Would God say, “I forgive you, but you still have to pay”?
Why do we say it?
Because we’re not up to it, are we? Then why do we say we forgive, when we still want someone to pay? Because we claim to be good people, following the example of Jesus, and other moral leaders. We know we are all sinners and that we can only find salvation through the forgiveness of Jesus Christ. So we are obliged to forgive others. So we do so, with our lips. And then we say, “but you still have to pay”, because we don’t really mean the part about forgiveness. We’re not that good. We want you to think we are, but we’re not. We’re really… no better.
Jesus gave the example of a man who steals your cloak. What if he steals from you seven times? What if he steals from you 100 times? Do I still have to forgive him? Jesus says yes, absolutely. He is not sly or ambiguous about it: yes, absolutely. So we have rewritten this lesson to add, “and then have him arrested and sent to prison”.
It is quite possible that most people do not understand the real historical meaning of prison in Christ’s time. Today, you receive a sentence of fixed duration for a crime. When your sentence is over, you are released.
In first century Galilee, under Roman rule, you went to prison if you committed a crime, and stayed there until you made it good. Your crime was to deprive someone of the benefits of a piece of property, or a person and the only way to be released from this debt was to restore the piece of property or person, or compensate the victim with something they would accept as being of equal value to the loss. Justice was not about retribution– it was about making it good. Setting things right. Restoring what had been lost.
But a victim could forgive. Forgiveness did not mean, “I am a kind, good person who doesn’t hold a grudge, so while I enjoy the satisfaction of seeing you suffer I will perform the public act of generosity and grace and say that I forgive you”. No. It meant, “your debt is paid. You are free.”
Until you made restitution…. Until you apologized and repented, to the satisfaction of the person you had wronged, you would be held in prison, unless the victim forgave you. If no one brought you food, you starved.
But if the person you had wronged said “I forgive you”, it meant something. It meant you were released from obligation, and, therefore prison. You owed nothing.
So when Christ told his followers to forgive those who wronged them, he meant, see that they are released from prison. See that they no longer have to pay. They are no longer under obligation to you. Free them. That is what Christians mean by being free in Christ: Christ has forgiven us for our sins. We do not still have to pay.
So if you say, “I forgive you, but you still have to pay”, or “you need to get counseling”, or “I don’t think you’re sorry enough”, or “I just want to make sure this never happens to anyone else”, you are a bald-faced liar, and you are really no better than the person you insist requires your “forgiveness”. You are a bad Christian.
Possibly, some people will find this wacky. What a strange idea. People will simply commit crime after crime with impunity. I think that probably some people will. But I think that probably a lot of people would rather be restored to the good faith and trust of the community they live in. I think a lot of people would realize that a community works because of the desire to heal rather than wound, embrace rather than reject, welcome rather than accuse.
Could I do it myself? Am I speaking in a general, abstract sense here? No, I’m not. I mean it. And I know others who have done it. I don’t think it’s as hard as you think it is. But you won’t get a lot of encouragement from anybody. As a society, we tend to cheer on the guy who shoots and kills the burglar he caught breaking into his house.
Yeah, that’s pretty hopeless. And if you are looking for a church, and it’s members, to be exemplars of this model, then it really looks hopeless. Utterly, completely, totally hopeless.