Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Gift of Forgiveness

Matthew 18:21-35

I don’t know Michigan’s penal code yet, but out in California they have a three-strikes and you’re out policy. It doesn’t matter what your third offense might be, if you’re convicted you go straight to jail for life. This tough on crime position reflects a zero tolerance attitude that seems prevalent in our age. As we look around, we see little evidence of grace or forgiveness – even among Christians.

With this background, what do you make of Peter’s question? How many times must I forgive a person who offends me? Is seven enough? That seemed awfully generous to Peter, because it went well beyond established precedent. Like the California penal code, the Rabbis said that three was the limit. And three is more than many of us would allow to those who offend us.

When Peter asked this question of Jesus, he assumed his extension of the number of times to seven would impress Jesus. But it didn’t! No, Jesus said, seven isn’t nearly enough. In fact, you should forgive your offender seventy times seven. Now, I’m not a mathematician, but that’s a very big number. Indeed, that’s 490 times. So, if you have to forgive someone 490 times, how do you keep track of the offenses? But of course, that's the point, you can't keep track. Forgiveness isn't a matter of accounting, it’s a principle of life.

I. THE PROBLEM OF FORGIVENESS

I know what your thinking. It’s easy to say: “I forgive you.” But it’s not so easy to actually forgive someone. In fact, all too often we say the words, but don’t really mean them. It’s like when we were kids. We’d get in a fight or an argument with a sibling or playmate, and our parents would tell us: “now Johnny said he’s sorry, so you forgive him.” And you’d say: “Johnny, I forgive you” – only you would have your fingers crossed.

It’s hard to let go of grudges, especially when someone really hurts you. You might say to someone or even to yourself – “I forgive her,” but deep inside, you haven’t yet let go of the hurt or the anger. That’s because wounds have a way of healing slowly, and they tend to leave scars. And so, even when we are serious about forgiving someone, we often carry with us those slights or words said in anger for years. And sometimes there was good reason for the anger.

How do you forgive that parent who verbally or physically abused you? How do you forgive the friend who betrayed you? How do you forgive the person who undermines you at work or spreads gossip about you? How do you forgive the person who kills your child? Where’s the fairness and the justice in it? And yet, Jesus says, forgive the one who offends you 490 times.

As we consider this seemingly impossible task, Fred Craddock offers us a bit of wisdom. He writes: "There can be no forgiveness without standards and values being violated, without persons and relationships being hurt, without a loss so deeply felt that efforts at restoration are pursued." So, maybe the first step toward reconciliation is to admit that we have been hurt.

II. THE COMPANY OF THE FORGIVEN

Jesus’ answer didn’t sit well with Peter. It didn’t make any sense – especially after he got out his calculator and saw the vastness of this number. Surely Jesus must be mistaken, because this is way too generous.

While Peter fumbled with his calculator, Jesus told a story: A king decided to have the books audited and discovered that the bookkeeper was embezzling money. In fact, when the auditors were finished, they determined that it would take him 150,000 years to pay back the debt. I guess his motto was: “If you’re going to steal, why not do it big time!”

Of course, the king was irate and told the book keeper to pay it back now or he and his family would be spending the rest of their lives at the salt mines. To no one’s surprise, the bookkeeper got on his knees and begged for forgiveness from the king: “Please give me a chance to pay back the debt,” he cried. And to everyone’s surprise the king relented, and not only give him more time, but forgave the entire debt. It was as if the Year of Jubilee had come. He had stolen a huge amount of money and now the slate was wiped clean. Now that’s mercy!

You’d think that someone who had been freed from such an enormous debt would want to show the same graciousness to others. But, no sooner did he walk out of the king’s office than he ran into a co-worker who owed him money. He could let this guy off easy, after all, it was a small debt – maybe three months pay. Here was the test: Would the one who had been forgiven much offer the same generosity to the one who owed him but a little? The answer is: No, he demanded full payment immediately. And when this debtor asked for more time, the forgiven bookkeeper had him carted off to prison until he could pay. Can you believe that? Right after the king wrote off a trillion-dollar debt, he had the gall to demand payment of a few measly dollars. As the story continues, the king didn’t like what he heard, and the forgiveness was rescinded.

I don’t want to dwell on the punishment. Instead, I want us to remember that we have been forgiven much and so we are called to treat our neighbor accordingly. Having been forgiven much, the question is: Has my life been transformed by the grace and love of God?

III. THE CHALLENGE OF FORGIVENESS.

In just a few days we will mark the seventh anniversary of the attacks of 9-11. The wounds from that day’s events are still healing. There is still great sadness and anger. We ask ourselves: How do you forgive something like this? And yet, Jesus says to us: forgive without keeping an account. Yes, even if it takes a lifetime, keep on forgiving. It’s not easy, but it’s our calling.

There are wounds that continue to eat at me. I may say: I’ve forgiven that person, but all too often the anger and the pain seep back into my spirit. And when that happens, I must forgive my offender all over again. Of course, I have wounded others, who must continue to forgive me.

While it’s not easy to forgive, we must heed the words of Bishop Desmond Tutu: "Ultimately there is no hope without forgiveness." Bishop Tutu knows what he’s talking about. After the end of apartheid in South Africa, he led the commission that worked to bring reconciliation between that country’s white and black communities. It wasn’t easy, and the task is not yet complete.

As difficult as it is to forgive, it’s even more difficult to forget. I don’t know that we can ever truly forget, but with the grace of God we can let go and stop counting the offenses. Because we have been forgiven much already, we can offer forgiveness in return.

1. Fred Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year, C, (TPI, 1993), 441.

2. From the Ashes, (Rodale Press, 2001), 13.


Preached by:

The Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 7, 2008

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