Then Peter came and said to [Jesus], “Lord, if my brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him, and, as he could not pay, the lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, O Christ.
Now let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our strength and Redeemer
“Forgiveness…something that everyone needs… eager to receive…but very hard to give”
For example: When I was internship there was an older gentleman who was in worship every week, but came never came up to take Holy Communion. Each time the invitation to the table was offered he sat silently in the pew. Others would excuse themselves as they passed in front of him, but he never moved. When I visited him at his home one time, I asked him ‘why’. “I can’t do it,” he answered. “I can’t come up. You see, in the war I killed a man. I don’t think God could ever forgive me for that.”
At my first call I was sitting in my office when her tears welled up in her eyes. “I hate him. I can’t believe I’m saying it, but I hate what my husband has done. He has destroyed our family. You may have noticed, Pastor, that I get up halfway through the service and leave. I feel like such a hypocrite, harboring these feelings while trying to worship God. I just can’t do it anymore.”
Both of these people have been Christians all their lives. Yet unresolved issues involving forgiveness were jeopardizing their relationship with the church. They were allowing their inability to forgive—or be forgiven—to cut them off from fellowship in the body of Christ, the very community that should be helping them work through and resolve these difficult issues.
Why is forgiveness so difficult? Is there a harder command than to forgive? Later in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus reminds us that there are greater commandments, of course.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These two commandments are the greatest in the sense that they summarize all of the others. Even though these two place a great demand on us, they have a tendency to become abstract. It’s sometimes hard to perceive what it means to love the Lord in the grind of everyday life.
On the other hand, the command to forgive our brothers and sisters from the heart needs no explanation. We show right away the grudges and the hurts that we hold against those who have wronged us. Whether it’s our tone or our body language, unforgiveness is hard to hide. This command is especially hard because it’s directed toward those nearest to us. It is directed at the people that we work with everyday, the people in our homes. People who annoy us, wrong us, and generally drive us crazy.
In our first lesson we see Joseph’s brothers, and their families, coming before Joseph in need. If anyone had some reasons for not feeling forgiving towards their family Joseph would be at the top of the list for how his brothers treated him. The brothers are scared, rightly so, but Joseph doesn’t react like they feared. Joseph sees how God has made something good out of the bad things Joseph’s brothers did, and put Joseph in a place where he could save his family when they were in need. I don’t know if I’d responded the way Joseph did, but Joseph is the better example for us tonight/today.
Matthew 18 asks: “How do we keep our communities, in the church and the world, together when we are not able to forgive? How should the Christian community deal with sin that lurks so closely at the door? What is expected of us as we learn how to be Christians?”
Peter comes to Jesus with this kind of question. Imagine how he must have felt. He knows what people are like, how easy it is to hold a grudge, to become bitter, so how many times should he offer forgiveness once, twice, maybe up to three times as Jewish tradition permits. Wanting to be generous, Peter proudly steps forward to answer his own question. “As many as seven times?” he asks. He was willing to go the extra mile—and then some.
But Jesus has something different in mind. Whether you read his answer to Peter as “77 times” or “70 times seven,” the point is the same. Jesus answers Peter by telling him not to assume that you can count how many times you offer forgiveness and then be done with it. Forgiveness must become a practice—a commitment—that is to be sustained and renewed each day throughout our lives. It is not a single action, feeling or thought. Forgiveness must become an embodied way of life in an ever-deepening friendship with God and with others. Peter asks how generous he should be, yet he is still asking about limits. He’s thinking quantitatively while Jesus answers qualitatively—with the offer of limitless forgiveness.
Because we have been abundantly forgiven by God, we are able to forgive others in turn. There is a direct connection between forgiving others and being forgiven. Like we pray each week in the Lord’s Prayer “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
The parable of the unforgiving servant focuses on those who are willing to receive God’s forgiveness but are unwilling to offer it to others. The servant has been forgiven a huge debt and yet is unwilling to forgive even a small debt owed to him. Such unwillingness shows, though, that he really is not able to receive God’s forgiveness. For truly to receive forgiveness is to recognize how extravagant God’s gracious forgiving love is and, in response, to offer it to others.
Yet if we are honest, there are times when we find ourselves behaving like that unforgiving servant. We are pleased with the idea of a forgiving God, but not if it would require us to change our lives. Forgiveness becomes something we claim but fail to proclaim in our living.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a master at forgiveness, explains the process beautifully: To forgive is not just to be altruistic; in my view it is the best form of self-interest. The process of forgiving does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. When I talk about forgiveness I mean the ability to let go of the right to revenge and to slip the chains of rage that bind you to the person who harmed you. When you forgive you are free of the hatred and anger that locks you in a state of victimhood. If you can find it in yourself to forgive, you can move on, and you may even help the perpetrator to become a better person.
Christian communities are sustained by people who know what it means to discover the miracle of God’s forgiveness, and who are then committed to a way of life as forgiven and forgiving people. Then we will experience what it means to be forgiven—and forgiving. So that when the invitation is offered, all of us will come to the table joyfully.
It is in salvation that forgiveness lives. It lives in the forgiveness that God extends to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s in the forgiveness that we then extend to our brothers and sisters in Christ. To forgive each other and live in peace.
The key thing is not that one should swallow all resentment and ‘forgive and forget’ as nothing happened. The key thing is that we should never, ever give up making forgiveness and reconciliation our goal. If confrontation has to happen, as it often does, it must always be with forgiveness in mind, not revenge.
We are told to forgive from our hearts, but I think of forgiveness is more like the air in our lungs. There’s only so much room for you to inhale the lung full when you’ve just breathed out the previous one. If you insist on withholding it, refusing to give someone else the kiss of life they may desperately need, you won’t be able to take any more in yourself, and you will suffocate very quickly. Whatever your spiritual, moral and emotional equivalent of the lungs is, it is either open or closed. If it’s open, able and willing 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.
Peter’s question about forgiveness is answered by Jesus simply this way: If you’re still counting how many times you’ve forgiven someone, you’re not really forgiving them, but simply postponing revenge. Don’t even think about counting; just do it!
C.S Lewis , in Mere Christianity sums it up well when he said: “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.” I pray that we see forgiveness as more than a lovely idea, and that it becomes a part of our very souls so we can give others forgiveness and receive it as well.