Forgiveness, Can You Imagine?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 

Matthew 5:43-45

I’m part of a Hamilton fan family. If you’re not familiar with it, Hamilton is a hip-hop musical about the life and death of Alexander Hamilton, of $10 bill fame. In it, his story unfurls at a breakneck pace with a passion that’s infectious. Our household is pretty close to memorizing the original cast soundtrack. (Disclaimer: you can find the album with, and without, the little black box denoting explicit lyrics!) As a result, it’s pretty common for our conversations to have Hamilton quotes sprinkled throughout. While I spent time recently preparing for a sermon series about “forgiveness,” I often found myself following up with the question, “can you imagine?”

It’s a line that comes near the end of the musical as Alexander Hamilton and his wife Eliza try to come to grips with a life torn apart: A very public political humiliation, an equally public affair, and the death of their young adult son Philip, all of which Alexander bears some measure of responsibility for. As the song “Quiet Uptown” paints a picture of the Hamiltons going through the unimaginable, there comes a moment where a great risk is taken. Eliza puts herself back in the narrative and shows her unparalleled strength… by granting forgiveness. Can you imagine?

Can you imagine yourself in the midst of unbearable loss for which someone else is responsible for? Can you imagine betrayal by the one you trust your life to? Can you imagine suffering wounds that no one deserves to bear? Or maybe you don’t have to imagine, you can simply remember such pains in your own story…

In the midst of such grief, can you imagine forgiveness?

Jesus was no stranger to unjust suffering. He began his life as an infant refugee fleeing the slaughter of the innocents at the hands of Herod the Great. He grew up a child of occupation, a part of the Jewish people struggling under the boot of the brutal Roman Empire. He lost his cousin and mentor John the Baptist who was beheaded by Herod Antipas for speaking truth to power. And Jesus knew that his ministry was on a collision course with powerful political and religious forces that sought his death.

When Jesus spoke of love for enemies, he knew of what he spoke!

2,000 years later, I continue to be amazed and challenged by his relentless insistence that non-violent resistance, love of enemy, and yes, forgiveness were essential elements of faithful living for those who would claim his name and live in the Kingdom of God.

Some of Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness is compiled by Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7). It is nothing short of astonishing! Jesus pushes us beyond our “normal” ways of responding to injury. “You have heard it said, but I say…”

Jesus is teaching with an authority that steps beyond the tradition he was a part of. While The Law provided recourse for living in a sin-filled world, Jesus sought to up-end the sin-filled world as we know it by creating a community that would break the endless cycle of death and vengeance. His vision was for the church to do so, not with violent strength that would force others into submission, but with the unparalleled strength to love enemies, forgive wrongs, and serve those who don’t deserve it.

You could fill Lake Michigan with the ink spent commenting on the Sermon on the Mount. Much of that work tries to soften an undeniably difficult body of teaching. By pointing out that living the Sermon on the Mount to perfection is impossible, many scholars shift the emphasis to grace in a way that lets us off the hook from thinking too hard about what it would mean to actually try to embody Jesus’ teaching.

And yet, the Jesus of the gospels sets forgiveness as a central act of discipleship in his name. I have no doubt that Jesus, who knew (and knows) the heart of every person, understood just how hard it would be for us to embody his call to be radically forgiven and radically forgiving people. Perhaps that’s why the line about forgiveness was the only part of the Lord’s Prayer that he provided commentary for;

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Tim wrote last week about the tension that is so evident in our nation, and in our churches. I can’t help but wonder what kind of impact disciples of Jesus could have in such tense times if we were recognized for our ability to deeply give and receive forgiveness.

All of us at Telos understand how hard this call to forgiveness is! We know the questions that bubble up: What about the need for justice? What about when there is no repentance? Does forgiveness always mean reconciliation? These and a hundred other questions are real and worth asking.

This Lent, there are different questions I want to ask first: What if Jesus actually intends me to forgive those I consider personal, political, or theological enemies? What would need to change in me to do that? How would my relationships change if I can?

We just might see a world turned upside down with that kind of forgiveness… Can you imagine?

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