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[6:14] For if you forgive others
their trespasses, your heavenly
Father will also forgive you;
[6:15] but if you do not forgive
others, neither will your Father
forgive your trespasses.”
~ Matthew 6:14f NRSV
Brother and Sister Miner (not their real name) actually were husband and wife, a ministry team serving a dilapidated Pentecostal church somewhere along the Mississippi River about a generation ago.
Brother Miner reminded me of the Dalai Lama, what with his wide-eyed puzzlement behind big-lensed glasses. Sister Miner reminded me of a dried apple with severely gray mold for hair. Puzzlement and severity aside, they were a delightful couple.
One day Brother Miner confessed to being quite angry with someone. He shared a few details, tried hard to snarl about it – snarling was something neither Brother nor Sister really knew how to do, but he gave it a decent shot – and then he said:
“Of course, I have to forgive so-and-so. The Word says that if you don’t forgive, you won’t be forgiven, and that means you’ll end up in the lake of fire! And I sure don’t want to end up in the lake of fire! So I’m working hard on forgiving so-and-so!”
Give Brother Miner a few due liberties in what texts he was paraphrasing, and how he paraphrased it: nevertheless, these words of Jesus (Matthew 6:14f et al, above) are hard to hear, tough to accept, sobering to try to live with.
But as hard as Jesus’ teaching is to hear, forgiving someone is immeasurably harder for most of us, and few of us really know what it is we’re trying to do when we try to do it.
What is forgiveness?
And what exactly are you doing, when you forgive someone?
The short answer is: Brother and Sister Miner, in order really to forgive someone, have to get PIGGY … but that’s getting way ahead of the discussion at this point. So, you can flag that answer if you want, but it’s really for later.
That’s partly because there are more questions to ask.
For example, and maybe it’s the most unsettling example of them all in this particular discussion: aren’t there times when it’s just plain naive and maybe dangerous to forgive someone? Doesn’t that create a “safe space” for them to come back at you next time? … to go on doing whatever they did the first time, walking all over you, taking advantage of what turns out to be your naivete?
Substitute Al Qaida for the meanie who ticked off Brother and Sister Miner, and the President of the United States for Brother and Sister Miner, and you’ll get a glimpse of why that last question was – is – such a kicker. What would have happened if President Bush just went all nice on us, and forgave Al Quaida? (That's a hypothetical question, and not directed at whether you agree with the Bush Administration's actions.)
Let’s look at two words in the Matthew passage, and see if they can help:
First, “trespasses” – what are they? What specifically is Jesus talking about?
Second, “forgive” – what is it? What’s this thing He (Jesus) wants us to do?
The Greek in which the New Testament was written could be sophisticated in the number of words available to the speaker or writer, but in this case – “trespasses” -- it uses just one.
This one word is used 9 times, three of which are in our two verses.
It literally means “to fall down alongside or in the vicinity of.”
In this case, one’s trespasses are where one fell down in the vicinity of … well, me (or, of course, you). This “trespass” presumably was “against” me, or you, although the word “against” doesn't appear in either verse we’re considering here.
So "to forgive" means primarily to forgive others their downfalls in your vicinity. And, as you'll see, it doesn't necessarily imply any particular "guilt" or "wrongness" about the downfall either. Its core, bald meaning simply is that it -- the downfall -- just happened.
In this case, the New Testament uses at least three Greek words for “forgive,” and the shades of meaning in each are critical.
One word is used just one time, and it means to untie or loosen forcefully. It gets translated into English as, among other similar words, “loosen, melt, destroy.” In each of these, the underlying idea is that the basic nature or structure of something is changed by an outside agency (you or me, in this case).
Another word is used just three times in the New Testament, and it carries the meaning of doing something as a favor. The underlying idea is that it didn’t have to be done, but the fact that it was done made it especially nice.
The third word is used 22 times in the New Testament, four of which are in our verses here. It means to send away. Nothing in the person or event is changed by being sent away; the act of sending away isn’t being done as a special favor. The person or event is just sent away.
There are nuances to the metaphor of being “sent away”.
Obviously the person or event – I’m just going to say “person” from here on, but remember it can be a situation, a circumstance, a “happening,” an event too – no longer is in your immediate presence, your immediate field of view. You are not perceiving or dealing with him or her.
