Forgive or Shun?
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.
If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Matthew 18:15-22
In 2015 a small group of people sat down for their Wednesday Bible Study. A young man asked to sit with them and was attentive throughout the study. When the study was over, he stood up, took out his gun and shot them all. Nine people died, including three ministers. This is a well-known incident that happened in the AME Emmanuel church in Charleston, North Carolina.
Less than a week after a couple of the victims’ family members announced in the media that they forgave the shooter. And there was more than one who announced that the shooter’s place was in hell and they prayed that God would speed him there.
What isn’t so well known is that after this incident, a huge outpouring of love came to the victims family and church members through that congregation. In interim pastor of the church opened all the mail and carefully tended to the cards, letters and checks that came to the congregation. Some of the money was sent directly to the victims or to certain victims, but the pastor gave the order to put all the money into a general church fund. The church secretary confronted him about this and so she was fired. This pastor became so popular as the “Pastor of the Forgiving Emmanuel Church” and later ran for bishop in his denomination.
All of this is documented in the recent book, Grace Will Lead Us Home by Jennifer Berry Hawes. Which I recommend, if you have time.
This brings up a lot of questions. Was it okay for some of the church members not to forgive Dylann? Was it okay that some proclaimed their forgiveness of him although they never met him? Should they forgive the pastor who took money from the victim’s families? Does forgiveness mean something different from a church member to a non-church member? What about between a leader and a non-leader?
Let’s see how much we can cover in the time we have:
What is forgiveness?
First, let’s distinguish between three different kinds of forgiveness. Often when one person is talking about one kind, someone else might be talking about another.
The most common thing we are talking about when we speak about forgiveness is release of bitterness. This takes place in our hearts, and we let go of the hurt and resentment we have of another person’s actions. This is generally positive and important and Jesus never talked about this, not once. This isn’t what Jesus spoke about when he used the Greek word, aphiēmi. Perhaps it is implied when he speaks of “love your enemies”, but we also know that Jesus does not just get rid of his anger nor does he tell us to dismiss our anger. Sometimes Jesus acts on his anger, and he doesn’t tell us to just ignore the hurt that others do to us. So we need to carefully sort out what it means to have a “release of bitterness”.
“Forgiveness” can also mean a release from debt or a just punishment. We’ll talk more about that next week, and Jesus certainly has a bit to say about that.
The third kind of forgiveness is what I’d like to call “community forgiveness”. This specifically has to do with receiving a welcome or not receiving a welcome into one’s community. In the ancient world this is essential. If you are not welcome in a community, one cannot eat with them. This is because community meals were eaten from a common bowl and they shared loaves of bread, so if an untrusted stranger came in, they could poison the bowl or the bread and truly harm the community. So some people were welcomed and some were not.
When Jesus talks about forgiveness, then, he is speaking about welcoming a person to be a part of a community. Specifically welcoming them when they are likely to do harm or if they have already done harm.
For instance, when the shooter came to the Bible study that Wednesday night, they rightfully welcomed him in. Although he was white and they were black, they didn’t see anything else but a young man who is interested in God’s word. So they welcomed him.
But after he had shot and killed nine members of their congregation, including their current minister, should he be forgiven after that? Should he be welcomed into the church again? Some might proclaim that they have no hard feelings against him, that they have “forgiven” him, but that’s not really what Jesus is talking about. He’s talking about welcoming in someone who has hurt the community. And few have hurt a church community as much as this shooter.
But some have done more. For instance, certain Catholic priests who sexually abused boys. Should they be forgiven? The Catholic church thought so. They moved them from one ministry to another, until the sexual abuse was epidemic. They were offering mercy to these sinners, forgiveness. But were they right? Is that what Jesus is talking about? And in Matthew we see that Jesus on the one hand is saying to be sure to forgive or we will not be forgiven. But it also says that those who harm children will not be forgiven by God. And it says that there should be a process for those who do harm to the community.
Let’s look at passage in Luke that makes the issue crystal clear. This is Jesus speaking again in Luke 17
“Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. 2 It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. 3 So watch yourselves.”
Jesus is saying just what he said in Matthew-- that if someone harms people who are vulnerable, like children, then God will have a great judgment against them. No word of forgiveness there. Jesus then tells us all-- watch yourselves! You may think, Jesus says, that the ones who harm the vulnerable are someone else, but it could easily be us.
