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Sunday, March 04, 2018

On the Mount (20)

The reciprocity principle is not a new thing. It’s said to be found in some form in nearly every religion.

Perhaps the earliest written formulation occurs in the Egyptian story of The Eloquent Peasant. “Do to the doer to make him do,” the god Maat is supposed to have said, which has been generally interpreted to mean something not wildly dissimilar to the so-called Golden Rule (though we can hardly overlook the obvious self-interest in the Egyptian version). The story predates the Law of Moses, in which Israel was commanded to love their neighbors as themselves, by a couple hundred years.

Ah well, all truth is God’s truth, as the saying goes. In any case, ancient Egyptian wisdom is not circulating the way it used to.

The Reciprocity Principle

And of course first is not always best.

In our study of the Sermon on the Mount we will shortly find the reciprocity principle restated in its most eloquent form: “With the measure you use it will be measured to you.” In his dealings with us, God uses whatever standard we establish. Jesus taught it, and the idea applies very broadly indeed.

In Matthew, it has to do with judging others. In Mark, the same principle is applied to understanding the word of God, and in Luke to judgment, forgiveness and even giving.

The General Made Specific

But well before we get to chapter 7, we find ourselves confronted with a potentially difficult statement that applies the reciprocity principle to the issue of forgiveness:
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Here the Lord takes a more general idea and makes it specific in a way that may have made his original audience a little bit nervous. Modern readers still struggle with it. An example:
“I was raped, and I’ve tried but I am unable to forgive him. He got away with it and nobody believes me. I thought I was saved but I can’t forgive him no matter how hard I try. He is related and my parents don’t believe me. He is supposedly a Christian so they won’t believe a Christian would do that. So am I going to hell? I don’t forgive him. I tried.”
Ouch. How would you answer that?

Three Considerations

Before you do, a few things to consider:

First, the subject in Matthew is not eternal salvation. Hell gets name-checked three times in the Sermon, all of them in chapter 5. If Jesus had intended to make it explicit to his legally-minded audience that a single failure of forgiveness damned them for all eternity, he could certainly have done so. The vocabulary was right there, and he had very recently used it. To bring hell into this is to say significantly more than the Lord said, and that’s rarely useful.

Second, it is far more reasonable to view this passage as dealing with parental discipline in the family of God than with eternal punishment. Twice in two verses God is called “Father”. A personal, family relationship is implicit. The Lord may well be saying that until we learn to extend forgiveness to others, we may expect to find ourselves experiencing the earthly consequences of pride, willfulness and a failure to comprehend grace. These are not to be minimized. They are also not gehenna.

Third, we need to unpack the word forgiveness a bit.

Unpacking Forgiveness
  1. Forgiveness is for those who ask for it, not for those who cover over their sin, glory in it, or insist they have done nothing wrong. Luke’s gospel shows that the believer’s responsibility to forgive begins the moment forgiveness is requested, not before.
  2. Forgiveness is an act that involves interceding with God, asking him not to take revenge on our behalf. Until Job formally extended his forgiveness to his three errant friends, they were in peril of God’s burning anger. Interestingly, the reciprocity principle appears in Job: note that it was not until Job had prayed for his friends that God restored his fortunes.
  3. Forgiveness has nothing to do with whether we are able at any particular moment to dredge up some sort of affectionate impulse toward the person who has done us injury. It is simply you and me displaying our family likeness to our heavenly Father, even if sometimes we have to work at it a bit to do so. If it is “inauthentic” or “dishonest” to express forgiveness to the sinner who asks for it while still battling bitterness (and I don’t for a second believe it is), withholding forgiveness is surely a greater sin. When we say the words, “I forgive you,” we open up the possibility of our feelings eventually falling into line with our actions. If we don’t, they never will, and the loss will be ours.
  4. Forgiveness does not require us to excuse any legal consequences that may attach to the sin, and it certainly does not involve us in a conspiracy to cover up a crime. The state has its own duties and obligations before God, and the principle of obedience to authority requires that we allow it to do its job unimpeded. Our responsibility to discharge a personal complaint in the court of God is a separate issue from earthly justice.
  5. The person who refuses to grant forgiveness demonstrates a failure to grasp the magnitude of his own guilt before God, as the parable Jesus told Simon demonstrates. That’s not a good spiritual place to be.

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