More specifically, it’s kind of like saying, “out of sight, out of mind,” except that here you’re working first on putting her/him “out of mind.” You’re sending her/him away from your thoughts. You’re sending him/her “out of mind.”
You’re just not thinking about him, or her, or them, any longer.
PUT IT ALL TOGETHER, AND YOU GET …
The person you’re “forgiving” is someone who has fallen down in your vicinity. The fall "involves" you, presumably, more than it would if the person(s) had fallen somewhere else, somewhere farther away. But as to how it involves you, the word itself says nothing -- and that is really important.
Maybe the fall was an accident. It could have been due to the person's clumsiness. It could be your fault, as in, you “bumped” or “tripped” them somehow.
The Greek word for “forgive” just doesn’t say. Apparently the nature of the fall is irrelevant to the process of forgiving.
Or maybe the person you’re “forgiving,” by falling down in your vicinity, fell so close to your “vicinity” that they banged into you. Maybe you fell down in turn. Maybe you dropped your Ming vase and it shattered. Maybe you have a bruise or three. Maybe their fall cost you the race. Maybe it just generally overall made you look bad.
The word doesn’t say and so, again, apparently it’s irrelevant.
It could be that the person you’re “forgiving” had no relationship to you or your activities whatsoever. Maybe they just fell down not too far away, you caught a glimpse of them dropping like a stone beneath your “radar,” it didn’t change anything you were doing or planning or hoping or dreading, it only may (or may not) merit a comment over dinner that night. “Gee, I saw this person go down like Curly the Stooge in a some weird pratfall …,” and that’s it.
The word doesn’t say.
It only says this person fell down in your general vicinity. Period.
And here’s the response required of you no matter how the fall affected you (or didn't): dismiss that person from your thoughts.
“Send them away” by leaving them alone in your thoughts.
You have “forgiven” them when you do.
Now, that’s easy if their fall had nothing to do with you, and had absolutely zero affect on you. You’re hardly going to think about them again; so “forgiveness” is something that – as they say – comes rather naturally.
It’s a little less easy if the person made an ass of themselves by the way they fell. You may want to bring it up over dinner that night, entertain your family and friends, get a good laugh at this person’s expense. But no, you must forgive them; you must send them away … from your thoughts. Don't make fun of them. Don't ridicule anyone.
(If their fall was heroic and saved a child’s life, it’s hard to see how they’d need “forgiving,” so I rather suspect Jesus would encourage you to keep them in your thoughts, and to hold them up to family and friends as an example.)
It’s increasingly difficult to send them away in your thoughts, if it’s someone you don’t like in the first place … and their fall was clumsy, or somehow interfered with you, your plans, your life, your person, your possessions. You want to joke about how stupid they looked. (Yes you do! I love it when an “enemy” does something stupid. Just watch me around Tea Party advocates and right-wingers in general.) Or you want to "get even."
The word does have something to say now: it says, send them away in your thoughts. Forget them. Leave them alone. Don't enjoy an "enemy" looking stupid and awkward ... don't fantasize (let alone act on) getting even.
It bears repeating just how hard it is if their downfall banged into you … made you drop and break something … gave you a few bumps and bruises … wrecked your own plans … let you down … even cost you the whole race.
Now you’re angry. Now you do not want to let them out of your thoughts.
And it’s right here that an especially tenacious fantasy sets in, too: If I don’t deal with this, point it out, expose it, even stop it from ever happening again, it will happen again, maybe worse next time, so I just cannot and will not, in all responsibility as a good citizen and a reliable human being, let this thing go.
And the word says: send them away in your thoughts, regardless.
But they owe me an apology!
Send them away in your thoughts.
But they have it coming!
Send them away in your thoughts.
But … but … but …but …
No buts about it. Send the fallen-down person away in your thoughts. Let go of them. Turn them loose.
It’s not up to you to change their nature, the structure of their mind, their emotions, their soul – it’s up to God.
It’s not up to you to do them any special favors – that only feeds you with a new illusion, namely that now they owe you one.
Besides, this is no “special favor.” This is Torah. This is Law. This is, for crying outloud, Dharma! This is Tao!
This is a structural reality at the Ground of the universe. (The poet and peace activist monk, Fr. Thomas Merton, in a letter once referred to this ultimate level of Reality as “the hidden Ground of Love.” It only makes sense that, if the ultimate [even if hidden] Ground is Love, then mercy, kindness and above all forgiveness is rooted precisely There.)
