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The Forgiveness Word

Matthew 18:21-35 (CEB)

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?”

Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle accounts, they brought to him a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold. Because the servant didn’t have enough to pay it back, the master ordered that he should be sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, and that the proceeds should be used as payment. But the servant fell down, kneeled before him, and said, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ The master had compassion on that servant, released him, and forgave the loan.

“When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred coins. He grabbed him around the throat and said, ‘Pay me back what you owe me.’

“Then his fellow servant fell down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he threw him into prison until he paid back his debt.

“When his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply offended. They came and told their master all that happened. His master called the first servant and said, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ His master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners, until he had paid the whole debt.

“My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

A word of God for the people of God…Thanks be to God.

September 16-17, 2017
Matthew 18:21-35
“The Forgiveness Word“

During the month of September, we are focusing on the theme of words…what our words mean, how we use our words in communicating and the power of our words. In the first week of September, we thought together about the word ‘Love.’ Today, we continue where we left off last week in the 18th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. Last week’s story was about Jesus guiding us in how we speak words to one another, especially when we need to have hard or difficult conversations.

Today’s story is about the word ‘forgiveness’ and the guidance of Jesus does not get any easier. In this story, the disciple Peter comes to Jesus seeking clarity on a complex question, “How many times should I forgive…” Jesus’ answer and his instruction on forgiveness can be challenging. See what you think as you listen to a word of God from the 18th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.

(Read Matthew 18:21-35)

In our Gospel story, Peter is struggling with this word forgiveness and asks Jesus how often he should forgive, suggesting as many as seven times, knowing that in Hebrew the number seven means complete and perfect. Yet, Jesus replies, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as, 77 times.” Other Biblical translations have interpreted Jesus’ response as 70 times 7 or 77 times 7, which if you do the math is either 490 or 539.

In other words, even though the exact number is not clear, Jesus is suggesting that Peter forget about trying to count or calculate because forgiveness cannot be tallied. Forgiveness is not about math…it’s about the very nature of who we are as followers of Jesus. Forgiveness is the foundation of our relationship with God and neighbor.

Then, as was his custom, Jesus continues to answer Peter’s question with a parable; a story about a king who forgives a servant who owes him “10,000 bags of gold,” which would have taken the servant more than several lifetimes to repay. Yet, the king showed the servant mercy and forgave the debt. Then a funny thing happened on the way out of the palace and into the street…By the time the servant encounters his fellow servant who owes him a small debt, he has lost sight of the king’s generosity and refuses to forgive.

We all know that forgiveness is not easy. If it were easy, more of us would do it with greater frequency. To truly forgive from the heart requires us to be faithful in prayer and vigilant in turning our anger, our frustration and our grief over to God…we can’t do it on our own…we don’t have the power within us to forgive on our own. That certainly was the wisdom of Jesus when he taught us to pray for our enemies and to forgive those who trespass against us.

Jesus turned forgiveness into a decision. Yet, sometimes I don’t feel like forgiving, but I must make the decision to forgive or else the frustration and anger will destroy me…ME…not the other person or persons, but ME.

When our frustration and anger goes on and on without anything changing, then it is not just frustration or anger anymore; it festers into bitterness and resentment, which can have a way of undoing us.

How many times have we said we forgive someone, but still hold and nurse past grudges and hurts? Or how many times have we said we forgive and then something happens that opens the wounds all over again and in anger we grab back our forgiveness.

In a Peanuts comic strip Lucy approaches Charlie Brown, who is standing on the pitcher’s mound. She tosses him the ball and in what is a rare moment for Lucy, she apologizes for having missed an easy pop fly. She thought she had it, she says, but then she remembered all the other easy pop flies she has missed in the past. She walks back to right field, concluding that “The past got in my eyes.”

Like Lucy the memories of the past are often fixed in our minds, blocking our vision or blinding us from moving forward in forgiveness.

So often our reluctance to forgive ties us to the past or may be associated with dates on the calendar. Some dates hold memories for individuals or specific groups of people, while others are associated with extraordinary events that jolt the memories of nearly all people old enough to remember the day.

Some remember December 7, 1941 – The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the start of WWII.

November 22, 1963 – The day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

April 20, 1999 – The day two students carried out a massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO.

October 6, 2008 – The day Wall Street began its crash, sending the U.S. economy tumbling.

