Looking through the lenses of the Ancient Near East — the historical context from which our Biblical text emerged — forgiveness acquires a sacrificial dimension that might sound very foreign to us today, especially if the question that we ask when approaching this practice is, “What’s in it for me?” In other words, the Western/American mindset of individualism/personal freedom — which dominates our social, cultural, and even religious landscape — creates a significant distance between us and Jesus’ world, a distance where the wider and larger picture of forgiveness can easily get lost.
When Jesus forgives his killers even in light of his impending, inevitable death (Luke 23:34*), he does so not because it will bring immediate and palpable benefits to himself (for he is dying either way), but rather because he desires a world without violence, even as he is the one bearing the dehumanizing consequences of it right then. Jesus is choosing to see a world that moves beyond his individual self, a world where the stakes involved in whether or not to forgive are much higher; a world where one’s decisions will always have an impact beyond what they can see. When our point of departure becomes the collective rather than the individual, the primary question we ask is no longer, “What’s in it for me?”, but rather, “What’s in it for the greater good?”
The most absurd part is that, when we ask this new question, we soon discover that answering it will always mean giving up the control we’ve been taught to relentlessly pursue. Or, to put it in a language that’s more relevant for us today, forgiveness — as seen from the lenses of the Ancient Near East — is the sacrifice of our “individual freedom” for a kind of freedom that surpasses the individual.