This is the Word of God coursing through all things, and any act that interferes with Its free coursing through all things, distorts and – in some instances – even wrecks all things.
Just send that person or group away in your thoughts. Let go of them. Period. End of story.
Now this is complicated enough, without the added complexity that there may be some increased possibility, now, that they’ll do it again, only worse. Especially if they take your forgiveness as a sign you’re weak, you’re a sucker, you don’t really mean business. So take this paragraph, and the next three, as an aside. There are three things to consider about your fears, or anyone’s fears, about some possible harmful outcome to all of this.
 You can send this person away in your thoughts and still plan for what harm they might do next. Send them away … and get busy planning against possible harm. It takes long experience and considerable wisdom to separate the individual(s) from the possible danger, and deal with just the possible danger; but that’s your job. And it can be done, especially if the beginning of this kind of wisdom is fear of acting alone – and so you surround yourself with wise counselsors, with sisters and brothers in the Spirit.
 This teaching in Matthew 6 comes with divine authority. It’s how the universe works when God is allowed to be in control. Anxiety about some possible harmful outcome, and future, is a sign – and symptom, for all that metaphor suggests – that we’re not about to give up control. Dig hard and deep enough, and chances are pretty good you’ll find out you’re not really worried about what they’ll do next … chances are at least 50/50, maybe higher, you’re just antsy about having given up control, and so what is that beast Reality going to sneak up behind you and do next?
Deal with your/our own anxiety about loss of control, and keep sending the rest of it, consequences above all, to God. “Let go, and let God,” is a more familiar way of saying the same thing.
 To drag 9/11 into the conversation – or for that matter, any large-scale tragedy – is a “category error.” It is to confuse rather mundane interpersonal issues, with colossal public and political issues. President Bush’s “agenda” – regardless of what one may think of it, of how one might evaluate it – had to be on a public and political scale, not an interpersonal scale. This “category error” does not invalidate the first two considerations above, but it does intensify their location on the interpersonal level of things, not the public and political level of things. The Bible does not approach these public matters in the same way it approaches interpersonal matters; and, in fact, it will offer strikingly different – albeit no less counterintuitive – “visions” of how to go about rectifying large-scale, historic wrongs.
TIME TO GET PIGGY
How is this “sending away in our thoughts” done?
Brother and Sister Miner – and you, and I too – have to get PIGGY.
“PIG” here is an acronym:
P = Pinch
I = Ignore
G = Go on ignoring.
PINCH … thoughts like these (involving someone who has fallen down in your vicinity for whatever reasons) begin, not as full-blown thoughts, but as faintly aggravating little pinches.
They sting. They annoy. They are like a buzzing mosquito – there's hardly anything for you to focus on except that damn buzzing.
And that’s how they get your attention – not by presenting your mind with a full-blown memory, but by a pinch. A full-blown memory would be like a movie – a full-color, sound-enhanced replay of the incident that needs forgiving. This is just a pinch … probably not even the first “frame” of the memory, the movie. Just a pinch, an annoying little reminder of … of … of … oh yeah, of that thing. That incident.
It takes time and practice to recognize that snotty little pinch before it grows any larger, before it announces itself, declares to you exactly what it is and what it’s doing pinching you. Right now, it's just that nasty little pinch-with-no-content-except-how-pinches-sting.
In fact, looking ahead for just a moment, that’s why “PIG” ends in that “G” -- a reminder that this is a practice that takes practice, often years, decades, generations of practice … and accordingly, it takes time and patience. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Learn to recognize the pinches for what they are. Each one is associated with specific memories trying to get your attention, but that’s “TMI” – too much information. You don’t need to know which memory is pinching you for attention – that’s completely irrelevant. You just need to know that a pinching in your mind is something trying to get your attention … and its character (that of a nasty memory) is completely embodied in the fact it is a stinging annoying nasty little pinch and not something with the scent of a rose and the nudge of a lover.
Take time … practice … learn to spot the pinches the instant they arise.
IGNORE … don’t talk to the pinch! Ignore it! It will keep nagging you, keep stinging you, pinching you, annoying you – you just keep on ignoring it.
The instant you say,”What? What are you saying?” … or, more likely, “Who? Who is this?” … you’re in trouble. Let me say that again:
You’re in trouble.
