If you want people to like you forgive them when they wrong you. Remembering wrongs can break up a friendship Proverbs 17:9
In our readings today we heard the teaching of Jesus that includes the Lord’s Prayer, and advice not to lay up for ourselves treasures on earth and teaching about praying and fasting and being willing to forgive others.
Last week I was reading The Forgiveness Trail, a western with a difference, by Brent Larssen. In it the main character is Ezekiel Cartwright who has been released from prison after serving a very long sentence for crimes he did not commit. Normally a man would have hung for being convicted of several murders but for some reason his sentence was commuted to imprisonment. Forty years on his life was in the balance because of serious illness and he is released. Ezekiel Cartwright has found Jesus in those years in jail. He now sets about finding those who long ago had taken advantage of him and caused him to be blamed for crimes they committed themselves. His motivation is not revenge. He is not doing it for himself. He wishes to tell them he has forgiven them. He hopes that this encounter will help them to deal with what must surely be for their part a guilty conscience. The story proceeds: on the way he rescues a girl from the clutches of a group of disreputable men. He is befriended by the girl’s father who is a Christian and a former town sheriff and together they continue on his mission. It so happens that the criminals who stitched him up having committed murder and robbed a bank all those years ago have built up a lucrative business in gold using Mexican lads in a form of slavery. In the event the attempt to obtain from them any sense of remorse fails and as in most westerns events proceed with guns being used and both Cartwright and the real villain die of their injuries. However the former sheriff he had befriended is motivated to return to public service and the conclusion is that the actions of this Christian ex-convict had nonetheless released some goodness into the world and into the lives and situations he touched.
It is fiction and not even great fiction but it teaches some important things, including the need in all of us to resolve hurts and make peace. But it also illustrates that these things are not straightforward. Forgive people when they wrong you: it is in the book of Proverbs. It may not be so easy. And going over a matter, reminding others of painful things can make a situation worse.
Jesus teaches that us being forgiven by God requires us to be willing to forgive others.
It may not be easy to forgive a person if a serious wrong has been inflicted on us or on someone we are protective towards. We have been hearing so much lately about fatal stabbings of teenagers, mere children, and a number have happened over the past two weeks. Knife crime is a huge problem in some inner city areas. How hard it is for family members to forgive those responsible, but for their sake, it brings healing to be able to give up a resentment.
An interesting question of whether to offer forgiveness arises over Shamima Begum the Jihadi bride who went to the Islamic State and has sought to come home to England and was not allowed back. Now her baby has died of pneumonia. Feelings have run high over this. Her father has apologized on her behalf for what she has done and asked that she be forgiven by the British people.
That may make us think what is to be the Christian response. It is surely not to refuse to forgive. It is not about asking the state to disregard criminal activities. It is important that hurt, and the reality of a problem is spoken about. But if remorse is expressed, a way should be offered whereby a person can be restored to belonging and to society.
Forgiving others may be hard, but we should remember that we have all been forgiven much and so we should forgive much in return.
C.S. Lewis, one of the most influential Christian authors in the last century, wrote of his continual attempts to forgive someone who had been cruel to him. He prayed for the man, and at first for no other reason than because Jesus told him to, and he struggled to forgive him. But one day, he recalled, all changed. It happened while he was at prayer, he suddenly discovered that he had really forgiven someone he had been trying to forgive for over thirty years. Until then, it had seemed impossible, like learning to swim. There are months when you are learning to swim during which no efforts will keep you up; then comes the day when it just happens and it becomes impossible to sink. But Lewis saw that learning to forgive was not like learning to swim because it was not of his own doing. In his words, "a discord has been resolved and it was certainly the great Resolver who had done it."
It is true for us all. If we spend time with God in the secret place of prayer we discover new strength.
With God’s love and power we can make a difference in difficult circumstances whereas in our own strength we could not.
Our inability is more than compensated for by God’s ability.
God is our loving Creator and he knows the secrets of our hearts. He is generous in love and mercy to us. It is as we bring ourselves before him that we discover this to be so.
Lent is a time when we remember our own need to return to God. It is not just about resisting temptation or giving up pleasure.
