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Forgiveness and Healing – Part 2

April 13, 2008

Exodus 21:23-25; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 5:38-41; 6:9-15

Some of you commented after the service last Sunday, “The sermon on forgiveness and healing was just for me. It hit me right between the eyes.” I have a feeling that many of us will feel the same way today about Part 2 of that message.

Forgiveness and healing are closely connected. Last week, we considered how a burden of guilt can sometimes make a person physically sick. Carrying guilt always leads to a sin-sick soul. We also talked about how important it is for all of us to come to the cross of Christ, confess our sins, repent of those sins, ask for forgiveness, and receive the wonderful grace that God bestows upon us. He forgives us of our sins.

I have seen the quote “Don’t get mad; get even” on t-shirts and bumper stickers. My guess is that you have seen that quote, too. Many people live their daily lives according to this motto. If somebody offends us, we have a very strong tendency to want to get even. We might also get mad.

The Bible offers several examples of precedents for this reaction, three in the Old Testament. The people of Israel received a law code first in Exodus 21, beginning at Verse 23: “But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” The two other similar passages appear in Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21. This longstanding law has the Latin name Lex Talonis, which means “Law of the Talon.”

Les Talonis, a law about getting even, is still in vogue today and followed in many locations. Think about how the law holds true in organized crime, from the Columbian cartel to the Sicilian mafia. If somebody offends you, commits a bad act against you, or kills a family member, for example, you have the right, even the responsibility, to retaliate, according to this law. The law has certainly affected many cultures in our world. Consider Northern Ireland, for example. We have seen the law at work quite recently and on a continuing basis in the conflict between the Palestinians and the Jews in the Middle East.

People put a strange twist on this Law of the Talon, a twist that really distorts what we sometimes call the Golden Rule. That rule says, “Do unto others as if you were the other person” or “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This Golden Rule tells us to treat other people the way we want to be treated. The twisted version, “Do unto others before they have a chance to do unto you,” has a vengeful tone.

It is important to understand that the original intent of the Lex Talonis was to avoid the escalation of conflict. Let me explain. The idea was that if a person broke my tooth, broke my leg, put out my eye, killed my child, burned my village, or committed some other offense against me, I had the right to commit the same offense to that person. I could break one tooth, not two; I could break one leg, not two. If the person cut off my left hand, I could only cut off the person’s left hand. This law was designed to prevent people from going too far, from retaliating beyond what was prescribed in the law.

If people had lived by that code, it might have actually served as a deterrent. That is not what happened though. The law became distorted over the years, altered, to mean that if a person does something to me, I am not only going to get even; but I am also going to up the ante. I am not just going to retaliate. I am going to do more to that person than he or she did to me. The punishment is going to escalate. I will hit the offender harder in order to do more damage to that person. This really is the nature of all kinds of conflict. It is the way life usually unfolds. It is the reason the Lex Talonis really does not work. It is the reason the New Testament proposes a counter to this law.

Let us consider how this distortion plays out in ordinary life. Some of you may have heard of the Tug-Fork River, located on the border between Kentucky and West Virginia. The original families that settled on that river were pioneer by nature. They were a rather rough and tumble type. Randolph McCoy lived on the Kentucky side of the river, and William Hatfield lived on the West Virginia side. I am sure you have heard of the Hatfields and the McCoys, two families that carried on a feud lasting more than a century.

People have trouble remembering the date and cause of the feud, as is often the way with conflicts. Most people trace it back to the time of the Civil War, when members of both families served in the Confederacy. Harmon McCoy, who served in the Union army, broke his leg during the conflict and returned to his home on the Tug-Fork River. Because he was afraid that those who had been a part of the Confederacy would try to take revenge on him, he hid in a cave. When one of the Hatfields found and killed Harmon, the feud began. Over the next hundred years, these two families fought about hogs and property lines, among other issues.

One argument that fueled the feud was a case involving Roseanne McCoy who crossed the river and took up with a Hatfield man. That relationship between the two families living on the border between Kentucky and West Virginia created the kind of conflict that appears in Romeo and Juliet. Roseanne became pregnant and went back home to her mother. When her mother disowned her, the Hatfield family decided that bad blood would exist from that point forward. The Hatfield man, who originally wanted to marry her, decided to break off the relationship and take up with his cousin. I guess only in Kentucky and West Virginia can you have that scenario.

As recently as the 1970’s, the television program Family Feud brought members of the Hatfields and McCoys together onto their set to play the game. The “prize” for the winning family was a pig that had been placed on the stage. The show was a rather amiable occasion with no gunfire, as far as I know.

