Posts Tagged ‘forgiveness’

Bound to the past or liberated to embrace the future?

September 16, 2017

Pentecost 15 – 2017

Matthew 18:21-35

Marian Free


In the name of God whose power to forgive knows no limits. Amen.


There are many powerful stories of forgiveness. A couple of weeks ago I came across this, a true story, told by Richard Rohr remembering his mother’s last hours[1].

He writes:

She was lingering on the threshold, and for several days she had been talking about “a mesh” she couldn’t get through.

I was sitting by her bed, telling her how much I would miss her. She said she wanted to hear that from my father, whom we always called “Daddy.” Of course, Daddy had been telling her that for weeks.

So Daddy came over and effusively told her, “Oh, I’m going to miss ya.”

She replied, “I don’t believe it.”

I couldn’t believe my ears! I said, “Mother, you’re a few hours from death. You can’t say that!”

She persisted: “I don’t believe it.”

Daddy redoubled his efforts: “I ask your forgiveness for all the times I’ve hurt you in our fifty-four years of marriage, and I forgive you for all the times you’ve hurt me.”

I said, “Mother, isn’t that beautiful? Now say that back to Daddy.” And suddenly she clammed up. She didn’t want to say it.

I said, “Mother, you’re soon going to be before God. You don’t want to come before God without forgiving everybody.”

She said, “I forgive everybody.”

I said, “But do you forgive Daddy?” and she became silent again.

Then Daddy jumped in and said, “Honey, I never fooled around with any other women.”

We all knew that. She even said, “Well I know that, I know that.”

My siblings and I still don’t know how Daddy had hurt Mother. But any married person knows there are many little ways a couple can hurt one another over fifty-four years.

Then I said, “Mother, let’s try this. Put one hand on your heart, and I’m going to pray that your heart gets real soft.” I placed one of my hands on hers, over her heart, and held her other hand and started kissing it.

After about a minute she said, very faintly, “That melts me.”


“When you kiss my hand like that, now I’ve got to do it.” After a pause, she continued: “I’m a stubborn woman. All of my life I’ve been a stubborn woman.”

“Well, Mother, we all knew that,” I said. “Now look at Daddy and you tell him.”

So she looked over and she didn’t call him “Daddy,” as she usually did. She spoke to him by name: “Rich, I forgive you.”

I prompted her again: “Mother, the other half—I ask for your forgiveness.”

She started breathing heavily and rapidly. Then she summoned her energy and said, “Rich, I ask your forgiveness.” A few more moments of labored breathing, and she said, “That’s it, that’s it. That’s what I had to do.”

I said to her, “Mother, do you think that was the mesh?”

She replied, “It’s gone! The mesh is gone! And, God, I pray that I mean this forgiveness from my heart.”

Then she said, referring to my two sisters and my sister-in-law, “Tell the girls to do this early and not to wait ‘til now. They’ll understand a woman’s heart and the way a man can hurt a woman.”

Mother was so happy then, and fully ready for death.”


That’s a long story, but it is not uncommon. I have heard many stories of people whose last hours (or last years) and have been dominated by unresolved issues, often an inability to forgive or an unwillingness to let go.

The inability to forgive is at the centre of today’s gospel. The servant who has been forgiven the huge debt seems unable to believe his luck. He just can’t understand that the king would wipe his slate clean and not demand any recompense. There must be a catch. It is either that, or the servant has got it into his head that he had somehow done something to deserve the king’s action. His heart has not been touched by the king’s overwhelming generosity. He remains fearful and anxious that he has lost control. He takes out his anxiety on the second slave thus (in his own mind) regaining control of his life.

The parable ends with the servant’s being thrown into prison, but the reality is that he is already imprisoned by his lack of understanding and his unwillingness and inability to accept the love and goodness that has been offered to him.

The story and the parable provide stark reminders of how easy it is to hold on to our own sense self-righteousness in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary; of our need to be in control instead of trusting that God will make everything right in the end. We hang on to hurts (perceived and real) and fail to see that our small-mindedness, our bitterness and our failure to forgive is as great a sin if not worse than any harm done to us or any offense that we experience. We make up our own minds about our own righteousness in comparison with others instead of allowing God to measure the state of our hearts. The result of such is a narrow, resentful and self-absorbed life that is never able to be truly open, truly free and truly generous. We are as Rohr says: “Frozen in the past.”

