The Hard Work of Forgiveness

Sermon by:
Rev. Terri Thorn
delivered on:
September 17, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
Matthew 18:21-35

Every day as I drive north on Interstate 65 from Zionsville to Lebanon, I pass a huge billboard that reads: “Real Christians Forgive Like Jesus”.  Most days, just before I get to it, I grip my steering wheel, stare straight ahead and give a little extra pedal to the metal to get past it as quickly as possible.   I do my best to not look at it because everything about that message gets on my nerves.   I mean, really?  Who among us is capable of offering the kind of unmerited, unconditional forgiveness that Jesus offers?  Most of us can barely excuse the person who cuts us off in traffic much less forgive those who have hurt us deeply.   

In fact, I suspect that every single one of us in this room has, at some point in our life, been unable to forgive someone for a wrong we have experienced from them.   Oh, we might eventually get around to letting bygones be bygones, but you all know that I am not wrong about the hard work of forgiveness.  Nearly all of us have that one story that we carry in our heart….the one about the person who betrayed our trust.  The one who made us feel insignificant…or questioned our integrity…or treated us badly.  The one who, to this day, has never apologized for the hurt or harm they caused.  You know…the one who still has the power to get us riled up even just by thinking about them.

It is challenging to forgive those folks…and it’s pretty scary to think that if we don’t…if we don’t forgive them unconditionally like Jesus…then we are not real Christians.  If that’s the case, none of us are real Christians.  So, yeah, I don’t like that billboard…and if I ever get pulled over for speeding past it, that’s exactly what I’m going to tell the police.   

Truth be told, forgiveness is hard work.  Work that we don’t always do well.  If anything, the billboard should read, real Christians TRY to forgive like Jesus.  However, there are some things which most of us just cannot find it in our heart to forgive.  Things like terrorist attacks and mass shootings…things like crimes against children...hate crimes, racism, war...genocide.  I believe there are some things that only God has the power to forgive; we humans just aren’t capable.  It defies our sense of justice.  Not to mention, offering forgiveness is not something that can be commanded.  We cannot tell anyone, including ourselves, to just forgive another person.    Forgiveness is not something that happens in our heads on demand…forgiveness originates from the victim’s heart, tilled and prepared by God’s Spirit at work in it.

Still, we can’t ignore the fact that this parable does challenge Christians, when we have been wronged, to offer a radically different response than what the world teaches…one that looks more like God’s grace and less like revenge.  

Let me just say up front, there are a couple of things we should probably lay out on the table about this parable. First, it is most assuredly a hyperbole…a hyper parable if you will. It is a story that is exaggerated for effect. It is also from Matthew’s telling of the gospel, which means that unlearned lessons or failure to comply often contain a horrifying consequence.  Matthew is fond of scare tactic teaching…and for good reason, I suppose.  Sometimes the shock value works.  The drawback is that it can also detract from the main lesson, and as a result, people miss the point.  They comply out of fear, rather than in response to God’s love.

Let’s not let that happen today.  No fear here. Only love.

Contrary to a literal reading, this is not a story of rules and regulations, or of punishment for disobedience.  This is a story of the abundant, beyond our wildest imagination, unmerited love and mercy God has for his people.  It is a story of our response when we fully embrace God’s forgiveness and what can happen when we do not.  Even more so, it is a reminder that we are all sinners…in need of redemption that we can never attain on our own…sinners who have been set free of our sins by the presence and power of God that is in Christ Jesus, the Son.  It is a story about gratitude…about how to live the redeemed life, the life of Christ, in a world where evil still exists.

So, let’s take a look at the story, starting with Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive a member of the church.  By suggesting seven, which was a holy number that represented wholeness or perfection, his point could have been that we are to offer perfect forgiveness or total forgiveness.  However, Jesus has an even bigger expectation.  Depending on which translation we use, Jesus says that his followers are to forgive seventy or seventy-seven or seventy times seven, all of which represent not only forgiveness beyond perfection, but forgiveness beyond number or count.

Now let me just say…I sure wish I had known this growing up.  Mind you, I was raised in a congregation that leaned toward literal readings of the Bible and always the King James Version.  So for a large part of my childhood, I believed that we were allowed 490 (70x7) incidents of forgiveness.  After that, all bets were off.   Needless to say…in my sassy middle school years, I lived in utter fear that I was narrowing in on the 490 really quickly.

Thankfully, I eventually learned that what Jesus meant here was that forgiveness is not an accounting system…nor is it a score to keep…instead, for his followers, forgiveness is meant to be a way of life!  Forgiveness is the life that we are given through Christ, a life that is free from the burden of sin.  It also describes the life we are called to live in community with each other.

Of course that is easier said than done…in part because we have assigned various meanings to forgiveness that are not valid. For example, to forgive does not mean that we forget the offense ever happened; it means that we do not seek revenge for it.  Justice, yes; revenge no.  Admittedly though, it’s hard to wait on justice when we’ve been harmed.  Forgiveness does not mean that the offender is set free from accountability, only that we don’t let the wrong-doing or the wrong-doer hold us captive to our anger or resentment anymore.  It also does not mean we subject ourselves to the offense again…and again…either in reality or in our minds.  And, contrary to popular opinion, forgiveness is not a sign of weakness; it takes strength to choose a response of love for those who do not deserve it…just ask Jesus. 

