Forgiveness. That’s a strange word in today’s culture. I don’t think many of us really know what that word means. I’m sure we don’t understand the power that lies embedded within it. Someone hurts us and apologizes, “I’m sorry.” Our usual response is “That’s OK, no worries.” Is that offering forgiveness for the wrong? Or, is it simply a gloss that social convention has decided can amicably fix things? I think the latter is closer to the heart of things. And, I think it falls woefully short. Any discussion about relationships must necessarily take a trip through forgiveness.
There’s a story about a woman who was unfaithful to her husband. Apparently, she was caught doing the nasty with the other man. I don’t know who caught her. Maybe it was her husband. Maybe, it was a nosy neighbor. In any case, she was taken to the local assembly where she was accused of breaking their law. This all male council decided to use her as a test case for an upstart young teacher. “Let’s see what the hotshot new guy has to say.” So, they gathered her up in the best angry mob style they could muster and hurried her off to stand before the ‘judge.’
When they arrived, they pushed the woman to the front and brought their accusations. “This woman was caught in the act of adultery. Our law states that she must be put to death. What do you say?” The young man took this all very seriously. He stooped down and began to doodle in the dirt. The mob, growing impatient, continued to press for an answer. Finally, he stood and faced them. I think that he may have looked a tad exasperated with this group of men. “Ok…if there is anyone, anyone at all among you who has never fallen short. Who has never wronged another person. Who has never made a bad decision. Who has never…sinned. Let that person throw the first stone.” He then went back to his doodling. The story tells us that one by one, from the eldest to the youngest, each walked away. Finally, there was only the woman and the young teacher. The man stood and looked around. “Where’d everyone go? Isn’t there anyone left to accuse you?” “No sir,” she replied. “No one.” The young man responded to her, “Then neither do I. Go, now, and don’t do this thing anymore.”
The word ‘forgive’ is nowhere in this story. Some folks may even say that forgiveness isn’t even the main point. But, I see this brief account filled to overflowing with mercy and forgiveness. This woman had indeed broken the law. There were witnesses. She had incurred a debt that required her life to repay. The mob was ready to exact payment. I can’t even begin to imagine what was going through that woman’s mind. Panic? Anxiety? Remorse? I’m sure those and much more. “What would this young teacher say? After all, he is a man! Will he join these others to condemn me?”
The teacher’s response must have been puzzling to her as well as her accusers. Didn’t he know how grave this situation was? His nonchalant attitude was troubling. But, then he stood. He raised his voice so all could hear. And, in so many words, declared everyone guilty. Yet, he passed no judgment against them. He allowed their own consciences to do that. After the accuser left, he rose and again looked into the woman’s eyes. With compassion in his eyes and his voice, he spoke and refused to make her to pay her debt.
The language of the Bible allows us to understand forgiveness as setting aside or dismissing a debt. That’s why the Pater Noster in Matthew is translated “Forgive our debts even as we have forgiven the debts of others.” In this story Jesus, the young teacher, dismissed the woman’s debt. She was no longer liable for it. We are not told anything else about this person or those who accused her. Did she go home to her husband? Did he take her back? What of that mob? We simply don’t know. That’s what makes this a great story. We are allowed to imagine all the many possibilities and outcomes. One thing that I’m pretty sure of, that woman, who had been forgiven much, most likely had her heart enlarged and learned to love much. I can see her telling her friends at the well how that young teacher had poured out compassion on her. She, now, would be able to pour out compassion on others. That, I think, is the point of forgiveness. It frees the one forgiven to forgive others…including themselves.
How have you experience forgiveness from others? From God? From your own self?