Right out of American history, you have this clear example of how the Lex Talonis can create an escalation in conflict. For more than a century, the Hatfields and McCoys were guilty of killing, burning buildings, shooting people running away from burning buildings, and committing other crimes against each other. Though they could not remember how the feud started, they refused to resolve the conflict until the events of 9-11. The two families actually signed a peace treaty with each other after that act of terrorism, saying that they now had a common enemy and no longer wanted to fight each other.

The apostle Paul, hoping to counter this harsh way of living, wrote to the Roman church, “Live at peace with everybody. As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not return evil for evil. Do not take revenge. Bless those who persecute you.” Paul concluded by saying, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17-21). That is a practical way of thinking about taking revenge.

The best passages in the New Testament about resolving conflict come from the lips of Jesus. Turn with me to the Gospel of Matthew to the Sermon on the Mount. We begin in Matthew 5 at Verse 38:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ (Jesus is referring back to the Old Testament.) “But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right check, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let me have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”

That last phrase came right out of a Roman law that required any Jew in Roman occupied territory to carry a soldier’s pack. A Roman soldier walking down the road could compel a Jewish man who also walking down the road to carry his pack for one mile. Jesus says, “Don’t carry it just one mile. Carry it two miles.” We get the expression, “going the second mile” from that passage. Jesus says, “Do more than is required. Behave in a way that is different than the way you have heard.” He is making the Lex Talonis null and void. Verses 43-45: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be the sons of your Father in heaven.”

Mark Twain said one time that the passages of Scripture that bothered him most were not the ones he could not understand but the ones he could understand very well. Those particular words from Jesus are not difficult to understand. It is hard to pray for your enemies. If you want to get rid of your enemies, pray for them. Over a period of time, they may not become your best friend; however, you will find that you no longer harbor the animosity you once felt for them. Prayer will change you. It will change your way of looking at people who have offended you.

Last week, I told you a little bit about a great American classic by Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter. English teachers seemed to appreciate my mentioning the story. If you have never read it, you need to done so. A young woman named Hester Prynne comes to a New England colony of Puritans. Her husband, a doctor, stays behind in England to complete business. When he fails to join her, Hester has a relationship with a young minister and becomes pregnant with his child. Of course, everyone knows that she has committed adultery and that this child’s father is not her husband. To protect her lover’s reputation, Hester never reveals the father’s name.

As part of Hester’s punishment, the very strict Puritan community compels her to wear the scarlet letter “A” embroidered on her dress, “A” for adulteress. Psalm 51:3 says, “My sin is ever before me.” That is true of Hester Prynne. Her sin is always before her. Hester acknowledges that sin and receives forgiveness from God. Though considered an outcast and forced to live outside of town, she spends her life tending to and ministering to other people in the community.

As the story comes to a conclusion, Hester takes a place on the pillory, the place of condemnation, with the young minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. He has grown weaker and sicklier throughout the novel. There on the pillory, he collapses. When people come to tend to him and open his shirt, some say they saw a letter “A” emblazoned on his skin. He finally reveals his sin just before his death.

Last week, I emphasized the fact that carrying a burden of guilt or unconfessed sin can actually make a person physically sick. Unresolved sin that has no repentance never receives the grace of God.

The Scarlet Letter includes another aspect of sin. Hester’s husband, Roger Chillingworth, eventually arrives in the colony and learns of his wife’s unfaithfulness. He becomes, in essence, a stalker, watching Hester and secretly observing others in the community. Through his acute senses, he determines that Arthur Dimmesdale fathered this illegitimate child. Chillingworth carries a terrible sin in his heart – hatred, bitterness. He, too, becomes ill and suffers. Hawthorne concludes that Chillingworth’s sin was more grievous and no less deadly than Dimmesdale’s sin.

Matthew 6:9 contains the beginning of the model prayer that some refer to as the Lord’s Prayer. Verse 12 of the King James Version says, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In this prayer, Jesus is very specific in saying that we are to be people of forgiveness and that our forgiveness of others is connected with God’s forgiveness of us. Look further in Verses 14-15: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

Jesus’ words give us two dimensions of forgiveness. With the vertical dimension, we come before God, confess our sins, repent, and receive His grace. With the horizontal dimension, God forgives us and expects us to forgive other people. Our motto cannot be, “Get even.” Our motto must be, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

In the Call to Worship this morning, I quoted the apostle Paul who also makes the connection between healing and forgiveness, “Be kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32). “Forgiving one another” is the horizontal dimension, and “as God in Christ has forgiven you” is the vertical dimension. This dual aspect of forgiveness is important if we are to understand spiritual health. If we fail to receive God’s forgiveness, we will be sick, at least sick in spirit. If we fail to offer God’s forgiveness, we will be sick, at least sick in spirit. Dr. Wayne Oates, one of my professors, used to call this the “courage of our own imperfection.” It is being willing to understand the need of compassion for and forgiveness of other people because we know that is the case with us, as well. God has forgiven us.