The main point of the parable is not that we will be punished if we fail to forgive, but that if we cannot forgive, our lives are already impoverished. If we cannot forgive, we reveal that we simply do not appreciate how much God has already forgiven us, how little we deserve that unreserved (and undemanding) forgiveness and how much more God will forgive us.

If God can forgive us, broken, flawed and undeserving as we are, surely we can extend that to others who are equally broken, equally flawed and equally undeserving.

We forgive, not because we are afraid of hell. We forgive because we recognise our own imperfections and are overwhelmed by the fact that God is able to overlook them. We forgive because holding on to grudges only makes us bitter and warped, mean and hard. We forgive so that the past does not hold us in its grip and we forgive so that we are free to embrace the future in this world and the next.

[1] (Meditation for August 27, 2017)

Exposed for all to see

August 29, 2015

Pentecost 14 – 2015

Mark 7:1-8, 14-23

Marian Free


Lord our God, our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, we ask you to cleanse us from all hypocrisy, to unite us to our fellow men and women by the bonds of peace and love, and to confirm us in holiness now and forever. Amen.

Last week we looked – in a rather light-hearted way – at a number of the reasons people give for not inviting others to church. As I reflected on some of those reasons, it occurred to me that not one of us mentioned that the church was perceived as hypocritical. In the latter half of the last century if not before, the accusation of hypocrisy was often leveled at the church and used to justify non-attendance. If the subject of church attendance was raised, we were as likely as not to be told: “I don’t go to church, the church is full of hypocrites”. Those who made the accusation felt that the lives of churchgoers did not match the values and morals that they proclaimed to uphold. To be fair, this statement was made in an age in which the church had set itself up as the moral guardian of society at large and not only did many people feel burdened by the sometimes harsh demands placed on them, but on more than one occasion the church or its members had spectacularly fallen from grace. Issues such as fraud, adultery and underage sex all made front-page headlines and demonstrated that even members of the church were unable to achieve the high standards that they set for others.

The reputation of the church was seriously eroded long before the more recent revelations of the prevalence of child sex abuse in the church and its agencies.

It has been a long time since I have heard the hypocrisy of the church used as a reason for someone not to come to worship or as a justification for abandoning the faith. The reason for this is simple. Over the last decade or so the human frailty of the church has been laid bare for all to see. In the light of catastrophic failures such as child sex abuse it has become impossible for the church to continue to claim the high moral ground and difficult for us to impose on others standards of behaviour that we ourselves cannot consistently achieve. Collectively, we have been forced to concede that we cannot always live out what we preach.

I don’t know about you, but I find this new situation strangely liberating. It means is that we no longer have to pretend. Instead of trying to present a perfect face to the world, we can now be honest about our brokenness and frailty. Instead of standing apart from (dare I say above) society as a whole, we can admit our common humanity. Instead of constantly striving to be what we are not, we can finally relax and let people see us as we really are – imperfect, struggling human beings, set apart only by virtue of our belief in the God revealed by Jesus Christ.

While the exterior of the church may be tarnished and our failures laid bare for all to see, we have been set free from the unnecessary burden of pretence. Now that there is no longer anything left to hide, now that it is impossible to pretend that we are something that we are not, we can concentrate on our true vocation – being in a relationship with the God who accepts us as we are, frees us from guilt and fear and challenges us to strive for wholeness and peace – for ourselves and for others.

Our gospel this morning warns us against giving priority to rules in the belief that somehow we can achieve a degree of godliness simply by our own efforts. It is a reminder that it is what we try to be, not what we pretend to be that really matters. Authentic living, the gospel suggests, means that we should not elevate our public image at the expense of an honest and authentic engagement with and identification with the world at large.

These are lessons that for today’s church have been hard-won but, thanks to the failures of the past, it is much clearer now that the church (the Christian faith) is less about codes of behaviour and more about love, less about being good and more about being with God, less about judgement and more about forgiveness, less about guilt and more about acceptance, less about anxiety and more about confidence, less about exclusion and more about inclusion and most importantly that it is less about putting on a face and more about being real.

