On Forgiveness

Sunday 2nd October 2016
Year C, The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Luke 17.5-10

Some of you may remember that some years ago I directed Shakespeare's The Tempest at the Hurst Players Theatre, fulfilling one of my most treasured dramatic ambitions as, ever since studying it for "O" Level English, this has been my favourite Shakespeare play. And when I retire, with Mrs. Carey's permission, I would like to Direct The Winter's Tale, my second favourite Shakespeare play. From a study of jealousy in his mid period plays, notably Othello, Shakespeare moves in his final plays to the theme of forgiveness and reconciliation: in The Winter's Tale, jealousy and rage take up the first part of the drama with the reconciliation in the second whereas in The Tempest, all the misdeeds are recounted retrospectively in the First Act, with the rest of the play being entirely a study in reconciliation and forgiveness. It is as if Shakespeare wanted to work out the resolution of all the torment of this world before he died. By all accounts, he was a simply conforming rather than a fervent Christian but, nonetheless, he left us two supremely valuable texts on forgiveness which amplify, in their psychological verity, what we are taught to know in our theological, Christian framework.

In considering today's Gospel it is important to bear in mind the four Verses of Chapter 17 preceding our Reading: Jesus tells his Disciples that they must forgive their fellow disciples, if necessary, seven times a day; in Mark and Matthew the figure is multiplied by ten. And the interesting response of the Disciples is to ask Jesus to increase their faith. Why would such a request for strengthened faith follow an instruction to forgive repeatedly and unconditionally?

My simple answer is that learning to forgive is the most difficult thing that we will ever have to do and that it tests our faith because our reaction to misfortune is almost always to ask "Why me?" or "Why my child?" or "Why the innocent?" And so the first challenge to faith is to get past the "Why" and to see ourselves as vulnerable creatures subject to the "changes and chances of this fleeting world" rather than being in command of it; and to see ourselves as equally prone to error as our fellow human beings.

This acknowledgement of error and vulnerability is not easy because our instinct, written into our genes, is to be competitive and, if possible, controlling but we have - or at least most of us have - gone far past the days when physical violence was used for control. Even today, power and wealth are used all over the world to impose social control, not least here in our own country; but the most widespread method of social control now used is the power to pass judgment, a power which Christianity has found it very difficult to deny. We have passed from a requirement in the New Testament for sinners against The Holy Spirit, in the concrete manifestation of Christ's Church, to make public penance to a situation where the Church is chronically guilty of presuming to pronounce upon, and demand penance for, private behaviour over which it cannot possibly have any legitimate jurisdiction: Our understanding of the influences of nature and nurture is, at best, sketchy; our understanding of the boundary between illness and wickedness is even more primitive; and, conclusively, only God knows the hand each of us has been dealt and how well we are playing it.

But, as we all know, exercising power is much easier than displaying vulnerability. When I was writing my first novel my main character insisted that love was not a matter of doing something for the beloved but of being totally open and vulnerable to the beloved; the most important facet of love was openness to otherness. But this requirement is so difficult that it can only be attempted if we have faith; thus the connection between Jesus' call for forgiveness and the Disciples' responding call to have their faith increased.

Too often, we begin our reaction to a misdeed by thinking we know more than we do. We almost never know as much as we think we do but we have all turned into amateur psychologists, fancying that we understand motives; and we fancy ourselves as private detectives who know exactly how it happened; and, of course, we frequently turn ourselves into victims when we might simply have been accidental sufferers; and all this self justifying and victimising superstructure makes our forgiveness much more difficult. Then again, we often say that we can forgive but not forget when the whole point of forgiveness is not to forget but to have a lively sense of events because only in recognising the weakness of others can we recognise our own weakness that, to use the popular phrase, there but for the Grace of God go I.

The sequence of Shakespeare's plays has, as I have said, a satisfactory trajectory from the worst possible offences to forgiveness which provides us with a narrative which is both psychologically convincing and emotionally satisfying; but the command of Jesus is surely more forceful if much more simple; but we should not confuse simplicity with ease.

Forgiveness, in the true sense of living with our pain, or loss, or insult is, as I have said, the most difficult thing we have to do but it is also the most important thing that we are required to do and, in a way, the only thing we are required to do: no sleuthing; no intellectualising; no judging; no moralising; no comparisons between our virtues and the supposed vices of others; and no deals or contracts.

No wonder forgiveness needs faith in a supreme being who is ruler of all!