Forgiveness is a weighty subject. In fact, it has eternal weight.
In my role as pastor, I have told people in their sunset years: Make sure your conscience is clear. Be assured that God’s forgiveness is greater than all the sins you committed over your lifetime.
And, if you are unreconciled to a loved one, because of the wrong he or she has done to you, do everything you can to repair that relationship before that day when you stand before the judgment seat of God.
And then often I have added: whatever sin goes with you into eternity–it is nothing compared to the sin of unforgiveness. I plead with you: do not bring that one into the grave with you.
Forgiving others is the theme of our gospel lesson. Peter, who has been center stage in our last few Sundays, asks Jesus a very practical question. “How many times should I forgive the brother who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Peter is aware of the teaching of the rabbis of his time, according to whom the obligation to forgive ceases after the third time. Perhaps he thinks that he is being generous in his willingness to forgive more than twice that.
Jesus’ subsequent response to Peter will help us to grasp the nature of forgiveness and the demands that it makes on us as his followers.
But it’s important to clarify an important feature here at the outset. Forgiveness is about restoration of relationship. Peter is asking about a brother, or, as in the NRSV paraphrase we just read, a “member of the church.” Restoration presupposes a rupture of an already existing relationship.
If you harm me, I turn away from you, I separate myself from you. And the greater the harm, the greater degree of separation. By deciding to forgive you your offense against me, I indicate my willingness to receive you again into my life. It’s a risk on my part, and it will be hard for me to rebuild trust. But restoration of the relationship is the aim of forgiveness, whether with a family member, a friend, or a member of the church.
But wait. Don’t I have to forgive everyone who has hurt me, if I am to be a good Christian?
There is a common misunderstanding that lurks beneath this question. If an assailant harms me or one of my family members or otherwise violates me by damaging my property, I am under no obligation to forgive him. Restoration of relationship is not in view here, because there was no prior relationship.
Does that mean, then, that I may hold a grudge against him, and plot my revenge? No. In this case, I release him and my hurt to God. “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. For it is written: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19).
In releasing him and the hurt he caused me, I find peace. I no longer bear my enemy ill will, which is a burden too heavy for me to bear. And over time I may even find it in me to pray for him and to do good to him.
In this, I resemble Jesus, who desired God’s forgiveness for his tormentors. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In this, I resemble the heavenly Father himself, who causes the sun to shine on both the good and the bad, on the just and the unjust.
So, our stance toward our enemies is another issue. To be sure, it is related to forgiveness, but it is not Peter’s immediate concern. He is asking about forgiving a brother. He is concerned about the restoration of a relationship.
Jesus answers him: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy seven times.”
Indulging his characteristic penchant for Jewish hyperbole, Jesus is not setting a number here, but rather what is infinite, perpetual and always. Forgive as many times as the person with whom you are in relationship sins against you.
But is it really so easy as all that?
Forgiveness is hard! I once led a group at a small Presbyterian church I attended in Milwaukee. We did a four week study on forgiveness. A woman confided to us that she “forgave” her alcoholic father who had abused her.
Later, however, we learned that she forgave him only after he had died.
Now I don’t mean to suggest that her decision to forgive her father post-mortem is deficient somehow. In fact, while still living, her dad refused to acknowledge that what he had done to her actually harmed her.
So he never really put himself in a position to receive her forgiveness. It never presented itself as an option. But because forgiveness aims at the restoration of a broken relationship, there is a sense in which her act is incomplete, notwithstanding the peace of mind it gave to her.
Consider forgiveness as a circuit. The intended recipient of your forgiveness must acknowledge the harm he caused you. This shows his willingness to meet you halfway. He wants to move, from his side, towards the repair of the broken relationship, and thereby close the circuit. As in the case of the woman’s father, sometimes this just doesn’t happen.
This is one of the reasons forgiveness is so hard! For the woman’s dad, admission of wrong would have meant self-humiliation, a threat to his ego, his pride. To have to stand totally transparent before her, defenses down—this proved intolerable to him.
So, to avoid this scenario, he went into denial, rationalized or otherwise played down his behavior, or blamed others. But when he did this, he effectively removed himself from a position in which he could have received her forgiveness.
But forgiveness is no less hard for the victim—in this case, the woman. In her resolution to forgive her dad, she had to return to the origin of the hurt. Psychologists today talk in this regard about the dangers of re-traumatizing a person.
No doubt it was hard for her to reopen the painful memories and in a very real sense relive that hurt. But this is only the first step. She also had to open herself up to the possibility that her father would deny his wrongdoing and thereby hurt her a second time.
And there is yet another sense in which our readiness to forgive the other makes us vulnerable. To move to restore a relationship with someone who has hurt us in the past is no guarantee that he will not hurt us again in the future.
And we will have to be wise here. For our own welfare, we may need to impose strict boundaries on the times and circumstances under which we agree to meet with this person after forgiven has been given and received.