We come to church, not because we believe that we are better than everyone else, but because we know that we are not. We come to church as we are – broken and lost – knowing that we are assured of a welcome from the God who forgives the sinner, seeks the lost, embraces the prodigal, lifts the fallen and who longs to heal, forgive and restore a humanity that has lost its way.

This is what we (the church) have to offer the world – not a false image of perfection, but an assurance that God who loved us enough to die for us, is waiting with outstretched arms until each of us finds our way home.


As Rowan Williams said in his enthronement sermon: “The one great purpose of the Church’s existence is to share that bread of life, to hold open in its words and actions a place where we can be with Jesus and to be channels for his free, unanxious, utterly demanding, grown-up love. The Church exists to pass on the promise of Jesus – You can live in the presence of God without fear; you can receive from God’s fullness and set others free from fear and guilt.”


Sometimes the hating has to stop

September 13, 2014

Pentecost 14. 2014
Matthew 18:21-35
Marian Free

In the name of God who desires that we let go of bitterness and hatred so that our own lives might be enlarged and enriched. Amen.

Sometimes the hating just has to stop.

A couple of weeks ago I discovered Dendy Direct – a way to see movies on my iPad. Since the closure of Video stores in most of Brisbane, I have been trying to find a way (a legal way) to watch videos on line. This may just be the answer. The first movie I downloaded was Railway Man, a movie I had wanted to see, but missed when it was at the theatre. If you haven’t seen it, it is the most extraordinary story of a British signals officer who survived the experience of the Burma railway in WWII.

As you might imagine, it is not a movie for the faint-hearted.

In summary, when the British surrender, the signals officers destroy all their equipment so that it cannot be used by the Japanese. Despite the urgency, Eric Lomax manages to distribute enough radio components among his fellow officers to enable them to build a radio wherever they end up. The soldiers are crowded on to trains and taken to a labour camp in Thailand to work on the Burma railway. Because of their technical skills, Eric and others are put to work as engineers – repairing trucks and machinery. The reconstructed radio enables them to listen to news of the outside world and in particular the progress of the war. When the Japanese find the radio, Eric and his friends are accused of transmitting information to the British. As a result, Eric is severely beaten and then cruelly tortured by the Japanese who refuse to believe that the radio was only able to receive information not to transmit any.

Eric’s experience of the camp leaves deep psychological scars. After the war he finds no peace of mid, but becomes obsessed with revenge. Some thirty to forty years after the war he discovers that one of his tormentors is not only still alive but is now leading tours of the very camp in which he presided over so much agony and pain. The man, Takashi Nagase, has somehow managed to avoid being put on trial for war crimes and seems to be getting on with his life in a way that Eric and his friends cannot. His victims are furious.

Egged on by one of his fellow prisoners, Eric finally makes the trip to Thailand. His intention is to confront and to then to kill his tormentor. What follows is extraordinary. At first it appears as if he will carry out his intent. He enters the camp ( ow a museum) after closing time, corners Takashi and takes him into the interrogation room. Now it is Eric, not Takashi who is the interrogator. Eric demands answers. He wants the former soldier take responsibility for his actions, to admit to being complicity in the murder of the thousands of prisoners who lost their lives on the railway. Despite his fury, Eric finds that he cannot kill Takashi. Instead he takes him outside locks him in one of tiny bamboo cages once used to incarcerate Allied soldiers.

Eric leaves Takashi in the cage while he retraces his steps into the torture room. Memories of the horrific torture come flooding back but even so, he cannot kill his former torturer. Returning outside he sits on the beside Takashi’s cage and listens to his story.

That is not the end. Some time later Eric returns to Thailand with his wife Patti. There they meet Takashi once again. This time he does what he could not do before – he admits his culpability. He bows deeply and, without making excuses, he apologizes saying: “I don’t want to live that day anymore.” To which Lomax responds: “Neither do I”. Lomax gives Takashi which reads. “The war has been over for many years. I have suffered much but I know that you have suffered too and you have been most courageous and in working for reconciliation. While I cannot forget what happened in Kamanchinabri, I assure you of my total forgiveness. Sometime” , he writes, “the hating has to stop.”

In that moment, both men are set free from their past. In fact they become great friends.

Sometime the hating has to stop.

