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Doing Business by Forgiveness

Thomas J Parlette

“Doing Business by Forgiveness”

Romans 5: 1-11

3/19/17

Last August, while Barack Obama was still the president, a USA Today article noted that on a single day that month, President Obama had issued a record-breaking 214 communtations of federal inmates, mostly low-level drug offenders. That brought his total sentence-reduction grants to 562, Making President Obama one of the most prolific grantors of presidential commutations in history.(1) By the time he left office, President Obama increased that number to a whopping 1,715 – making him by far the most prolific in our history. By comparison, the next closest President for granting commutations was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who of course served 3 terms over almost twelve years – and he only offered 488 commuted sentences.

However, when it comes to full pardons, President Obama was lagging behind his predecessors. His final total of pardons when he left office was 212 – rather low on the scale. The top Presidents when it comes to full pardons are, not surprisingly FDR, at 2,819, with Truman far behind at 1,913, followed by Eisenhower at 1110.(2)

The difference between a commutation and pardon is significant. A commutation shortens the sentence of a convicted offender who is still incarcerated, but does not change the fact of conviction or imply innocence – it just reduces the total sentence.

A pardon does not signify innocence either, but it does give full legal forgiveness, set aside any ongoing penalty and restore all civil rights to the person.(3)

Now, if you’re looking for the word “pardon” in this reading from Romans – you won’t find it.

In fact, the word “pardon”, only appears in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, instead of talking about pardon, the writers use a different vocabulary – they speak of “forgiveness” instead of pardon.

In this passage from Romans, Paul uses the phrase “justified by faith” to talk about the concept of pardon or forgiveness. “We are justified by faith”…we are made right before God when we receive Christ.

While Martin Luther is historically the most important interpreter of Paul’s theology of justification by grace through faith, in our modern times, Paul Tillich set the standard when he wrote in his Systematic Theology that “We are accepted by God although being unacceptable according to the criterion of the law, and all we must do is accept this acceptance.”(4)

The actual word “pardon” may have received more attention in the Old Testament because Israel’s story depends so greatly on the covenant God made with the Israelites as a people. God promised to be their God, and God remained faithful to that covenant even when the people of Israel were not. They needed a lot of forgiveness and pardon over the years.

Moses, for example, recognized that pardon was indeed the only way for the relationship to continue after great sin on the part of the people. After the golden calf incident in the wilderness, Moses prayed, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.”

But the Bible is clear that pardon is always up to God, it’s always God’s prerogative. God’s pardon is never automatic. We can not assume it will be granted. And we certainly can not use God’s generous gift of pardon as a reason to keep sinning. God expects us to repent – to confess our sin, to ask for pardon and forgiveness. But we can expect that, as Isaiah writes, “if we return to the Lord, the Lord will abundantly pardon.”

Although, as we have noted, the actual word “pardon doesn’t appear in the New Testament, the gospel of Luke does contain a wonderful pardon story in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. Looking at that parable quickly, we might assume that the moment of pardon was when the father threw a party to welcome the prodigal back home, but that misses the deeper movements of the human emotions.

For the prodigal, pardon had to begin in the far country when buried deep in the pits of his bad decisions and careless living, “he came to himself”, as the story goes, and remembered his father’s love. Before the young man could find pardon, he had to confront himself and acknowledge “I have sinned”, and then he had to return to his father.

And when he did, the pardon he received was a full one. He was completely restored to his place in the family, and his father rejoiced.

We all need that kind of pardon. As Paul says elsewhere – “we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” He is right in line with Isaiah who wrote “All we, like sheep, have gone astray, turned to our own way.” We are all in need of forgiveness. We all need a pardon.

Fortunately for us, it is God’s nature to forgive and pardon abundantly. All we need to do is what Paul Tillich said more than 50 years ago – “accept it.” Accept that you are accepted. Accept that you are forgiven, that God has pardoned you.

That sounds like an easy thing to do – but it’s not always that simple. In his book Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell tells the story of having his bill paid at a restaurant. “I was having breakfast with my dad and my youngest son. We were finishing our meal when I noticed that the waitress brought over our check and then took it away and brought it back again. She placed it on the table, smiled, and said, “Somebody in the restaurant paid for your meal. You’re all set.” And she walked away.”

“I had the strangest feeling sitting there. The feeling was helplessness. There was nothing I could do. It had been taken care of. To insist on paying would have been pointless. All I could do was trust that what she said was true – and live in that. Which meant getting up and leaving the restaurant. My acceptance of what she said gave me a choice to live like it was true or to create my own reality in which the bill was not paid.”

“This is the invitation that Paul writes about. To trust that we don’t owe anything. To trust that something is already true about us, something has already been done, something has been there all along. Pardon and restoration every time.”(5) Because that is what God does. That is who God is. God does business by forgiveness.

Back in 1982, in a time of national recession, a man named Ernest TJ Peters, the owner of a variety store in Dover, New Hampshire, realized he was losing customers because they owed him money.

He hadn’t kept the best of records, but he estimated that some 1200 customers owed him a total of about 10,000 dollars – more than 25,000 dollars in todays money. He felt bad for his customers, though, knowing that many of them were out of work and couldn’t pay him back.

So Ernie took out an ad in the local paper which read, “To our charge account customers: Your bill is paid in full. Start fresh with us. We will help you through tough times. Come back and become a customer again.”

When interviewed by a reporter, Ernie said he intended not to mention anyone’s debt when they came back to the store. He acknowledged that his act was as much about his store’s survival as about generosity, but he also revealed something right about his spirit when he said, “I mean to do business by forgiveness.”(6)

That is how God does business as well – business by forgiveness.

As Paul says, we are justified by faith. We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have been reconciled to God, meaning, we have been pardoned. We have received forgiveness.

But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Let us be thankful for our gracious God who does business by forgiveness.

May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No.2, p.29.

2.    www.justice.gov, clemency statistics, retrieved 3/14/17.

3.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No.2, p.29.

4.    Ward Ewing, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p.86.

5.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No. 2, p.31.

6.    Ibid…p.30.