15th Sunday after Pentecost; September 17, 2017, Year A
Genesis 50.15-21; Psalm 103: [1-7] 8-13; Romans 14.1-12; Matthew 18.21-35
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the One who forgives all your sins, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
We pray these words Jesus’ has taught us every week in worship. How seriously do we take them? Is forgiveness conditional?
I once heard of someone who skipped that very sentence in the Lord’s Prayer because he was not willing to forgive a person who had wronged him.
“How often should I forgive?” asks Peter, the rock on whom Jesus says he’s going to build his church. “As many as seven times?”
In the ancient Jewish tradition 4 times was sufficient. Peter must have been thinking, I’m being awfully generous to ask Jesus if I should forgive someone as many as seven times!
But Jesus shocks Peter, and his answer should astonish us as well: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Essentially what Jesus is saying is: There is no limit to the number of times you should forgive. Seventy-seven times is as many as 77 trillion times.
I know how hard forgiveness can be, both to accept it for one’s self, and also give it. Forgiveness often times does not happen within a day or even a week, but sometimes years, and maybe never depending on the offense and the damage caused.
To forgive does not mean to forget, nor does it communicate that everything is okay. Forgiveness has many layers, yet is also universal in this way: We all need it.
To help us understand the essence of forgiveness Jesus tells a story. There is a man with astronomical debt. 10,000 talents is the equivalent to the largest sum of money there could ever be. One talent is equal to 15 years of wages. The man would need to work for 150,000 years to pay back the debt. Impossible. We should almost laugh when the man pleads with the king to have patience, that he will pay back all that is owed. The reality is, he can’t!
Out of pity for him, the king forgives him a debt he could never repay. I wish the story ended here, but it doesn’t.
The slave then turns around, ceases another by the throat who owes him pennies compared to the debt he was just forgiven. The man pleads in the same way, and yet the forgiven one throws another in jail, withholding the very grace that he had just received.
Others who witness this are rightfully upset. They tell the master. The slave is punished, but not before the lord asks him this question: “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow salve, as I had mercy on you?”
At end of the story we might think, “Gee, punishment and torture is pretty harsh.” Yet, we must recognize that the man brings judgment upon himself through his own unwillingness to forgive another.
The mercy the master showed was not only for the sake of the one who owed him, it was for the sake of all, similar to the pay-it-forward concept. Jesus makes it clear that forgiveness is essential for the Christian life and for the health of community. Forgiven people are to forgive others.
Theologian N.T. Wright gives us some imagery of forgiveness. He says:
Forgiveness is … like the air in your lungs. There’s only room for you to inhale the next lungful when you’ve just breathed out the previous one. If you insist on withholding it, refusing to give someone else the kind of life they may desperately need, you won’t be able to take any more in yourself, and you will suffocate very quickly.
If the heart is open, able and wiling to forgive others, it will also be open to receive God’s love and forgiveness. But if it’s locked up to the one, it will be locked up to the other. (Matthew for Everyone: Part Two, Tom Wright, p. 39-40)
I suppose in this way one can think about forgiveness as being conditional. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
But there can be a problem with forgiveness being conditional. I have spoken with numerous people who have said to me, “I want to forgive, but I just can’t. I try and try, but it doesn’t seem like I’m getting anywhere.”
I’ve heard, “I think I’ve forgiven someone and then I’ll be hurt and angry again out of the blue.” I’ve also been asked, “If I can’t forgive, will God not forgive me?”
I don’t have an easy answer to these questions, and they are ones I have struggled with for over half my life. There isn’t a simple formula. Time isn’t always a friend in these matters of irreparable hurt.
What about transgressions that seem unforgiveable? What if, no matter how hard I try, I cannot forgive someone?
Perhaps a story would be most helpful with these questions. I recently heard of a female pastor who was sexually abused by a relative from the time she was 8 until 16. She suffered for decades, even missed her mother’s funeral because she did not want to face her family or her perpetrator.
In the last few years she has reflected on all aspects of forgiveness and what it has meant in her life. She has found great healing in her relationship with her loving husband, therapy, and within the Christian community, a place she does not need to carry her shame. She has written the following regarding forgiveness:
Abuse leaves many layers of damage. Do whatever it takes to heal, layer by layer. If you want to forgive, that’s fine if this is helpful for your journey. If it keeps you from eating yourself up with rage or bottling up all the emotions – do it. But don’t ever mistake forgiveness for taking the burden of the crime off the offender and placing it on yourself. And don’t ever do it because your abuser or anyone else demands it of you.
This is good advice, and somewhat of an answer to the tough questions.
We always ask God for the strength and the help to give and receive forgiveness. Sometimes forgiveness isn’t even for the one in need of it … it is really for you. It is true that when we are able to forgive another we are released from the anger and the hurt we carry towards that person.
One more quick story to illustrate this point. There was a Jewish rabbi who had a woman in his congregation come to see him. She was a single mother, divorced, and working to support herself and three young children.
She said to him, “Since my husband walked out on us, every month is a struggle to pay our bills. I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies, while he’s living it up with his new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him?”
The rabbi answered her, “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically, but you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you’re hurting yourself (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4, p. 72).”
When you walk into this chapel each week for worship, I hope you hear clearly that each of you are forgiven and loved by God. There is no hurt so deep that God cannot heal; there is no sin to great that God cannot forgive. Often times we are the ones who put limits on God.
Jesus instructs Peter and us this day that one should never, ever give up making forgiveness and reconciliation one’s goal. We just make it part of our life because that is who Jesus calls us to be. It’s not easy, but Jesus never said it would be. God is lavishly generous with forgiveness. God loves to forgive.
And so let us all open to p. 94, for confession and forgiveness…