Surely that is what forgiveness is all about – breaking the cycle of recrimination and hate, letting go of the past so that it does not contaminate the present and understanding that exacting revenge does not make the problem go away. Hatred and bitterness do not ease the pain – they only serve to perpetuate the trauma. An obsession with vengeance is not a solution, it eats away at the victim, but it does not even touch the perpetrator. In the end, the only way to be released from the suffering of the past is to let it go.

Jesus understood this, which is why he tells Peter to forgive seventy times. To forgive is not to condone or to forget abuse, violence, torture or other atrocities – but rather to deprive them of their power to destroy, to reduce their ability to infect the present and above all to allow the victims and sometimes also the perpetrators to get on with their lives .

Sometime the hating has to stop – the self-hatred and the hatred of others – because only when we stop hating will we be at peace with ourselves and with the world. And only when the hating stops will there be peace in the world.
The movie Railway Man is based on the real story of Eric Lomax which is recorded in a book of the same title. There is also a documentary about Lomax and Takashi.

Shepherds and sheep

September 7, 2013

Pentecost 16

Luke 15:1-15

Marian Free

 In the name of God who will not be bound by human convention or constrained by human wisdom, and whose love extends to all. Amen.   

When we were in Tanzania, we observed the local Masai herdsmen (often children) herding their sheep to pasture in what seemed to be a harsh and unforgiving land. Each person had somewhere between ten and twenty sheep and they were kept together with a switch. I don’t know, but I assume the loss of one sheep due to carelessness would have been a serious matter when the total number was so low.

How different from the Australian experience! When I was young I visited a sheep station that was 100 square miles in size. The boundaries were fenced as were the interior paddocks – no opportunity for sheep to wander off. Shepherding was required only when it was time to move the sheep from one pasture to another and then it was done from the back of a motorbike – no switch and no personal relationship between shepherd and sheep. I can no longer remember how many sheep the landowner stocked on the property, but I clearly remember a delivery of sheep. A double, two-layer sheep trailer disgorged its contents in front of us – probably in the vicinity of two hundred sheep. In the crush of the transport one had died. The farmer immediately took out his knife and skinned it in front of us. Before our holiday had ended, that sheep had contributed to at least one evening meal. When such large numbers of livestock are involved, there is no room for sentimentality. Pragmatism rules the day.

But back to our Tanzanian experience which is a much better illustration of today’s parable. Small herds are not only more precious, they are better able to be cared for in a more intimate way. There is no need for them to be herded on to freight trains or abandoned to their own devices far from the homestead. Small herds can be protected from wild animals which Australian fences do not deter and it is easy to recognise when one is missing. Every evening the animals are returned to the village where they are contained behind a fence in the centre of the huts so that they will be safe until morning. Every morning they are taken from the pen to once again find pasture.

From what we can gather, herding in Jesus’ day was similar to that of the East African experience. There were some notable differences. The Palestinian herdsmen didn’t necessarily return to a village in the evening (think of the shepherds to whom the angels relayed the news of Jesus’ birth). Instead, crude walls out of stones were made in the pastures to protect the livestock from predators. These sheepfolds seem to have been ad hoc structures – in any case, they were constructed without a gate. In the evening, the shepherd would herd the animals into the enclosure and then lie in front of the opening so as to be able to prevent wild enemies from entering. The shepherds may have built fires for warmth and added protection, but all that kept the animals safe from harm was their shepherd’s ability to aim a sling or to otherwise deter or frighten off an attacker.

Seen from the perspective of shepherding in Israel, Jesus’ parable about the lost sheep is far from a benign, feel good story. Jesus’ audience would have justifiably been shocked and outraged. What sort of shepherd abandons ninety-nine sheep to the wolves in order to go off and search for one that is missing? Wolves or hyenas could cause far greater loss to the shepherd among ninety-nine unprotected sheep, than to one isolated sheep. In other words, for the sake of the one, the shepherd is risking several, if not all, of the others.

You can almost hear the gasps of Jesus’ listeners – the Pharisees, the tax collectors and the sinners. They are not herdsmen, but they have some idea of animal husbandry – even the biggest cities of Palestine are not far from the countryside. Is this shepherd crazy they must be wondering? What is one sheep when you have ninety-nine safe and sound? It gets even worse.  Not only does the shepherd abandon those sheep which have kept close to him, but when the shepherd recovers the sheep which has strayed, he calls all his neighbours over to rejoice with him. Surely that is an over reaction. A party for a lost sheep?

