“We exist no longer than mayflies.” That’s what Su Shih, a Chinese scholar and poet, wrote in the year 1082.
Maybe you have seen a mayfly, but not for long. They are insects with very short lifespans, averaging one to two days. Yet, though they have short lives, mayflies have been around forever. “Mayflies are the oldest surviving winged insects on the planet,” reports The Washington Post Magazine. A Harvard paleobiologist “discovered a mayfly impression from some 300 million years ago.” And where did he find it? In a rock, behind a strip mall in Massachusetts.
An important find, but not a great location.
Mayflies are unique creatures, both momentary and ancient. They have also been an inspiration to generations of artists and poets. Mayflies are mentioned in the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” a poem from Mesopotamia that is one of the oldest pieces of literature in the world. An engraving was made during the Renaissance with the title, “The Holy Family with the Mayfly.” In this picture, the insect is sitting at the feet of the Virgin Mary. More recently, in a short comic play, the American playwright David Ives presented what two mayflies might discuss during their one day of existence. The play is called Time Flies.
Unfortunately, after 300 million years, mayflies are disappearing from freshwater streams, rivers and lakes around the world. The likely causes are deforestation, development and climate change. An Indiana biologist says, “We are losing mayflies and other things that support life as we know it and that make life worth living.”
So, what else is both ephemeral and ancient, an inspiration to countless generations? What else is an important part of the history of the world and now disappearing from human life?
Back in October 2006, a gunman took hostages in a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania. In an act of horrifying violence, he shot 10 children, killing five, and then he committed suicide. The Amish community responded in a way that surprised many, by offering forgiveness to the murderer and his family. Instead of lashing out in anger, they showed mercy and love. At the time, there were widespread calls for Americans to follow the lead of the Amish and become more forgiving.
But then, four years later, a group of scholars wrote about the incident. One of their main conclusions, according to pastor Tim Keller, was that our secular culture is not likely to produce people who can respond as the Amish did. These scholars saw that the Amish ability to forgive was grounded in the fact that “at the heart of their faith was a man dying for his enemies.” The Amish followed Jesus, a man who gave his life and forgave his tormentors in an act of love and spiritual strength. In the Amish world, “this self-sacrificing figure was seen, sung, believed, rehearsed, and celebrated constantly.” Forgiveness was understood to be “the greatest gift and virtue.” In modern American culture, on the other hand, “this view of Christ is slipping more and more out of daily view.”
For the Amish, Jesus is always on center stage. They know the answer to the question that Peter asked Jesus: “Lord … how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Not “seven times,” said Jesus, “but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22).
That is a lot of forgiveness.
In addition to naming the centrality of Jesus among the Amish, the scholars pointed out that forgiveness is a form of “self-renunciation,” giving up your right to pay back the person who hurt you. This directly opposes how most Americans are taught to think and live. Now, when we are mistreated, we are urged to get revenge or to withdraw from the conflict. The authors concluded, “Most of us have been formed by a culture that nourishes revenge and mocks grace.”
Look around, and you can see this everywhere. People are constantly criticizing each other online, sometimes crossing over into cyberbullying. On a personal level, individuals feel offended and quickly pursue revenge, wanting to balance the scales. But often, people misunderstand the motives of others and jump to incorrect conclusions. “We live in unforgiving times,” says author Mark Matousek. “Public self-righteousness is on the rise and the taste for revenge has never been greater.”
Jesus understood the need for justice, so He said, “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves” (v. 23). While we no longer endorse economic systems based on kings and slave labor, this arrangement was quite common in the time of Jesus. First, a slave is brought to the king because he owes his lord 10,000 talents. Professor Eduard Schweizer, in The Good News According to Matthew, tells us that, “the sum is made up of the highest number used in arithmetic and the largest monetary unit employed in the ancient Near East.” In other words, a completely overwhelming debt. But, for comparison purposes, one talent is the equivalent of more than 15 years of a laborer’s wages. In today’s dollars, the debt would be $4.65 billion. Yep, overwhelming.
The king decides to sell the slave, his wife, his children and all his possessions. In response, the slave falls on his knees before the king, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything” (v. 26). Then the king takes pity on him, releases him, and forgives the debt.
At this point, the plot thickens. That same slave runs into a fellow slave who owes him 100 denarii — one denarius, in this case, is the equivalent of one day of pay for a laborer. In today’s dollars, the debt would be around $12,400.
A significant debt, for sure, but not overwhelming. Indeed, 500,000 times less than the first debt.
The first slave, who is now free of $4.65 billion in debt, grabs the second slave by the throat and says, “Pay what you owe” (v. 28). The second slave falls down and, using the first slave’s own words, pleads with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything” (v. 29). But the first slave refuses and takes action to throw the second slave into debtors’ prison.
The community of slaves in the kingdom sees what is taking place, and they are greatly distressed. They go to the king and file a report. Then the king summons the first slave and rebukes him for not having mercy on his fellow slave, in the manner of the king showing mercy toward him. Then he hands the unforgiving slave over to be tortured, until he pays his entire debt.
“So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you,” concludes Jesus, “if you do not forgive your brother or your sister from your heart” (v. 35).
Forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian faith. Like the mayfly, it supports life as we know it and makes life worth living. But, just as deforestation, development and climate change are wiping out the mayfly, public self-righteousness, cyberbullying, and revenge are now making forgiveness an endangered species.
The message of the mayfly is that we need to create a hospitable environment for ancient, ephemeral, important things. So, what can we do to preserve an environment that supports forgiveness?
For starters, we need to keep Jesus at the center. In our church lives and personal lives, we are challenged to keep our focus on the one who gave his life and forgave his tormentors in an act of love and spiritual strength. This means that Jesus is the center of our songs, our beliefs, and our celebrations. When we maintain this focus, forgiveness remains our greatest gift and virtue.
Then, we can make the decision to forgive others because Jesus has forgiven us. In Christian life, the two are always connected, just as the king in the parable expected the forgiven slave to forgive his fellow slave. Earlier in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches his followers the Lord’s Prayer, which includes the line, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (6:12).
Do you want God to forgive you? Bet you do. The key is to forgive those who hurt you.
“We have to forgive,” said an Amish man whose farm was just a few miles away from the schoolhouse shooting. “Jesus forgave us of our sins. How can we expect forgiveness if we can’t give it?”
Finally, when we choose to forgive, we discover that this choice is good not only for the people who have offended us. It is also good for us. Whether we are fighting with our spouse or stewing with resentment toward a friend or neighbor, it is beneficial to let go of our anger. Johns Hopkins Medicine reports that “the act of forgiveness can reap huge rewards for your health, lowering the risk of heart attack … reducing pain, blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress.”
So, you don’t have to wait until someone deserves to be granted forgiveness. Go ahead and choose it, for your own benefit as well as theirs.
Mayflies may be endangered, but they have been around forever, and they make a positive contribution to human life. The same could be said for forgiveness, which is why we are challenged to preserve it and practice it as followers of Jesus Christ.