August 5, 2012 – When a White Supremacist gunned down six people at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, WI.

June 18, 2015 – The evening a white gunman opened fire inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, SC, killing nine people.

And a date on the calendar just last week. Many can hardly say the date, September 11th without remembering where they were on September 11th 2001 when terrorist crashed planes into the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, killing thousands.

There are many more dates and tragic events we will never forget. But somehow we must step into the process of forgiveness or the past will keep getting in our eyes.

Last week, I preached on the verses just before our passage today in the 18th chapter of Matthew’s gospel and spoke about Jesus teaching us that reconciliation is a process that happens within community. What creates and sustains community and makes reconciliation possible, is forgiveness. The failure to forgive, disrupts and erodes the balance and integrity of community.

Our story in Scripture grounds forgiveness in the nature of God. Forgiveness is who God is, not something God does. The parable is also intended to be exaggerated and intended to underscore the fact that the community is made up of the forgiven and the forgiving. These words about forgiveness are difficult to hear because it’s just not the way of the world. It was not the way of the world in Jesus’ day either. But, Jesus is talking about people of faith forming a better world and a better future.

Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of the Episcopal Church in South Africa during the atrocities of Apartheid in the 1980’s has written a book titled, “No Future Without Forgiveness.”
He writes, “Without forgiveness there can be no future for a relationship between individuals or within and between nations.”

So, the question becomes a matter of ‘how?’ How do we extend and receive forgiveness? How do we forgive those who have wronged us in our own lives? How do we forgive those who have done such unspeakable violence toward innocent people? How do we forgive the many wrongs which are unforgiveable?

Like anything else that is hard to do, forgiveness takes practice. Practicing forgiveness in small things or everyday things is going to prepare us for forgiving the bigger, more painful, catastrophic things in life.

It has been said that where two or three people are gathered together there will be conflict. Whether in the family, the church, the workplace, the community, the nation, or the world, hurting one another is part of the human condition.

Patrick Brennan is a Roman Catholic priest and author, who has written a book, entitled “The Way of Forgiveness.” In that book he explores moving toward a life-long process of forgiveness and reconciliation by asking ourselves each day who or what has hurt me, and who might I have hurt? When we are able to ask and answer those questions honestly for ourselves, we can begin taking small steps toward forgiveness and reconciliation.

But we all know how painfully difficult even small steps can be sometimes depending on what has happened to us or what has been our experience. Someone facing a tragedy in their family caused by another person said to me recently, “Forgiveness is really hard when it is staring you in the face.” How true that is. And that is why we cannot do it on our own…it is too hard. But we keep taking those small steps forward because forgiveness and reconciliation are hallmarks of the kingdom of God.

And even though Jesus makes forgiveness sound so simple, I think he knew it is not. Sometimes when it is hard to know what to do with the words of Jesus, I think it is enough to simply allow Jesus’ words to make us think and perhaps be a conversation starter with our families and others about the purpose and process of forgiveness in our lives and in our world.

There is no magic formula or ‘How-To’ steps to determine what this word ‘forgiveness’ should or could look like or feel like. I do invite us to take these words and this parable about forgiveness that Jesus offers and see what it can identify or stir up within us. Can we allow this story from Jesus to help us identify the unresolved hurts in our own lives; both those we have received and those we have inflicted. Ask yourself, how does it hurt? Why does it hurt? Why does it hurt so much? Why is the hurt causing me so much anger, rage or judgment? Can we allow this story to help us find within ourselves the strength and courage to say to another person, either in direct conversation or writing…I forgive you? Can we allow this story to help us rehearse God as our center and to remember?

We throw around the phrase forgive and forget a lot; but when we forgive and remember, we remember how much God has forgiven us.

At times, we need to give ourselves and others permission to sit in the discomfort and complexity of what Jesus is saying. Jesus is not trying to make forgiveness sound or seem easy, but he is exposing a deeper human truth of how easily we hold on to our resentment and bitterness, and our desire for revenge.

When we can take this word ‘forgiveness’ seriously as part of how we live as people of faith, we show the face of God in an uncertain, fearful and unforgiving world that is often blinded by the pain of the present and the past.

May the very spirit of the living God strengthen and guide us to take forgiveness all the way to the cross where we hear Jesus say, “God, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Thanks be to God.