Because it – the pinch – will answer you. The instant you so much as look at it, it will unfold into a picture of what it is … of what happened that now needs forgiving … and you’re in trouble.
Because pictures attract.
And that picture will draw you in. It will have just enough of an emotional aura around it – negative emotions, mind you (and there’s no surprise there since it began as a nasty little pinch) – to really really hook you.
And it will turn into a movie, complete with 3-D visual qualities and digital stereo surround-sound.
And who ever resisted a movie staring themselves? Not I … and, I’ll bet, not you either.
Do not talk to the pinch or it will morph instantly into a picture … and it will be ten times harder not to talk to the picture … and the instant you do, it morphs instantly into a movie. And rare indeed is the soul disinterested enough to walk away from a motion picture starring them … even if everone knows, sadly, how it ends. Again. (These things can go on forever. Ever notice that? Forever. Unchanged.)
And now you are replaying the incident itself, on the surface looking for new ways to resolve it (in your favor, of course), but beneath the surface also just hating the hell out of the person or group who did you this wrong.
Ignore the pinch … if you failed at that, ignore the picture, although that’s going to be a lot harder to do … and if you failed at that, get on your knees and pray like mad because few are the souls who can ignore the movie that follows.
What’s worse: this movie rapidly is becoming a habit. And before you know it – which is easy to understand, because already this has taken place without your full knowledge – you will be watching that movie all the time, replaying it endlessly, and pretty soon it will begin to harm your emotional and mental health.
Ignore the pinch … or you are in trouble.
Go on Ignoring… because it, this nasty little emotional pinch, is going to go on pinching.
Plan on learning to forgive as being a practice that will take you the rest of your life.
There are three reasons for you to plan on going-on-ignoring. One is practical ... one is ego ... and the other is, well, ego.
You will never, in this life, get so “good” at it that you don’t have to worry about forgiving any longer.
In the next Age, yes. At the final Transfiguration of All Things, yes. But we’re not there yet, and while we were told to stop our damn fool guessing about when and where that new Age will break in (Acts 1:7 et al), I’m still going to hazard a guess it’s not going to happen later today. So I just have to go on practicing, and being patient with myself, and allowing for seemingly endless time needed for seemingly endless growth.
And so do you.
And so did Brother and Sister Miner (about whom, by the way, I have not the slightest worry in terms of the “lake of fire,” which, in my read of biblical metaphors, simply means a somewhat involuntary refining process in which the un-PIGGY parts of us are burned out until we are healed, well, and whole.)
Remember the other two words for "forgive"? Remember how one of them meant to change the nature of a person or thing? To change his or her or its structure?
Sometimes we forgive, under the fantasy -- or hope -- that by forgiving that person or group, they'll change.
That's ego on our part. They might change; more often than not, they won't change; and regardless of the outcome, that's not forgiving. That's flexing our magical powers, hoping to conclude this particular fantasy by riding into Heaven (or at least our own living room, with doting family and friends awaiting our approach) on a white charger, the Eternal Good Guy or Gal who saved someone's soul.
Forget it. Whether anyone is changed or not, we "forgive" -- we "send away and out of our thoughts" because Jesus said so ... and His saying so is consistent with His nature, God's nature. And that's all we're after: to reclaim a little bit of creation for God's reign. Not for a display of our magically transforming powers.
 ... and More Ego
Remember the other word for "forgive"? Remember how it meant to decide to grant someone a wonderful favor?
That's ego again. Behind it lies the fantasy that we're just the nicest, most grace-filled person you'll ever know. And so occasionally -- it's always only just occasionally, you may have noticed -- occasionally we hand out a boon. How magnificent of us to do so!
But once again, that's just our ego preening and hoping -- even assuming -- someone is watching, and that someone will just melt into sighs of wonderment at the size of our heart!
Forget it. Whether our "forgiving" is perceived as a boon, or, more likely, as a bone-headed bleeding-heart blunder, is entirely irrelevant. We forgive -- we send someone's fall out of our thoughts -- because Jesus said so ... and this saying-so is consistent with His boundless heart of compassion ... with God's boundless heart of mercy ... not ours.
Forgive … and go on forgiving. Jesus said for at least 70 times seven times (variant reading of Luke 17:3-4), which, in the mathematics of Eternity, means forever.
That’s big PIGGY, but even at that, it’s not as great as God’s own love for we who need it so desperately ourselves.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner. Amen.