Then Jesus says something pretty clear:
“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. 4 Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”
Here, Jesus is saying, but what if YOU are the vulnerable one whom another person harmed? What if we have been stolen from, what if we have been attacked, what if we have been sexually abused, what if we or our family has been done terrible harm, and that by someone in our community?
The process is simple:
1. Confront them
Tell them about the harm that they did you. Tell them about how you feel about it. Tell them about your anger, your hurt. You can do this by yourself, or take someone else with you. But they need to understand the harm that they caused you.
2. They repent
“Repent” is a general term which means to “change one’s mind”. It might mean that they said “sorry”. It might mean that they admitted their fault. It might mean that they offered a fuller confession, taking on the blame. It might mean that they have to make some amends. It might mean that they have additional steps to take. But there must be some assurance that they will not do this harm again, as much as you or the community thinks is necessary.
3. You (and the community) forgive
Forgiveness means two things: a. That you restore them back to the community. When they were confronted with the harm, they were on probation as to whether they would be fully accepted into the community. When they repented, Jesus said they were fully restored. In both Matthew and Luke, the goal is restoration, the goal is a complete, open welcome into the community. But that welcome is conditional upon a proper repentance.
So let’s take a look at the few examples we already saw:
-The shooter of Emanuel Church. He killed nine members of the congregation. He said he did this because hundreds of black men were raping white women every week and someone needed to stop it. As far as I can read, he has never changed his mind from this. He still thinks black people should be killed. Therefore, I’d say that Jesus is pretty clear that the shooter should NOT be forgiven. He should not be welcomed into that place of worship or any other.
-Catholic Priests who sexually abused children. This situation is that they confessed their sin to the church, and the church called that “repentance”. So while they didn’t keep them in the same congregation, they kept them in leadership positions, as fully welcome, fully forgiven members of the church. The problem is that I think that a more extreme situation requires a deeper repentance. I understand that they confessed, but that is insufficient to determine that they would not do this act again, if given the opportunity. If the church wanted to show mercy on them, and on any future children that might be harmed, they should have isolated these priests, perhaps in monasteries, but they should never be in contact with children again. I believe that to say “confess and then forgive” wasn’t enough. The church members should be protected, as well as a church member being restored. We shouldn’t choose one over the other.
-Pastor who took money from the church. Both Jesus and Paul said that leaders who claim to represent God should be held to a higher standard. Paul said that an “elder” or pastor who is found harming a community member by at least two witnesses, that they should be confronted in front of the whole congregation. Jesus said that leaders should speak more with their lives than their teaching. So this pastor should also have been confronted and called to repent of stealing from the victim’s families. And if he did not repent of this act, then he should be told to step down and to leave until he had repented.
In summary, Jesus said in the circumstance of someone harming another church member:
1. That person should be confronted, told of their harm and the consequences. This process should be as gentle and private as possible.
2. That person should be given an opportunity to give adequate repentance to what they have done. It could be as small as an “I’m sorry” or as large as a public apology and agreements between them and the community.
3. If they repent, they should be not punished, but welcomed back in to the community.
Now the Quiz:
Welcome or Shun or Something else?
Marilyn Monroe considers that the church would be better off if Charlie Chaplain never showed up again.
Jimmy Swaggert announces that he will be offering his teaching instead of the pastors’, because the pastor is a heretic.
Ellen Degeneres tells us that she is gay.
Bustopher Jones takes all the food from a potluck so others after him have nothing to eat.
Bonnie Parker steals from the offering plate.
Tardar Sauce is grumpy at church every week.
Martin Luther strongly disagrees with a church doctrine and tells people privately.
Joan Jett is always disturbing the worship time with loud burps.
Al Pacino says that everyone of a certain political party should be killed.
Barbara Walters said horrible things about Sarah, but apologized to her.
Nelson had molested a child in another church, has done prison time and now wants to join our congregation.
Dean Martin encouraged Jerry Lewis to drink with him, causing Jerry to fall back into his addiction.
Don Juan seduces Carol, another member of the congregation.
Pastor John Knox seduces Letita and then confesses his fault.