Forgive and Forget

Sunday 14th September 2014
Year A, The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Genesis 50:15-21
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-38

It's very difficult to read the story of Joseph and his eleven brothers with a straight face. Even if you discount the technicolour dream-coat and stick to the literal translation which is something like "a coat with sleeves", not the sort of thing that a self-respecting shepherd would be seen dead in, there's still enough ham in the story to supply a substantial Yorkshire wake.

First, there are Joseph's extravagant claims that his brothers would bow down to him, which ... bowing before Joseph, as he had predicted, begging for food but not recognising him; and, finally, in today's First Reading, the wiping clean of the slate with Joseph's placid observation that God had meant it to be this way. And there is the underlying theme in the story of Joseph and his brothers which justifies all the colourful, if sometimes muddled, detail: whatever the circumstances in which we find ourselves, God is behind everything.

But this turns out to be quite tricky because it involves, in the Joseph story, the idea that God is behind the bad behaviour of his brothers in order to show how he is in control of everything; but we meet this idea in its most acute form in the narrative about the betrayal of Jesus by Judas which, we are told, is to fulfil the Scriptures, so Judas is a divine dupe. Looked at from a traditional Lutheran perspective, this makes sense because what counts is faith, not what choices we make; but looked at from a more traditional perspective, we are creatures caught up in the struggle between good and evil and have to make the best of it. I must say that I find the early Protestant position which focuses solely on faith rather unrealistic and am more inclined to emphasise the exercise of free will within the context of conscience.

But, even then, the Joseph story tells us that our scope for exercising free will is limited or, to use a late Medieval formula: we are predestined in the way we exercise our free will. all very clever but, over and above providing an explanation of our responsibility for our own moral actions, what does this mean?

This is where Saint Paul's passage on the restraint of judgment in our Second Reading becomes helpful. There is an inverse relationship - to formalise the idea - between God's power and the futility of judgment: the more we acknowledge God's power the less value we can place in human judgment.

And this, in turn leads us to our Gospel Reading which builds on the notion of non judgmentalism by saying that we must always forgive.

Now, I would not go so far as to say that we must "always forgive" because those things which have been done to us or not done to us which require our forgiveness are the product of God's master plan because, as I have noted, this down-grades the exercise of free will, but I would say that the essence of forgiveness lies in the acceptance that we are all sinners and that each of us has much less scope in decision making than we would like to think, not because of anything God has planned for us at a micro level but because we are creatures of nature and nurture, of inheritance and circumstance.

This does not make forgiveness easy but it makes it necessary. "There for the Grace of God go I" puts the idea economically. In some cases our genes and our upbringing help us to exercise self-control; in other cases we want to damage somebody but don't have the strength, we want to insult somebody but can't think up a cutting line, we want to nick something from a shop but are too frightened of being caught.

A related cliché is that which says "I can forgive but not forget" which bears the strange implication, picked up from somewhere, that we ought to forget. The opposite, in the first instance, is true because of the ambiguous nature of our third cliché, "time heals". The problem with the healing of time is that it is usually achieved by our immense human ability to re-write history, and even our own motives and personality, to survive. To resist  forgetting, to fight for the reality of our predicament, brings us into direct contact with the reality of our own narrative; and it is only when we confront reality that we can genuinely recognise the damage inflicted upon us by the other and can forgive, knowing, critically, what we are actually forgiving. In other words, we can only let time heal after we have gone through a deliberative, realistic process of forgiving rather than allowing time to be a substitute. To this extent, we can only properly forget after forgiving; and so to use the cliché "I can forgive but not forget" most often implies that the person who cannot forget has probably not forgiven.

The problem with forgetting instead of forgiving is that it reduces us to a form of moral torpor, a kind of sleep walking through life instead of facing the reality of our own brokenness and, of course, if we are apt to re-write history concerning the damage done to us we are even more likely to apply the same technique to the damage we do to others. Even in trivial matters, re-writing personal history is almost irresistible.

Ultimately, not to forgive is a serious act of pride in which we put ourselves above the person who has injured us, not to mention putting ourselves  above the injunction of Jesus to Peter; and it also almost always involves an element of judgment, a usurpation of God against which Paul warns. No doubt there are many more spectacular evils in the world than pride and judgment but they are the root of all the others, and the most insidious.