Perhaps one reason Jesus tells such an absurd forgiveness story to his disciples is to shock them, and us, into remembering just how great and wide is the mercy of God!   Think about it folks… it would be unheard of for a slave to owe his master any sum of money, but the idea that he owed him ten thousand talents was unfathomable.  One talent was about equal to 15-20 years of daily wages…and this slave owed ten thousand of them?  Ridiculous…an intentionally ridiculous reminder:  do we really understand that the debt of sin is one that we can never repay on our own?  Do we fully appreciate this incredible gift of forgiveness that we have been given?

The merciful response of the king in the story was completely ludicrous as well. I mean, let’s think about this:  if a king was owed that amount of money – 15,000 years’ worth of work…and if a king did try to collect this debt…and if that king were to be so harsh that he was willing to imprison the slave and all of his family for not being able to repay the debt…what on earth would make him offer forgiveness, out of the blue, just because the guy asked for it? 

Really, what ruler, or even what god, would offer that kind of unexpected and unexplained mercy?  How about the same God who heard the cries of his people in bondage, the cries of the oppressed, the cries of the hungry, the poor and the lonely?  The faithful God of steadfast love and unending mercy, that’s which God!   Folks, this is Matthew’s point! The only God and King who would ever love and forgive like the king in this parable is the same God that loves us and forgives and welcomes us. 

Do you hear the good news here?  We have no debt…no wrong…no sin…that is too great for God to forgive.   As the saying goes, there is nothing we can do to make God love us any more, and there is nothing we can do to make God love us any less.  In a completely, inexplicable, beyond our imagination way, God has chosen to forgive…God has chosen to offer mercy and grace…God has chosen to love.

Makes you wonder then...if a slave was to receive a forgiveness of debt so amazing and generous…what on earth would make his heart so hardened that he would threaten to kill another person over a much, much smaller debt – like a week’s worth of work or less? 

Perhaps he doesn’t remember the magnitude of his own original debt?  Perhaps he thinks he has outwitted the master rather than the master has forgiven him?  Or, maybe he hasn’t truly embraced the mercy shown him, and therefore is not able to offer it to another?   

It’s a tough question to answer…but definitely worth asking.  The king says, “Should you not have mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”   Having received forgiveness beyond measure, why do we still sometimes refuse to offer it to others? 

Why is it so hard to forgive, even if it means being handed over for torture?   By the way, I believe this torture-threat comes from Matthew taking some writer’s liberty on the parable…still the point is well-taken.  We may not be literally imprisoned or tortured, but if we carry that grudge around, unwilling to forgive, one thing is for certain…our well-being is compromised.  

Research has found that people who are unwilling to forgive wrongs committed against them tend to have more stress-related disorders, lower immune system function, worse rates of cardiovascular disease, and higher rates of divorce.  Hmmm…perhaps Jesus tells the story not so we will forgive out of fear of being tortured by God, but so that by forgiving others we are free of our self-torture!  It’s as the old saying goes, “to hold the grudge…to not forgive…it’s only hurting you…it’s like drinking rat poison and expecting the other person to die.”

We know it is good for us to release the wrongs and free ourselves from being repeatedly hurt, but…in our human frailty we struggle to do the hard work of accepting forgiveness…believing it is ours…offering it to others.  Still, when we allow the Spirit to work in our hearts…and when we approach life with an attitude of gratitude for the grace we have received from God, the hard work of forgiveness becomes a little bit easier.   Someday, when the peaceable kingdom of God is fully among us, we will do this well…in fact perfectly.  Until then, we are called to do our best to live a life of forgiveness and mercy to the best that we are able.

I believe this is the crux of the parable.  The first slave was very able to forgive the second slave’s minor debt.  Very free and very capable to offer grace and mercy…but instead, he intentionally chose to oppress the second slave.  He wasn’t asked to do something incredible or impossible…he was just asked to provide compassion and kindness to the second slave.  But he did not.  To me, this was his failure…he used his power for evil instead of good.  He neglected to do the right thing, when the right thing was available for him to do.  

Friends, we see this happening in the world around us…those to whom much grace, opportunity, power has been given are unwilling to offer the same to others.   According to Jesus, this is not the kingdom of God way…it is not the life of forgiveness and gratitude.   We, the church, are called, to the extent we are able, to choose the things that offer freedom to others…and to not oppress those who are in need.  It is our grateful response to being forgiven and freed.

Parables like this often leave more questions than they answer.  And I’m sure there are still plenty of forgiveness questions with which we could wrestle, but let there be no question about this:  the mercy offered to the first slave was undeserved and unconditional. It was beyond measure and given freely without expectations of being repaid.  There is no question that God has given us the same.   It is the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ.    As ones who believe the good news, we must answer this question before the Lord: how will we live differently because it is so?

Praise be to the God who triumphs over evil and sin…and to the Son who sets us free, forgiving beyond a seventy-times seven standard…and to the Spirit who calls us to do the same.  Amen.