The passage from Isaiah is saying that true repentance and fasting means doing good, helping those in need.
We should ask ourselves more often, ‘what can I do?’ ‘What should I do’, and then ‘what will I do?’
The words Jesus teaches suggest that big things begin in the secret place.
That way of thinking is different from the mentality of some people who want the world to know their innermost thinking. We live in an age when people love to go public and post online their latest news or latest reaction to some event.
Jesus is saying that if we make a show of our piety, our prayers and fasting, we have our reward. The reward is that people see and react; perhaps negatively. We shouldn’t imagine that we will necessarily be admired for it. I learned that as a teenager, keen to advertise amongst my school mates that I was a Christian. We can be so naive at times.
Jesus is saying that praying and fasting in secret is better than making a show of it.
There’s a growing trend these days in Britain and in the USA for people to grow vegetables in their front gardens in order to show-off to passers-by. It has been called virtue-signalling. In America this has led to calls for legislation to be put in place to give town authorities the power to outlaw the planting of tomatoes and leeks in front lawns. It is a good thing to grow vegetables. I salute those who contend with our harsher climate to do so. But perhaps the principle of using your front lawn for vegetables is similar to what Jesus is saying about giving alms, praying and fasting. Don’t do it and show off; just do it. Let it be between you and God. Trust that God hears and answers.
Let your fasting and your prayer be done in secret, Jesus says, and your Father in heaven, who sees, will reward you openly. The rewards include seeing others become more at peace. The reward we are hoping for should not be about us feeling good but about helping others rejoice. The rewards of faith are also the things spoken of in the 23rd Psalm, my cup runneth over, in other words I have an abundance of God’s grace; surely goodness and mercy shall follow me; I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Robert Caulk was a German scientist and a pioneer in bacteriology. For a long while he worked away in secret in his garden shed, using apparatus cobbled together with bits of string. But eventually some of his friends were so impressed by his results that they drew him to the notice of the government who appointed him to a position in the health ministry in Berlin and he soon had a laboratory and two assistants. Now he could give of himself more fully to his research and the results benefitted many.
That which is done earnestly in secret God rewards openly.
Jesus was speaking to people who would fast regularly. Some of them made a big effort to draw attention to it. Some would whiten their face and walk through the streets with their hair not combed and their clothes all in a mess. Others would walk carelessly and stumble and were called Tumbling Pharisees. Jesus was saying that this was pointless.
Fasting is neither virtuous for its own sake or as a way of advertising ourselves but as an expression of our prayer, our devotion, a plea to God to act on behalf of others.
It is a way of showing that faith and penitence is real. It is a guarantee of the sincerity of a person’s words. It is a sign that a person’s prayer was deeply meant.
In Scotland in days past in times of famine or national disasters the church prescribed days of fasting and prayer.
So in the Christian sense if fasting has an abiding value it is not to make us slimmer or healthier but it is as an expression of our faith and a plea that God will act and reveal his saving power. Perhaps we need to recover a bit the older idea of solemn prayer and humiliation for our nation and for the church.
It has been said that true piety serves a need, false piety focuses on the deed. Similarly our prayers are full of meaningless words it might make us feel good and religious. But Jesus says this is not what it is for. The aim of our praying, fasting and giving isn’t to draw attention to ourselves or to make us feel virtuous. We are not trying to be self-centred, but to give God the glory.
And we are not to forget about others when we go to the secret place of prayer: we go there to benefit them.
If there are things that burden us we should take them to that quiet place of secluded prayer and just lay them before the Lord. That is what we need, a time of being with the Lord; bringing real needs and situations and people to him; and laying them before God; having communion with God.
So let us not think too little of the benefit of going on our own somewhere in our homes for a few words of prayer.
We will not be heard because of our many words but because we are earnestly seeking the Lord.
I recently came across this little piece called ‘Do You Want to Fast this Lent?’
Fast from hurting words and say rather, kind words.
Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
Fast from worries and put your trust in God.
Fast from complaining and contemplate simplicity.
Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
Fast from bitterness and fill your hearts with joy.
Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.
Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
from words and be silent so you can listen.
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