From Eugene Peterson's contemporary language translation of the Bible come these words: At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, "Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?" Jesus replied, "Seven! Hardly! Try seventy times seven." [Matthew 18: 21-22]
Since that amazing man Nelson Mandela passed away, we have heard story after story of his ability to forgive. Boxer, lawyer, activist, prisoner, president, Madiba set an example and a standard for a country and a world to follow. He learned early on of the evils of apartheid and was himself subjected to terrible examples of hatred and segregation. For 27 years of unjust imprisonment with only one family visit per year, spending day after day in the brutally hot sun of an open courtyard sitting on bricks and pounding slate into gravel with a hammer, Nelson Mandela did not use the time thinking of revenge or self-pity. He spent those years fine tuning a message of reconciliation and forgiveness.
Here we are in Advent nearing the day of Christmas, with carol singing, scripture reading, children's pageants, candle lighting and gift giving, and where is my heart leading me in this wonderful season? I find that, hearing again the life of Nelson Mandela, my heart has focused on the power of forgiveness and how we all need to be forgiving of others just as God is forgiving toward us. I know there are many individuals who harbor angry or bitter feelings toward someone who has wronged them, and it is my Christmas wish that this message of forgiveness will help them find forgiveness in their hearts and find the blessings that come with forgiving and being forgiven.
Sadly, a heart that is consumed with lack of forgiveness is not unlike having a cancer that slowly saps one's strength and eats away at the body. Some who refuse to forgive become filled with negative feelings and emotions because they believe someone has hurt their feelings or done some deed that was perceived to be wrong. They become ill of mind and heart and sometimes, even physically. Jesus taught time and again on the need for forgiveness so the poison of hatred can be rid from our bodies and lives. Following Peter's question on forgiveness and Jesus' response, Jesus goes on to tell a story of a king who forgave a man who begged to be freed from a huge debt and yet, the man then went off to collect a debt owed to him without that same forgiving attitude. It backfired on him.
This Christmas, with the example of the life of Nelson Mandela before us, let's work toward the freedom of forgiveness in our own lives. Let us mark this wonderful man's life with a message of forgiveness and peace - in our lives, in our homes, in our communities, in our state, nation and world. The struggles of one man in South Africa and one man in ancient Israel resonate with the entire world. Both Mandela and Jesus show us that when you forgive, you really get out of prison. Let forgiveness be your real gift to others and yourself this Christmas. God bless.
Jerry Oliver is pastor of Mayfield United Methodist Church and Northampton United Methodist Church at Fish House.