My favorite thing about the new year is that it gives us a point at which we can move on from the past and embrace whatever new reality is before us. New Year’s Day is interesting because of all the new year celebrations, it is rather arbitrary. While close to the solstice, it is determined mostly because the calendar refreshed. We know that other cultures have their New Year’s celebrations at dates based in astrology or other traditions—just think of Chinese New Year or Yom Kippur.
Running through most celebrations of the new year is an understanding that the past needs to be dealt with in order to have a successful new start. In the Judeo/Christian/Muslim world, our concept of New Year’s is rooted in forgiveness. By forgiving transgressions which have been made, we recognize atonement and are given the chance to make a fresh start for the new year.
Forgiveness is a practice which is modeled for us over and over by Christ himself. Christ continually brings a sense of hope and a fresh start to people through his ministry of compassion and forgiveness. The Lord’s Prayer is one of the best examples of forgiveness. In this simple prayer, we get the bold teaching that we are to forgive others just as God has forgiven us. It is simple logic: if you receive forgiveness, why not share that forgiveness with others? But more than that, it is a lifestyle. A forgiving person will lead a fuller life, because instead of holding onto the grudges and debts of others, they are freed to focus on God. It reminds me of what I like to call the parable of the greedy servant in Matthew 18:21-35:
1 Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" 22 Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23 "For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, 'Pay what you owe.' 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?' 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."
Forgiveness is one of the hardest tasks we must perform as Christians. Forgiveness calls us to grow in immeasurable ways, and to mutually start anew. The problem with forgiveness, and the thing that makes it so hard for us, is that we have to forgive without strings attached.
In our society, this is difficult, because it requires us to do two things we most dislike: we have to change, and we have to start fresh. If we forgive something in a relationship, for example, our relationship must start refreshed and renewed. If we continue to hold the past in check, we are never able to fully forgive. We are then charged with exploring our relationship again so that growth may occur. Thus, forgiveness also causes change for both parties. In some cases, the change is slight; in others, it is dramatic. In either case, it is the forgiveness that brings us into renewal and allows us that fresh start.
I like a model of letting the new year start with a fresh outlook, working toward positive relations with others and toward releasing ourselves from the burden of anger and resentment which comes from not forgiving.
So, as you go into this New Year, follow the guidance that is laid out in the parable of the greedy servant. When it comes to forgiveness, we are called to forgive “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times,” or as many as it takes, for we have received much more than that from God.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen