(Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13)
(watch here: https://youtu.be/VAQVgWAT1aE)
1At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.2[Jesus] asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” 6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ”
As we continue along our Lenten journey, our readings bring us to another difficult topic of discussion for many of us…the topic of forgiveness. Forgiveness can be easier when we’re hurt by accident or by complete strangers. It’s much more difficult when we’re hurt by those we love either intentionally or unintentionally. How do we forgive those who hurt us that we least expect to hurt us? How do we let go of our feelings of betrayal and anger? How do we choose to re-enter into loving relationships with those who hurt us? These can be difficult things to do, especially with loved ones, those people we trust and respect and admire. Their hurt is unlike the hurt from others. Their hurt cuts us to the core of our very being. We naturally, almost justifiably, want to hurt them back. Yet we are encouraged to forgive them just as we forgive those whom we don’t love that accidentally hurt us. Forgiveness should be just as easy regardless of who hurts us and how they hurt us. Why? Because this is how God forgives and we should always strive to be like God in our actions and our relationships.
Our readings assigned for this morning help us to understand how God forgives. But before we delve into them, I felt it would be useful to reflect on a letter. It is written to a man on death row by the father of the man whom the man on death row had killed. It reads:
“You are probably surprised that I, of all people, am writing a letter to you, but I ask you to read it in its entirety and consider its request seriously. As the father of the man whom you took part in murdering, I have something very important to say to you.
“I forgive you. With all my heart, I forgive you. I realize it may be hard for you to believe, but I really do. At your trial, when you confessed to your part in the events that cost my son his life and asked for my forgiveness, I immediately granted you that forgiving love from my heart. I can only hope you believe me and will accept my forgiveness.
“But this is not all I have to say to you. I want to make you an offer — I want you to become my adopted child. You see, my son who died was my only child, and I now want to share my life with you and leave my riches to you. This may not make sense to you or anyone else, but I believe you are worth the offer. I have arranged matters so that if you will receive my offer of forgiveness, not only will you be pardoned for your crime, but you also will be set free from your imprisonment, and your sentence of death will be dismissed. At that point, you will become my adopted child and heir to all my riches.
“I realize this is a risky offer for me to make to you — you might be tempted to reject my offer completely — but I make it to you without reservation.
“Also, I realize it may seem foolish to make such an offer to one who cost my son his life, but I now have a great love and an unchangeable forgiveness in my heart for you.
“Finally, you may be concerned that once you accept my offer you may do something to cause you to be denied your rights as an heir to my wealth. Nothing could be further from the truth. If I can forgive you for your part in my son’s death, I can forgive you for anything. I know you never will be perfect, but you do not have to be perfect to receive my offer. Besides, I believe that once you have accepted my offer and begin to experience the riches that will come to you from me, that your primary (though not always) response will be gratitude and loyalty.
“Some would call me foolish for my offer to you, but I wish for you to call me your father.”
Now imagine you were the one sitting on death row waiting to be executed for murdering this man’s son. Would a letter like this ease your worries and anxiety or would you simply throw it away? I’m guessing that it would greatly ease your fears and doubts. The father’s words would comfort you and give you peace in your remaining time here in this world. And the father has every right to be angry with you…you killed his only beloved son! All of his hope and promise of a legacy to leave behind was taken away by your selfishness. All that he invested in his son was all for naught. You stole not only the son’s life but also the father’s legacy. You better believe the father has a right to be angry with you! And yet…and yet the father decides to forgive you. The father decides to overlook his anger and stays in loving relationship with you. The father doesn’t dismiss what you did or try to minimize it. No, the father is fully aware of what you stole from him and his son. But the father chooses a different emotion…an emotion exactly opposite of anger and hate and retribution. The father chooses to love you and show mercy on your tortured soul. The father chooses to free you from yourself by forgiving you.
The father of that letter is not unlike the God in our readings this morning. We heard in Isaiah our God beckoning us to “come to the waters,” “come, buy and eat,” and come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Our God is a gracious God. Our God is a giving God. Our God gladly invites us all to feast in His riches. Have nothing to give in return? Not a problem…our God has us covered! And our God is not only a gracious and giving God, our God is a forgiving God. Isaiah proclaims, “Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” Our God eagerly forgives! Our God simply wants to be in a loving relationship with each of us. He will forgive the unforgivable, pardon the unpardonable, and love the unlovable. Our God’s love for us, ALL OF US, is truly unfathomable! Don’t understand God’s love? That’s okay. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Our God’s love and our God’s forgiveness are the standards around which we build our own love and forgiveness.
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul offers additional insight into God’s love for us. He writes, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” God understands many of us will be tested by this world. Many of us will be placed into difficult situations that will demand forgiveness. It is only through forgiveness that we are set free from the chains of anger and hatred. We limit ourselves and the love we can experience in this world by choosing not to forgive those who have hurt us. God wants us to experience love, His love, each and every day of our lives. God forgives the unforgivable—Jesus forgave those who persecuted him. God’s love remains through forgiveness. Forgiveness is the “way out so that you may be able to endure [the testing]” of this world.
Jesus also illustrates the Father’s unfathomable forgiveness in his parable of the fig tree. The Father is the one who planted the fig tree. The Son is the gardener. We are the fig tree. Even when we fail to bear fruit, Jesus vouches for us and earns more time for us. The Father forgives us for not bearing fruit and gives us more time. We worship a Father who planted us in this world to bear fruit. When we fail to produce fruit in our lives, our Father forgives us and spares us. What an awesome God to know and worship! Our God, like the father of that letter, wants to stay in loving relationship with us even when we don’t deserve such a relationship. Indeed, we are just like the man sitting on death row. We murdered the Son and our Father writes that letter to us. Our Father knows what we did and yet He forgives. Let us seek to mimic our forgiving Father as we wrestle with when…to condemn and to forgive.