We find that forgiving others is very difficult. I was preaching a sermon on forgiveness in the small auditorium at Central State Hospital in Anchorage, Kentucky. Both patients in the hospital and a few staff members were present. Both patients and staff are affected by the issue of forgiveness. Right in the middle of this sermon, a female patient from eastern Kentucky stood and demanded, “Well, preacher, what if you just ain’t got it in you to do that?” She was dead serious. I said to her, “Forgiving others is so hard. Some wrongs hurt so deeply that coming to this issue of forgiveness one time is not going to be nearly enough. It will be like putting a Band-Aid on a deep, deep wound.”

The disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, how many times should we forgive? Seven?” Seven would have been going over and above what was expected. Jesus answers, “You forgive seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22). He does not mean 490 times. He means that a person must forgive, and forgive, and forgive, and forgive until it is finished. When you think it is finished, something happens to cause another stabbing memory. You must forgive again. Some hurts in this life are so deep, so deep, that forgiveness may take a lifetime. You may feel that hurt, feel that insult, feel that offense many times. Forgiveness is a process.

I would encourage you to read the entire story of Joseph and his brothers. Genesis 37:3-4, says that Joseph’s brothers hate him. Joseph is partly responsible for their hatred. He s a dreamer, dreaming about his brothers bowing down to him. Joseph has the poor taste of telling his dreams to his brothers before breakfast. They become very angry with him and plotted to kill him. They wound up throwing him in a cistern instead and selling him into slavery.

Joseph has a hard time in Egypt. As the story unfolds, a famine finally brings his brothers to Egypt. In time, he is reunited with them and his father, Jacob. Following Jacob’s death, the brothers worry about what Joseph will do to them. Chapter 50, Verse 20 is a key passage: Joseph says to his brothers, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” A mature person is able to see that God can somehow use the offense others commit against us for good.

On October 2, 2006, a milk truck driver stopped at a schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. He went inside and took the children hostage. He eventually released all of them except ten girls. The gunman killed five of the girls, injured the other five, and then killed himself. This shooting occurred in Amish country. The Amish people are about as non-violent as any group you will ever find. The blood on the floor had not even dried when women from that community went to that gunman’s house, taking food to his widow and children. Neither he nor his family was Amish, but they lived in the community.

I remember seeing on television Amish buggies in a long funeral procession. Following the funerals for the girls who died, the killer was buried in a Methodist cemetery in that community the next day. Seventy-five people, half of them Amish, attended his funeral. Some of those who attended were parents of the girls who had died. They, too, were expressing their condolences to the widow of the man who had killed the children.

A professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, Donald Kraybill, has written the book entitled Amish Grace. He raises the question about how the Amish could forgive the gunman so quickly. The Amish people themselves responded to that question a year later by saying, “Do not think for a minute that being willing to forgive means that we do not grieve. We are still grieving deeply. This still hurts.”

That community demolished the old schoolhouse because the people did not want that building to be a reminder of the killings. Donations poured in from all over the country, allowing for the construction of a new schoolhouse. The Amish gave some of that money to the gunman’s widow and children to provide for them. People around the world viewed this event as a tremendous witness. Others said, “Oh, they are too quick to forgive.” The Amish believe in “prevenient grace,” grace offered before anybody asks for it.

Jesus did the same on the cross. He died for the sins of others for all time. That grace is just waiting to be received by anybody who will come and ask for it. The Amish example teaches us that we should be ready to forgive.

Someone asked a carpenter who lived the Amish community, “How can you forgive a person who does this kind of thing?”

The carpenter answered, “How can we not forgive? This is what Jesus told us to do. We must forgive because it is to be obedient to Jesus. If we do not forgive, that bitterness will become like an acid. It will corrode the container of the human soul. Forgiveness will take a long time, but we have to begin so that it will not destroy us.”

Failure to forgive other people can cause damage, mostly to the person who holds the grudge, to the person who has an unforgiving spirit. From the cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them.” Jesus is referring to everybody who betrayed him, denied him, or put him on that tree. “Father, forgive them.” Jesus offers us the supreme example.

Forgiveness has two dimensions. First, we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. We confess those sins and repent, and we receive the forgiveness of God. Second, the courage of our own imperfection compels us to offer that same forgiveness to those who have hurt us.

Have you been hurt? Have people stabbed you in the back, betrayed you, broken a trust? Do not harbor that bitterness. Begin to forgive. Though it may take a long time, begin to forgive. It is the way to freedom within you.

© 2008 Kirk H. Neely

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