“But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:15)
“To err is human, to forgive divine.” Alexander Pope
Jesus told a story of a rich man who decided to call in the debts that were owed to him. One of his servants owed a huge sum that he couldn’t pay, so the master ordered his property and family seized to settle the debt. The servant begged for more time and his master had mercy, canceling the debt entirely. Some time later, this same servant came upon a fellow co-worker who owed him a paltry (in comparison) sum. He seized his co-worker by the throat and demanded payment. The co-worker pleaded for more time but was denied and thrown into prison. How quickly the servant forgot that just a short time ago, he needed forgiveness.
With the holiday season so nearly upon us, I find myself skipping right over Halloween and looking forward to my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving. I love it because the focus is mainly on the meal and sharing it with family and friends. It’s like Christmas without the month long prelude of shopping; without all the hustle and bustle. It allows us to get together and just enjoy each others’ company.
One Thanksgiving some years ago, I was inspired to hold a pre-holiday dinner for the homeless. My family and friends pitched in to help and the event was considered a great success. It was even attended by the media. The food was delicious, the children helped to serve and we all felt good because, for a short time, we’d helped to alleviate the suffering of our fellow man. I was very pleased with our efforts, largely because I felt I’d obeyed the will of God. I was especially thankful for the help of the fellow introduced to me by my sister. He’d arranged for the press release soI’d promised to the return the favor on Thanksgiving Day by serving dinner to the homeless in his area.
As I prepared our dinner on Thanksgiving, I thought about my brother. I wondered if he even had a special dinner on this day. He wasn’t homeless but he wasn’t doing well. He and life just did not seem to get along. As a result, he was kind of down and out. Mostly due to some poor choices earlier in his life, he and I were estranged. But his house was on the way to my destination. Could I drive past his house and offer comfort and hope to people I didn’t even know, while not doing the same for my own brother?
The answer was no, I decided. So I prepared his meal and took it by his apartment. He was surprised and happy to see me, pleased that I’d thought of him. And I was able to serve dinners to the homeless with a clean conscience and not feel like a hypocrite. Looking back, that was the defining moment – the bridge towards forgiveness. It gave my brother hope and let him know, despite our separation, he was my brother and I still loved him.
My brother and I had a rocky relationship later in life but we started out really close. My earliest memories of him are when he would bring me out before his friends and have me dance for them. Imagine me as a child, the unabashed performer. I also recall the time my brother took a beat down for my sake. Some neighborhood thugs accosted me and my friends on our way to school. While they didn’t harm us physically, we were somewhat traumatized by the experience. I went home and told my mother. My brother overheard and met me after school so that I could point out the offender. I did.
My brother confronted the guy, probably thinking he was alone. A fight broke out and I, er, ran home. In retrospect, I guess I should have stayed – I mean, he was fighting to defend my honor, right? In my defense, I was afraid of the guy. He’d already terrorized me once that day! Plus, I thought my brother, being five years older, knew what he was doing. Soon after I got home, my brother came in crying, looking bedraggled and upset because I’d left him to fight alone. Honestly, what could I have done against a group of guys? Even though my brother was upset because I didn’t help him, I knew he would do it again. He would risk bodily harm to protect his siblings.
As we grew older, our relationship became strained. We fought frequently, until we could barely tolerate one another. He did some things I felt were unforgiveable. It was the elephant in the room, this thing between us that we never spoke about. I always held it against him. I never let him forget.
One day, this scripture came to me: “…whosoever sins ye retain, they are retained.” (John 20:23) I thought to myself – what if his life, once so full of promise, had stalled because of me? What if he was treading water, never able to get ahead, never able to move on because I was keeping him bound to that place with my unforgiveness? It hurt to think I had that kind of power. Whatever our issues, I didn’t want that. On the heels of that revelation came another alarming realization. If I can’t forgive him, how can I expect forgiveness? That hit closer home. Now, I had added incentive to let go of the past.
Little by little, I began to reach out to my brother, or at least, respond to his overtures. I was still wary, still cautious and looking for the first sign that he would exploit any perceived weakness. I waited for him to push in asking for too much or for more than I wanted to give. But, he didn’t. He seemed to understand that I was giving him another chance and was looking for an opportunity to bolt. I think he’d finally realized that trust was fragile and didn’t want to abuse it.
Still fearful, I took baby steps. If he had a genuine need, he let me know and I did what I could to make his life a little easier. He began to go to church and attend bible study. He even joined the choir! He admitted that he couldn’t sing and I couldn’t help but agree. It felt like, slowly, he was putting his life back together. Sometimes, we would stop and visit him on the way home from church – my mom, the kids and I. And one day, I was rewarded for my efforts. I saw the brother of my childhood, again. He stood before me, clear eyed and saw me. For a moment, we were little sister and big brother, again. It was a wonderful feeling. As we drove home, I shared with my children, “I just saw my brother!” I’m sure they didn’t understand what that meant but I hadn’t seen him in twenty years.
My brother died, not long after that meeting, due to complications of surgery. I was glad that I’d forgiven him and was able to truly mourn his passing. It occurred to me that we are all seeking forgiveness in one way or another. We want to atone for our sins, our wrongdoing. Not just because society or the Bible says it’s wrong but because we, ourselves, feel it’s wrong. Our conscience tells us so. It doesn’t sit well with us.
We all have power, when you think about it. Power to bind someone forever with unforgiveness to a place in time that they would be free of. Power to forgive and let go and maybe give them a shot at living a better life and becoming a better person. I sometimes jokingly say, “Only use your powers for good,” but it’s true. We all have the power to be just a little bit divine.