I came out of church and returned to the car. There was a ticket in the window. A parking ticket. The traffic warden was attending to a car just down from mine so I went and had a chat with her. I was courteous. She was not unfriendly. I don’t know whether she’d have been inclined to cancel the ticket because I was such a nice person, but I (or my car) was registered in the system and there was nothing she could do, she said.
As I drove off in the car the CD in the drive began to play: “I’m sorry for this mess. Will you forgive me?” And so I spent the journey home reflecting on forgiveness. Whether or not the City Council wanted to forgive me, it was not relevant. They could not; they’d tied their own hands with their own laws. God, on the other hand: well the amazing truth is that however great the mess, he does forgive.
God gets himself a reputation
When Moses asked God to reveal himself to him God told him his name, the name that revealed his character: “YHWH, YHWH, a God merciful and gracious … forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” (Exodus 34.6-7)
When the psalmist tells his soul not to forget YHWH’s “benefits” the first benefit on the list is, “Who forgives all your iniquity.” (Psalm 103.3)
Forgiveness is so taken for granted in the Old Testament that psalmists and prophets alike sometimes pleaded with God to not forgive certain people, so monstrous their crimes. For example, when the bad guys plotted to kill Jeremiah, Jeremiah was convinced that they ought to pay for their misdeeds: “Give their children over to famine; hurl then out to the power of the sword, let their wives become childless and widowed…” and so he goes on, eloquent in the misfortune he wishes upon his enemies. In the climax to his ill-wishes he prays: “Do not forgive their iniquity, do not blot out their sin from your sight. Let them be tripped up before you: deal with them while you are angry.” (Jer. 18.21-23) Did God answer this prayer? Unlikely. There are echoes of Jonah here. God forgives Nineveh, and Jonah complains. “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (Jonah 4.2) God had got himself a reputation: he was too loving, too merciful, too forgiving.
My traffic warden might have been loving, I don’t know. But she could not be merciful, she could not be forgiving.
Be Like God
In the New Testament the message of God’s forgiveness continues. In fact it’s taken for granted that God – and only God – forgives sins. In Mark 2 a paralysed man is brought to Jesus, and Jesus says to him, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” (v.5) The scribes were absolutely correct in their response: “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (v.7) Jesus was either blaspheming or he was God. By healing the paralysed man Jesus demonstrated that he had the authority to forgive sins. No wonder the crowds went away gob-smacked: “We’ve never seen anything like this!” (v.12)
Jesus seems to give just one condition to forgiveness: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” he teaches in his model prayer (Matt. 6.12). He illustrates this with a parable about a servant whose forgiveness was revoked because he did not forgive a fellow-servant (Matt. 18.23-34). Paul passes on this same teaching: “Forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you.” (Col. 3.13) James picks up the spirit of Jesus teaching when he states: “Judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement.” (James 2.12)
We are to be like our Father above, to be merciful just as he is merciful, to forgive just as he forgives. If mercy and forgiveness are not part of our character, part of who we are, we are unlikely to want to spend eternity with such a merciful, forgiving God. Like Jonah we would curl up and sulk.
The Traffic Warden and God
The law of the land is the law of the land and I will pay my parking fine. Mercy and forgiveness are not built into the policies of the City Council. For my part, I forgive the traffic warden. She was just doing her job. I had inadvertently crossed a line. And like the psalmist I tell my soul to bless the Lord because – unlike the City Council – he does forgive me, whatever the mess and however great the mess.
Maksettu on, velkani mun.
Ylistys olkoon Ristiinnaulitun. (Simojoki 1982)