“Lord, How Often Should I Forgive?”

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13th Sunday after Pentecost
Sep. 11, 2011
Matthew 18:21-35
Peder Stenslie

“Lord, how often should I forgive?” This question – printed across the front of our bulletin today – is a profound one. But the subject of forgiveness is not always a simple or easy thing to understand… even discuss.

When I was in my 20s, I got to know a woman who had been married for 10 years. Her husband had abused her, verbally, physically and emotionally since before they were married. He had knocked her unconscious on more than one occasion. I was horrified to learn about the world of cruelty and pain she lived in. When I asked her why she didn’t take steps to change her life… why she didn’t get away from the abuse… she explained that she felt it was her Christian duty to stay.

From time to time, her husband would express regret and promise to change, but that never happened. When I pressed her on the fact that the repeated cycle of violence and broken promises over 10+ years meant he wasn’t going to change, she replied, “But aren’t I supposed forgive? Isn’t that what the bible tells me to do?” Forgiveness. That’s what she called her decision to stay in this abusive relationship.

Is that really what God’s command to forgive is about? She was a wonderful person and her heart was so good; but I think she was wrong. Her idea of forgiveness kept her and her children imprisoned in a life of fear and pain. Her idea of forgiveness ensured that the cycle of violence and abuse continued without end. That is not the purpose, the power or the product of forgiveness.

Forgiving her abusive husband may have been an important task for her, but because she was the child of a loving and liberating God, freeing herself and her children from a life of abuse should have been her first priority.

Jesus tells a parable in today’s Gospel lesson to demonstrate God’s expectation of forgiveness. In this parable there is one instance of forgiveness shown and one instance of forgiveness denied.

A slave was indebted to the king. The size of his debt was impossible to comprehend. The amount, 10,000 talents, was actually more than the entire annual income of King Herod. The slave would never be able to pay that debt. Called to account before his king with payment of his debt demanded, he … his family… his future was finished.

The slave pleaded for mercy, promising that he’d pay the whole thing, which was absurd. It could never happen; the debt was too great. Yet the king forgave the man his entire debt. He didn’t reduce it or work out a payment plan. He forgave it all.

That very slave later met a fellow slave who was indebted to him a much smaller sum… a hundred denarii. (For those of you who are curious about such things, 1 talent equals 6000 denarii.) When the second slave pleaded for mercy, the first slave refused and had him thrown into prison until the entire debt could be paid.

One of the most important themes of this parable is the position from which forgiveness is expected to be extended. This theme is repeated twice. The king forgives the debt of the 1st slave from a position of strength. Because of the king’s authority and the slave’s debt, the king has power over the slave. With that power, he showed mercy and gave the slave a future of hope, rather than no future at all.

In the next scene, the forgiven slave also finds himself in a position of power. Another slave is indebted to him and begs for mercy. From that position of power, the 1st slave shows no mercy. He takes away the other slave’s possibility of a future.

Forgiveness is expected to come from a position of strength. Forgiveness is a way of sharing our strength with others.

That doesn’t mean that forgiveness isn’t difficult… even painful.

In October of 2006, an armed man burst into an Amish country school. He shot 10 schoolgirls between the ages of 6 and 13. Five of them died; the rest were grievously wounded. When he was done, the gunman killed himself.

Parents, of course, were devastated with grief. Nonetheless, that evening, members of the Amish community went to the home of the gunman’s parents to express forgiveness and support. Two days after the shooting, the Amish community set up a fund to help the gunman’s widow and children. They committed a percentage of the gifts they were receiving from around the world to help the gunman’s family.

When the gunman was buried, over half the people in attendance were Amish, including several who had just buried their own daughters the day before. They sent meals and flowers to the widow. At Christmastime, Amish children went to the widow’s home to sing carols.

This behavior of the Amish troubled many in our country who heard about it. It just didn’t seem right to them. Some suggested that the forgiveness wasn’t genuine… or that there must be something wrong with the Amish to be able to do this so quickly.

But people misunderstood the Amish if they thought that their forgiveness was given easily.

Dr. Donald Kraybill, a professor of sociology and religion, spent a lot of time talking with the Amish of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania several months after the killings to try to understand their exercise of forgiveness.

He points out in a book entitled Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy that the Amish are a very close-knit, family oriented community. And they experience emotions of pain and suffering just like everyone else. One Amish minister who lost a granddaughter in the schoolhouse explained: “I couldn’t preach in church for several weeks because when I tried, I just cried and cried.” Many months later, one father who lost a daughter in the shooting said, “Every morning, I need to start all over again with forgiveness.”

The Amish believed that God called on them to forgive. And they have relied on God to give them the strength to do it.

Forgiveness, for the Amish, does not mean forgetting. The Amish of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania will always remember that awful day, but their memory is not wrapped in rage, hatred and desire for revenge.
Forgiveness has enabled them to infuse this horrible memory of their beloved children with love and compassion. Forgiveness doesn’t mean accepting or excusing evil. It means denying evil the power to claim our future.

And that is why forgiveness is important. It carries the power to shape the future… the future of the one forgiven, the future of the one who forgives, and the future of the community in which they both live. It doesn’t mean that forgiveness is easy. It doesn’t mean that the behavior is accepted. It doesn’t even mean that consequences or justice should be forgotten.

The purpose of forgiveness is to give life in the midst of pain and grief. It is to open up a new future… new hope… away from the place of despair and darkness created by wrongdoing.

The forgiveness of the woman who had been abused for over 10 years did none of these things. Rather, it accepted and sustained the wrongdoing as well as the pain and grief it created.

Today we observe the 10th anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist bombings in New York… a terrible day of unspeakable loss and sorrow. Some would find it repulsive to talk about forgiveness on this day.

Most certainly, today is a day to remember all those innocent people who died in the attacks. It is a time to support those who will always mourn the loved ones they lost that day, and mourn with them. And it is a day to hold in prayer the service men and women who have been sent into harm’s way and been assigned very difficult tasks under very dangerous circumstances in response to the attacks.

But standing here 10 years after the event, it would be good for us to consider the ways, we as a nation, have responded
to this event.

In the midst of wrongdoing, have we responded as we are called to respond? Did we respond from a position of strength? Did our response share our strength with others who are at our mercy? Did it give life and new hope in the midst of pain and grief, or did it just spread the pain and grief around? Did our response build a future of mercy and compassion, or did it draw us into a future wrought with anger and hatred?

God forgives us our sins. That forgiveness is meant to strengthen us to forgive others. Today’s parable suggests that when God’s forgiveness doesn’t strengthen us to forgive others, then God’s forgiveness loses its meaning… loses its value.

Therefore we are taught to forgive… because forgiveness is the power of God that keeps the fabric of our shared life from tearing apart under the weight of sin and wrongdoing. Forgiveness is the power of God that returns light and life to a world darkened by sin and grief.

May God teach us… our nation and our world… the meaning of forgiveness, and may he strengthen us to live out our calling to be children of light and mercy.


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