Jesus has almost certainly caught the attention of his listeners. They are probably beginning to wonder what sort of meaning he can draw from the story. How can he use a story about a lost sheep to defend eating with tax collectors and sinners which, in the eyes of the Pharisees breaks the codes of purity and implies that he overlooks their obvious sinfulness. What they have not realised is that the story is a not so subtle attack on their own arrogance and self-satisfaction and a challenge for them to re-assess their understanding of God. Jesus piques their interest and then he goes in for the kill. This is what heaven is like he says. God (we are to suppose) seeks out not the upright, not the law-abiding, but those who have strayed. The people whom the Pharisees despise, exclude and denigrate are the very people whom heaven will seek out and rejoice to welcome home.

What a slap in the face that must have seemed to the Pharisees.  From what we can tell these righteousness and law-abiding people, believed that behaviour set them apart from those around them and assured them of a place in heaven before all others. Jesus’ story about the lost sheep is an affront to everything they had been led to believe and it was a direct attack on their attitude towards those who didn’t achieve their high standards of behaviour. They think that entrance into heaven is something that has to be earned by keeping the law, by prayer and by fasting, that God has particular standards that people have to reach before God will grant them salvation. At the same time they are so sure of that they are right that they have made themselves both judge and jury of the behaviour of others. Anyone who doesn’t conform to their standards is, they believe, automatically excluded from the heavenly realm.

Jesus puts the lie to that belief. Contrary to God’s abandoning and turning his back on sinners, God does what for the Pharisees is unthinkable – God seeks out those who are lost and takes more pleasure in the return of a sinner than in those whose very goodness leads them to forget how much they need God and who believe that their righteous behaviour sets them apart from and above everyone else.

There are times in our lives when we wander from the path, and when we do, God seeks us out and brings us home rejoicing. At other times we find ourselves safe and secure in the fold. At such times it is important that we remember the love sought us out and that we do not begrudge the fact that God extends that love to those who in the present are lost. Having been found, it is important that we do not allow ourselves to be smug or self-satisfied, that we do not think that we better or more worthy than others. We are all beneficiaries of God’s love and we are all dependent on God’s forgiveness. God’s loving forgiveness seeks us out, overlooks our faults, restores us to the fold and welcomes us with rejoicing into the realms of heaven.

Forgiven and free to love

June 15, 2013

Pentecost 4 – 2013

Luke 7:36-8:3

Marian Free 

In the name of God whose unconditional love sets us free to love. Amen. 

Long before I saw Les Miserable the musical, I happened upon a non musical version of the story. From memory, I came in at the point at which the priest, having offered hospitality to an ex-convict, was faced with this same man whom the police had dragged back because they had found him with silver that could only have come from the priest’s household. The priest knew that the silver was stolen, but instead of expressing outrage, he corroborates Valjean’s story that the silver was a gift and compounds the lie by adding to stolen goods two candlesticks insisting that Valjean had forgotten to take them.

At the time I didn’t know the beginning of the story. That scene depicted such an unexpected act of generosity, understanding and hope that I will never forget the impression that it made upon me. Jean Valjean had stolen the silverware and yet the priest the not only over-looked the theft and corroborated Valjean’s story, but he added to the treasure. In such circumstances we might perhaps expect the priest to offer forgiveness, but to extend such generosity without any expectation of restitution takes us by surprise and forces us to question whether we would be so forgiving or so generous.

Of course, this is a fictitious tale, so let me share with you a true story. Some of you will recall that in 1998 a young nurse, Anita Cobby, was abducted, gang raped and left by her attackers to drown. After the perpetrators were arrested, Anita’s father Garry Lynch went to the local RSL where he thought he would the father of two of his daughter’s assailants. He knew that the man worked there, that he was believed to be doing a good job and that he was well liked. In his own words, Garry says: “I went up to him and I just held my hand out and I said, ‘Look, I want to say to you that we hold no responsibility on you whatsoever for what your sons did.’  And he just grabbed my hand in his two …. in tears … and there was just a silent interchange.”

I could tell you dozens of such stories of people who find it in their hearts to forgive the most horrendous acts and who are somehow are able to get on with their lives.

