Sisters and Brothers,
When a parent tries to tell you the same thing again and again, you begin to think it is very important. If a teacher comes back to the same point over and over again, you would be smart to expect it on a test. If a fence has more than one sign saying, “beware the dog,” you start to imagine the dog will be a significant problem if you climbed the fence. So, when Jesus repeats a lesson in multiple ways, during the Sermon on the Mount, do you take it seriously?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has a lot to say about mercy and forgiveness. They are two facets of the same diamond. Mercy is defined as “compassion or forgiveness for someone who has wronged you.” Forgiveness is an attitude, decision, and behavior “where you stop feeling angry or resentful for some offense, flaw or mistake.” You stop feeling anger or resentment by letting go of the vengeful feelings that have grown inside you. Usually, this “letting go” is a decision, but it can become a habit with time.
The general assumption is that God could hold you accountable for time you have been mean, self-centered, violent, dishonest, or greedy. There is a very long list of imperfection that includes bad things you did and good things you failed to do. The other assumption is that God knows every time you “got away” with bad behavior. God even knows the bad things you intended to do but missed the opportunity. God knows this because you are part of his creation. God doesn’t have to “read your mind,” because all things are within God’s knowledge.
Just because God is willing and able to forgive you for anything, he does not approve of the wrong you did. If you mocked someone for their appearance, or were cruel to an animal, or betrayed someone’s trust; those things are still wrong and they matter, but God can release you from divine judgment.
By his death on the cross, Jesus opens God’s perfect kingdom to us. Rather than being perfect ourselves, we can enjoy eternal life by clinging to his perfection. This salvation is offered to us as a free gift. A great deal of protestant theology emphasizes that salvation is ours unless we purposefully reject it. We either surrender to salvation or choose to reject it. In the Sermon of the Mount, Jesus says we reject forgiveness and mercy by refusing to be merciful or forgiving towards others.
In chapters five and six, we had these two lessons:
Matthew 5:77 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Matthew 6:14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
In chapter seven, Jesus makes it even clearer:
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
So, the emphasis is on forgiveness and mercy. Jesus makes it clear by repeating the message. You are not asked to approve of bad behavior. You do not have to forget your emotional and physical injuries. You can work to make your community or nation a safer place. You can work to end all of the terrible things of the world that ruin lives. But you are expected to let go of the anger or resentment you hold towards people who have hurt you. That anger and resentment can be like bits of poison or cancer in your soul, and you can’t take them to heaven. Just as you can’t take gold and silver to heaven, anger and resentment stay here. If you insist on holding on and prolonging your anger and resentment, they will cause you to reject God’s offer of salvation.
Some of us let go of anger and resentment, but it comes back. Like any repetitive sin, we repent again and work to let go once again. Eventually, the anger and resentment will stop coming back.
Lots of us might want to say, “No, I can’t forgive that person. You do not understand the pain they caused me.” But the truth is that we don’t know all the details of anyone’s life. People all around us have very strong reasons to say why their anger and resentment is justified. Many of us carry secret pains from old wounds. We are not called to ignore evil or pretend that bad things didn’t happen. What we are told to do is to let go of the anger and resentment that remains.
One of the things that makes this world a hard place is that so many people are wounded and looking for revenge or other ways of “getting even.” It gets worse as the old wounds lead people to make more wounded people. Earthly justice can never be perfect, but mercy and forgiveness can stop or even turn back the cycles of revenge.
Keeping all these things in mind, how does this relate to human laws and their enforcement? We are still expected to forgive people, but that does not keep them from serving appropriate sentences or paying appropriate fines. With particularly violent criminals a true life-sentence can even be justified as protection of public safety. But we are called to forgive and not hate. A prison guard can be strict butshould not be cruel. There have been a variety of prison reform movements done by American Christians over the last two hundred years. One of these movements, came up with the name “penitentiary” rather than jail or prison. “Penitentiary” comes from the word “penitence,” and was supposed to be a place that encouraged repentance and emotional healing. Since we both overload and underfund prisons, there isn’t as much mercy or repentance as there ought to be. When prisons become particularly cruel, they generate more crime than they restrict.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Jesus spends so much time on mercy and forgiveness. He wants you to understand that it is vital.
If you need help to deal with old anger or resentment, talk to me or someone whom you know to be a forgiving person.
Questions to Ponder: Have you ever helped others get over the kinds of pain or losses you have suffered? If not, is it something you could do?