What do you need to do to receive God's forgiveness? What do others need to do to receive yours?
In the years after 586 BC, the populace of Jerusalem finds itself in trouble. The Temple has been destroyed and much of the population has been carried into captivity in Babylon. The dilemma it faces is this. The Temple, the dwelling of God, is no more. With no Temple there is no opportunity for sacrifice, and thus no way to find reconciliation with God. In the face of their hopelessness and despair Ezekiel, priest turned prophet, challenges the former approach to reassurance. By steering away from retelling the old stories of God's mighty works, he turns instead to relating the true nature of the Judeans. They have taken God for granted, worshiping idols and playing fast and loose with God's mercy. This offense to God has resulted in their exile.
The path to restoration, according to Ezekiel, lies in awareness of sin, repentance, and the formation of communities (which will become the synagogues that replace the Temple) that hold dear the word of the Lord. The Lord gives Ezekiel a scroll and instructs him to eat the words so they become part of him, and then to proclaim the words to the House of Israel in captivity. And as a counterpoint to the words of judgment and condemnation there is hope:
"This is what the Sovereign Lord says: 'I will gather you from the nations and bring you back from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you back the land of Israel again.'
"They will return to it and remove all its vile images and detestable idols. I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh." (Ezek 11:17-19)
It really is another hint we have that God's interest lies in spiritual rather than legalistic renewal. What Israel needed – what we need – is the heart of God within us. What Israel needed – what we need – is God's forgiveness. And that’s the promise: “I will bring Judah and Israel back from captivity and will rebuild them as they were before. I will cleanse them from all the sin they have committed against me and will forgive all their sins of rebellion against me. Then this city will bring me renown, joy, praise and honor before all nations on earth that hear of all the good things I do for it; and they will be in awe and will tremble at the abundant prosperity and peace I provide for it.“ (Jer 33:7-9)
And so Jesus comes granting forgiveness to the paralytic (Mark 2:1 ff) and instructs the disciples to forgive repeatedly (Matt 18:21ff). Why is that so challenging? Peter asks, “How often must I forgive my brother?” (Not “how often am I allowed to forgive him”!) Jesus basically responds by saying, "There is no limit," and later prays that God will forgive the crowd that crucifies him (Luke 23:34). And as with the paralytic and others, he does so before they ask, and before they repent.
God insists that we forgive and love unconditionally. At times it sounds conditional.“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins." (Mark 11:24-25)
But in what sense? That God is some sort of accountant, keeping records of our actions and dealing out reward or punishment in turn?
More correctly, we simply cannot understand the forgiveness of God until we have pursued it ourselves. We are encouraged to experience how hard it is to forgive the ones who insult us, steal our material goods, threaten or take the lives of our loved ones, by forgiving them and loving them before they love us. We may not be successful, but we're to try, with God's help, repeatedly. From the counter-intuitive perspective of the Gospel it is forgiveness that leads to repentance, and not the other way around. In other words, we are called to respond to those around us with the heart of God. Then we begin to grasp the depth of God's sacrificial love for us so we can make it our own.