I could tell you too of those who allow their indignation and outrage to get the better of them in lesser or similar situations. Those who, like the crowds who recently gathered outside the court on the day the young man accused of rape and murder, were not only angry but who had hung a noose over the branch of a nearby tree. This sort of lynch mob mentality is, thankfully, not common, but it does expose a desire to take justice into our own hands and an unwillingness to see the ugliness in oneself and the humanity in another.

Those who hold on to their indignation and their grief fail to see that it reveals as much about their own hardness of heart and their own self-righteousness as it does about the person who committed the offense against them.

Why is it that a father whose daughter was brutally murdered offers forgiveness to the perpetrators, whereas a crowd who know neither the victim nor the accused are filled with vitriol and hate?

I believe that the difference is faith. Faith not only gives us strength and support in times of trauma, but it gives us a different perspective on things. As Christians we know that we are not perfect but we are forgiven – even though we have done nothing to deserve such forgiveness. Knowing ourselves forgiven and loved, we are better able to extend such love to others. Knowing God’s generosity towards us, we are able to be generous in our attitudes towards others. Knowing that God understands our weakness and frailty, we are more willing to understand the weakness and frailty of others.

Jesus makes it clear that none of us is perfect. We are all in need of forgiveness. Imperfection is imperfection – there is no hierarchy – we are either perfect or we are imperfect. Nearly perfect is not perfect. If no one is perfect, then everyone is imperfect. If everyone is imperfect, then everyone – whether they have sinned greatly or only a little – is in need of God’s forgiveness.

This is the point of today’s gospel. Simon, believing that he in some way is better than the woman, judges her and finds her wanting. He is surprised because he thinks/expects that Jesus should do the same. He has failed to understand that if Jesus were to mix only with perfect people Jesus would not be dining with him. Simon’s sense of his own righteousness leaves little room for him to understand that the woman is worthy of Jesus’ attention. He is mean and narrow in his view of others because he has failed to identify his own shortcomings.

In response to Simon’s judgmental attitude Jesus tells the parable about forgiveness forcing the Pharisee to acknowledge that those who are forgiven more, love more. Those who know themselves forgiven, accepted and loved cannot help but extend that love, acceptance and forgiveness to others.

God did not and does not wait until we are perfect before God extended his all-embracing and unconditional love. When we truly understand that we will be overwhelmed by God’s boundless generosity. When we truly understand our own need for forgiveness, we will be hard pressed not to extend forgiveness to others. When we truly accept that we ourselves are not perfect, we will be more willing to accept imperfection in others.

I’ve said it before and no doubt I will say it again: “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more and nothing that we can do that can make God love us less.” If that doesn’t challenge us to share that love with the world, to extend God’s forgiveness to others, then we just don’t get it and as Paul said: “Christ died for nothing”.

No easy love

April 27, 2013

Easter 5 2013

John 13:31-35

Marian Free 

In the name of God who loves freely and abundantly and ask that we do the same. Amen.

I’m sure that many of you will remember the first record, cassette tape, CD or iTunes that you ever owned. I was nine years old, not tall enough to see over the counter when my mother bought my first record. It was the year that the Beatles had come to Brisbane and I was determined to be part of the action. All I wanted that Christmas was a record by The Beatles. My mother duly took me to a record store in the city where she naively asked for a Beatles record. Of course the shop assistant asked: “which one?” The nine year old Marian could only respond: “one with ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’” – that being all that came to mind. So it was that for Christmas that year I was given the EP with She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah, on one side and something like All you need is love on the reverse. The sixties were all about love and peace.

The beatniks and hippies preached love not war and even the Christians got on the bandwagon with car stickers and other paraphernalia covered in flowers and proclaiming: “God is love”. Love and peace were the counter-cultural response to the establishment and especially to the war in Vietnam. The spirit of the age was one of flower power, communal living, non-violent resistance and John Lennon’s famous love-in.

Love, or the promise of love is very seductive. Studies have shown that infants and children need love to grow up feeling strong and secure. Those who do not receive the affection that they crave often go to all kinds of extremes, even criminal behaviour, to get that attention. Apparently, negative attention is better than no attention at all. Worse still, I’m sure we can all think of awful crimes have been committed by people whose need for affection is so great that they allow themselves to be led by their spouses or their friends to do horrendous things that they know to be wrong.

