writing.  This concern, with repeated attempts to forgive, at least makes clear that the evolving tradition remembered Jesus’s practice and urging of forgiveness as central to his work.

Moreover, in his teaching how to forgive, Jesus is remembered as urging repeated forgiveness.  The members of the Jesus-movement should not be stinting in forgiving.  Forgiveness is an ongoing practice of reconciliation, repeated again and again.  Nor is repentance merely an apology and a firm purpose to mend one’s ways; repentance is reorienting one’s life by shifting away from the woeful practices to engage in the blessed practices taught by Jesus.  Both repentance and forgiveness are ongoing practices.

Third, Luke’s Gospel puts a saying about forgiveness at a most crucial moment.  In doing so, the evangelist highlights the significance of forgiveness in Jesus’s work, and hence in the work of the Jesus-movement.  Jesus’s final words on the cross are, “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” (22:34)  What they were doing, of course, was executing a criminal, guilty of rebellion.  Or so they thought.

Luke’s Jesus pled for forgiveness of the perpetrators without their confession or repentance.  This powerful remembrance is another piece of the memory of Jesus’s teaching how to forgive: forgive freely!  L. Gregory Jones has noted that this pattern of forgiveness without repentance is a motif in Luke’s work.  He also noted that this form of forgiveness of “those who know not what they do” is remembered later by the Jesus-movement, (Acts 3:17).  Forgiving freely, however, is not a call to masochism, that is, a demand that victims repeatedly forgive repeating victimizers.  The Jesus-movement is not a haven for abusive relationships.  However, forgiving freely reminds us that in some cases the overwhelming grace of being forgiven can bring even compulsive sinners, especially unwitting ones who know not what they do, to repentance and reconciliation with those who forgive them again and again.

Fourth, John’s Gospel records the risen Jesus appearing to the disciples and instructing them to forgive sins.  Jesus says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:22b-23)  Luke’s post-resurrection narrative also mentions forgiveness: “Metanoia to the forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all peoples, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:47)  The interpretations of these texts vary widely.  Few, if any, would ascribe them to historical-Jesus material if for no other reason than that they are remembered as a postmortem, post-resurrection communication.  However, just as the narrative of the transfiguration is thought by many scholars to be a “retrojection” of a post-resurrection appearance to an earlier point in the story, so the post-resurrection sayings of Jesus may be memories of something Jesus taught, however adapted, that are “projected” to a time after the resurrection.

Some see John’s Gospel as authorizing the disciples to be agents of forgiveness – and withholding of forgiveness.  But it is also possible to read this verse not merely as a commissioning but as a warning: the disciples’ refusal to forgive sin is a terrible thing, for they indeed may not be forgiven.  On this reading, the notion of mutual forgiveness can be seen as the form of forgiveness that is a constitutive practice of living in and living out God’s reign.

Some suggest that Luke has arranged his material specifically for use in preaching.  First is forgiveness and then repentance is to follow.  But it is also possible to see in Luke a preaching not to the sinners but to those “sinned against” to “repent” to (eis) the forgiveness of sins.  In harmony with the words from the cross in Luke, it is not necessary to read a sinner’s “repentance” as a condition for forgiveness.  It may be the sort of change in the injured party and the injured’s relationship to the injurer that leads to forgiveness.  One has to learn how to accept forgiveness as well as give it.

Despite the fact that the other members of the Jesus-movement are not portrayed as forgiving sin, the centrality of this practice in Jesus’s reconciling work is obvious.  That the movement is to carry on his work is also obvious.  Hence, these texts imply that the disciples were to engage in this reconciling practice – not merely forgiving but freely and repeatedly forgiving.

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