The Ultimate Act of Love
Once again we find ourselves at the heart of the Incarnational message. This passage reminds us that even our prayer is affected by our ability, or our inability, to forgive. To forgive, to let go of injury, frees us. This is the great mystery of the gospel. In forgiving the one who has injured us, we lift the weight of their sin from them. By this act of forgiveness we free them from their burden of guilt. And here is the great paradox; in forgiving the other we also receive God’s liberating forgiveness.
Sin isolates and imprisons us. If we sin against our brother or sister, we cause a separation. On the other hand, if we cannot forgive the other’s sins against us, it is like closing and locking the door on our relationship with the other—and with God—then throwing away the key. We are not free when we do this, for this is an even greater sin. In doing this we are prisoners to our own private motives. In our pride we diminish the other, we treat the other as someone, or worse, as a “thing,” lesser than ourselves. And the most ancient of wisdom of all is this: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18) Whatever our motivation to sin is, it not only injures the other, but it is ultimately the cause of our own downfall. That is the greatest irony of all.
If sin is the cause of separation, and if sin imprisons us, what is its cure? This passage is one of Jesus’ answers to this question. This question is so important that Jesus answers it in several ways, both with his words and with his deeds. For example, when he taught the disciples how to pray, he included this lesson: “Forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us.” (Matthew 6:12) In other words, we will be forgiven in the same manner that we have forgiven those who have sinned against us. That simple phrase always gives me pause every time I pray it. It tells me that one of the greatest jobs before me is to learn how to forgive. Jesus’ death on the cross was the ultimate act of forgiveness. In doing this Jesus was “practicing what he had been preaching” to us about forgiveness throughout his entire public ministry. He forgave every sin done by all of humanity. In doing so Jesus destroyed sin’s power to imprison us, its power to separate us from God and from one another.
What is it that makes it possible for God to forgive us? Or for us to be able to forgive those who have sinned against us? Love, of course. Forgiveness is the ultimate act of love. When we are able to love the other despite their sins against us, we are already free of the pain that they have caused us. Love is humility’s greatest strength. Love is what makes it possible for us to forgive. The fact is that we are sinners too. We have known the heartsick and desperate need to be forgiven before. If we have been forgiven, we remember the joy of being liberated from the weight of our guilt. If we have experienced being reconciled we know what it feels like to “come home,” to be welcomed back into the family circle again. There is no greater feeling. In this we know that we are loved. In a powerful way, God is saying to us here in this passage: “I put before you love and hate, with all of its bitter and destructive offspring; choose one.
Lord, teach us to always keep our eyes on you in this matter of forgiving. Strengthen our love so that we may forgive those who have sinned against us, for we know our own deep need for your loving forgiveness. Help us to understand more deeply that in forgiving others we, too, will find liberation from our own sins through the all-conquering power of your loving forgiveness. We pray, as always, in Jesus’ name. Amen!
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