Because love is so essential to our well-being, it is also a powerful force for change. Sister Helen Prejean recounts her journey with Matthew Poncelet, a man sentenced to death for his part in the rape and murder of a young couple. Despite the heinous nature of Matthew’s crime, the fact that he is a particularly unattractive person and the fact that the wider society and in particular the victim’s families cannot understand her position, Helen persists not only in her relationship with Matthew but also in her public opposition to the death penalty. The movie Dead Man Walking, is a reasonably accurate retelling of Helen’s story. She recounts that it is thirty minutes before midnight, the time of the scheduled execution when she finally witnesses a break through in her relationship with Matthew. All of his defenses come tumbling down when he comes to understand that despite all that he has done and the terrible nature of his crime, God loves him.

Helen’s love and persistence have broken through Matthew’s outer shell of defiance and defensiveness. In the safety of that love, Matthew can finally admit that he did rape the young woman and that he did kill her boyfriend. At that moment he takes full responsibility for his actions and stops blaming of his co-accused for the offense. His acknowledgement of his guilt and his acceptance of God’s love do not save his physical life, but his life is saved none-the-less, for in that moment he becomes fully the person God intended him to be and he opens himself to the fullness of God’s love.

The love that Helen showed Matthew is quite different from that so easily proclaimed pop songs. It is a love that is demanding, difficult and often time-consuming. It draws on all our resources and can earn the disapproval of society and even of our friends. Helen’s love for Matthew was fueled by her love for God, her belief that all people – even those most despised by society – are created in the image of God, and her conviction that when we are commanded to love, we are commanded to love everyone, not just those whom we choose to love or those who are easy to love.

Jesus’ command is to love one another as he has loved us. “I give you and new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” In order to fully understand this commandment we have to fully grasp the nature of Jesus’ love, which is also God’s love for us. Jesus’ love began with his ability to be vulnerable. From the cradle to the grave, Jesus demonstrated that he did not need to be in control. He trusted life itself to those whom he loved. At great cost to himself, he allowed others responsibility to make their own mistakes – even when the mistake was to betray him. Jesus’ love demonstrated complete acceptance of other people. Whether they were his disciples, the tax collectors or a variety of other sinners, Jesus accepted them as they were. No one was outside his love.

At the heart of Jesus’ love was forgiveness – whether it was the woman caught in adultery, Peter who denied him, the thief crucified with him or those who nailed him to the cross, Jesus was able to put their misdeeds behind him and restore their relationship with himself. Jesus’ love was also risk taking. In choosing to love everyone, Jesus dared the disapproval of the establishment. By including everyone in his love, Jesus offended those who wanted to exclude people who didn’t fit their criteria of goodness or acceptability. By associating with outsiders, Jesus caused offense to those who wanted to determine who belonged and who did not. By extending his love to all, Jesus risked rejection, hurt and betrayal and still he loved without reserve.

Jesus’ command to love is much harder than it appears –  keeping the Ten Commandments is easier. The command to love as Jesus loved insists that we keep our own egos in check, that we suspend our tendency to evaluate and judge the behaviour of others, and that we understand that our standards and expectations are not necessarily God’s standards and expectations. It means that we must love with no thought of that love being returned, that we should not withdraw our love no matter what the loved one does or does not do and that we should overlook continually another’s flaws and betrayals. This sort of love is not trite or superficial emotion; it involves the will as well as the heart.

The context of John 13 is very specific. Jesus is speaking to the disciples, to community of faith, to us. In today’s churches we have very few opportunities to demonstrate our love for one another. We do not rub up against each other in the way that we might if we had to spend more time together. This makes it hard to demonstrate our discipleship of Christ by our mutual love, understanding and support for one another. That said, the wider church is far from being a model of Jesus’ love. It is a broken and fragmented body, torn apart by differences of opinion, a desire to be in control and an unwillingness to tolerate difference. If the world is to know Jesus by our love, we need to work harder to trust each other, to encourage each other and build each other up. We need to learn to value diversity, to welcome debate and struggle together to understand the love that Jesus showed, so that we can put that love into practice. It is not necessary that we be the same, or even that we agree, just that we love.

As Leunig says: “Love one another. It is as easy and as difficult as that.”

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