Luke 23:34, 24:46-48, and Numbers 15:27-31 CEB
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” They drew lots as a way of dividing up his clothing.
He said to them, “This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.
If an individual sins unintentionally, that person must present a one-year-old female goat for a purification offering. The priest will seek reconciliation in the Lord’s presence for the person who sinned unintentionally, when the sin is an accident, seeking reconciliation so that person will be forgiven. There will be one set of instructions for the Israelite citizen and the immigrant residing with you for anyone who commits an unintentional sin.
But the person who acts deliberately, whether a citizen or an immigrant, and insults the Lord, that person will be cut off from the people for despising the Lord’s word and breaking his commands. That person will be completely cut off and bear the guilt.
Forgiveness is not just something God offers us, but something that should characterize our witness as a Christian community. Christ’s death and resurrection inaugurated the coming of the kingdom, a kingdom defined by forgiveness. We are to be a forgiven and forgiving people. This is easier said than done. People hurt each other whether they mean to or not. These hurts have real consequences, and one of the biggest spiritual challenges is to turn around and have to forgive. I think that’s why the New Testament uses the language of debts when talking about forgiveness. There is a real cost to the ways we harm our neighbor, and when we pardon the offender, the cost doesn’t go away. The only thing that changes is who we ask to pay the cost. To let go of our debts so easily feels as though we are letting the wrongdoer have all the power! What is the answer? What does God teach us? Christ models how we as Christians in the Kingdom of God should live, and if we want to be faithful, we must practice forgiveness toward one another following the example of Jesus.
As Christians, we hold that Christ on the cross paid the outstanding debt on all of our sins, past, present, and future. Most often this is how we talk about forgiveness, as something God did for all of us through Christ. In Matthew’s account of the Last Supper, Jesus states this plainly as he offers the cup of wine to the gathered disciples, “‘Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matthew 26:27b-28 NRSVUE) We will share this cup in the act of Communion this morning, and it is a powerful reminder that Jesus has offered his own blood to answer the debts of our sins. In Greek, the very word forgiveness is rendered from the verb aphiēmi and the noun aphesis, which in non-Biblical Greek commonly mean “release, let go, send away, relinquish, [and] discharge.” In the New Testament, this is often seen as the discharging or releasing of a debt, especially toward God. Think of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew where it is written, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12 NRSVUE). When we speak of debts and debtors today, we often think of money owed, and this may not be far off.
Imagine if you will, that you could go back to early medieval Europe, to England and France and Germany where the Germanic tribes ruled. In those days if you murdered, maimed, or otherwise injured another person, you were required to pay a cost, called the wergild, meaning “man payment” in Old English. Depending on your status in society, you were worth more or less, so if you injured a noble, you paid more than if you had injured or killed a peasant. In those days, there was a set cost for harming your neighbor. Imagine now that every sin came with a cost, dollar value depending on what you did. Except, we don’t have to imagine because the Bible actually already outlines this cost. Our reading from Numbers today includes the cost of unintentional sin as a year-old female goat. That this sacrifice had to be made to restore this person to the right relationship with the individual and the community. Now imagine if you sinned intentionally, what should be the cost? What if you murdered someone? What should be the debt? Maybe that’s too extreme of an example! What about this, what if your words harmed your neighbor, injured their mind and soul? What possible amount could actually restore them to the point where it is as though this sin never happened?
Going back to the example of the wergild, many times part of this debt would be paid to the King in addition to the wronged person or their family. When we harm our neighbor, we not only incur a debt to them, we incur a debt to our God. Another debt gets added to what we owe God, except if we cannot even repay our neighbor, how can we possibly hope to repay God?
Thankfully, time and time again, our God has refused to collect, and instead, of all things, moves to forgive us our debts. This is not only true of God in the New Testament but in the Old Testament as well. After all, think about what God is saying in Numbers, a goat is enough to make up for the wrongdoing we have unintentionally done to our neighbor. Now, I did some searching through some classifieds in Wyoming, and I saw that I could get a yearling doe for $100-$200 depending on the breed. There’s a lot of harm we can all do unintentionally, and it does not feel like $100-$200 would cover much! What makes this work can only be the character of God as forgiving, which we see time and time again. For instance, in the book of Hosea, God’s fierce and righteous anger at Israel’s wrongdoing is “the anger of a parent struggling over her wayward child,” as “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son [...] The more I called them, the more they went from me” (Hosea 11:1-2a NRSV). God’s righteous anger is never the first or last word on things, as “God’s compassion grows warm and tender, and God’s mercy once again overcomes human sinfulness” in Hosea and throughout scripture. What matters to God is not the actual sacrifice but our willingness to admit when we are wrong and seek to repent from wrongdoing.
However, many of us, especially in the ways we hurt one another, show a deep ignorance of how our actions cause harm to our relationship with God through harming our inter-relationships with each other. In the olden days, the priests would offer sacrifice like the one outlined in Numbers 15 to account for Israel’s unintentional sins on Yom Kippur, that inability to grasp the deep harm we do to each other out of ignorance and lack of foresight. We see Jesus in his forgiveness from the cross on Luke echoing this practice from Numbers where Jesus tells God to forgive the Romans, the religious authorities, and ultimately, all of us for the ways we have harmed each other, “‘for they don’t know what they’re doing.’” Here the sacrifice is not a yearling doe but both man and God to enact forgiveness needed for repentance and reconciliation.
Before, a sacrifice in the temple was needed to fully enact forgiveness between us and God and us and each other, but now, something has shifted in what Christ did on that cross. Christ, after the resurrection, returns to the disciples in Luke to tell them to continue something Jesus controversially did in his own ministry, forgive sins. In fact, that is one of the most outrageous things Jesus ever did in ministry, forgive people their sins (often without asking for repentance first) like the paralytic man in Luke 5:17-26 (NRSVUE): “When [Jesus] saw their faith, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven you.’ Then the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, ‘Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’” Now, Jesus tells the disciples in Luke 24:47 that they also are to go out and practice forgiveness as an essential element of being witnesses to and builders of God’s kingdom. How? Jesus has already footed the bill, changing forever the relationship between forgiveness and repentance.
Think of that debt. Think of anything that might ever be added to your tab. You go to see what your debt is and you find that it has been paid in full. Not just the debt you owe to God but the very debt that kept you from reconciliation with your neighbor. If you have been hurt, it is God who has decided to assume the bill and pay the cost. Our way of life is forgiveness because God has made it so.
Over the coming weeks, we will take a look at this costly forgiveness, and believe me it is costly. As the Professor of Wesleyan Studies, Kenneth J. Collins, shares “Like it or not, we have to recognize that perpetrators not only can commit physical, moral, psychological, and spiritual evil against their neighbors, but also are able to pose a trial [...] that can try the very souls of their victims.” That trial is when we are asked to forgive. Forgiveness is one of the most difficult things we can do. To offer it takes more than words. To receive it is more than demanding it be given. Forgiveness reconciles relationships and restores communities, and at the same time, withholding it or being unwilling to admit where wrong has been done can destroy those relationships and communities just as easily. It is a daily practice, a costly act, and our way of Christian life. Amen.
 The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, s.v., “Forgiveness.”
 Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/wergild., s.v., “Wergild.”
 L. Gregory Jones, Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995),107.
 Kenneth J. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 190.
Pastor Paul Grossman