In any event, to forgive him is thus to grant him a power that he otherwise wouldn’t have if we remain closed to him, shutting him out. It’s far easier for us to hide behind the walls of fear, anger and self-righteousness than to forgive.
Jesus knows how hard forgiveness is. That’s why he does not answer Peter’s question by giving him some unhelpful platitude like: “forgive and forget” or “forgiving is for you, not for the one you forgive.” Instead, he answers it indirectly. He tells Peter a parable, by which he intends to teach him about God’s forgiveness.
Jesus says that God’s forgiveness is like the cancelling of an impossible debt that we could never pay back.
A man is brought to the king who called him, together with his fellow servants, to settle accounts with them. The king ordered him to pay a sum, which never in a thousand lifetimes could he ever repay.
The figure is ten thousand talents, which, when converted into our currency, totals tens of billions of dollars. Since he is unable to pay, the only just thing for the king to do is to sell him, his wife, and his children into slavery, as well as all his possessions, to repay the debt.
But the king does not choose to deal with him on the basis of punitive justice. Instead he takes pity on the helpless man and cancels all his debt. The man can go free.
Is forgiving someone hard? Of course it is, as we have already made clear.
But in the parable, Jesus shifts our attention from how hard it is for us to forgive to the forgiveness that God extends freely to us.
In this light, we come to learn and experience forgiveness as this incredibly benevolent force that radiates out from God. It is not above all or primarily a human act, an act that originates in us. But it lays hold of us in such a way as to change us and thereby also to make us active in it too.
In this light, the task of forgiving another is neither to be seen above all or primarily as a moral demand, hard or even impossible for us to fulfill.
The point that Jesus is indirectly making to Peter rather is that the impulse to forgive his brother will flow from him as he receives forgiveness from God. To abide in the forgiving love of God—it’s to this that Jesus is directing Peter.
In telling Peter this parable about God’s forgiveness, Jesus not only shifts our attention to the God who forgives but also and at the same time to us as those who receive it.
To hear and accept for ourselves the message of the free and undeserved gift of forgiveness from God is to come to know the truth about who we are.
In the presence of God and his gift of forgiveness, we come to see with more and more clarity that we are weak, morally flawed and prone to sin against God and neighbor. Even the best of us is not perfect!
But that one who hurt you is also weak, morally flawed, and sinful. That does not excuse him for what he did to you. But when you see him for who he really is—you begin to understand how he could do such a thing.
And this knowledge helps you look at him as one who needs God’s mercy, compassion, and forgiveness, just as you do. And when you look at him like this, you will arrive at a place where you can forgive him from the heart.
Now we’re not saying here that we have now succeeded in making what is hard easy. To forgive that person who hurt you so deeply is still hard. The hurt remains.
But at this point we have to raise the question as we turn again to the parable: what alternative do we have?
After his release from the debt he owed to the king, the servant goes out and seizes this fellow servant who is in the same position he once was.
Apparently forgetting what had been done for him, he refuses to take pity on his fellow servant and has him thrown into debtor’s prison for his insolvency.
The other servants quickly got wind of what the unmerciful servant had done and they go to the king to report it. The king confronts him with his deed and asks: “should you not have been merciful with your fellow servant, just as I was with you?”
And at this he withdraws his mercy from him and demands justice, just as the servant had done with this fellow servant. The king gives him over to be tortured until he repay all his debt.
Now, in light of what we have said, what has happened here? The unmerciful servant does not abide in the forgiving love of God. He knows nothing of it. In the parable, forgiveness has been granted him. But he has received it in vain.
That is the meaning of his fate at the end of the parable. He is handed over to the torturer. But that is the fate he chose for himself by receiving the forgiveness of the king in vain.
To receive forgiveness from God in vain makes him your judge. Jesus’ point is that if you have withheld forgiveness from another, then you have in fact made the fatal choice to reject God as Father in favor of God as judge.
We shudder at the conclusion Jesus draws from this parable as he applies it. To go into eternity with your sins unforgiven because you withheld your forgiveness from another is a dreadful thing.
That is why I shared at the beginning what I have told people in my role as pastor: whatever any other sin you bring into eternity with you, make sure you do not bring the sin of unforgiveness with you.
But even after all you have heard today, you may still be asking: Yes, but how can I forgive?
Do not focus on the act of forgiving, on what you know you need to do. Instead, focus on God. Bring it to God. Abide in the forgiving love of God, and let that love change you.
You will find that in virtue of what Christ has done for us in his life, his crucifixion, and resurrection, God does not hold our sins against us. In the language of the parable, God cancels our debt, setting us free to live a new life that he has given us through the Holy Spirit. This new life is lived abiding in the forgiving love of God.
Abiding in the forgiving love of God, we are empowered to forgive those who have hurt us. Let us not follow the example of the unmerciful servant and withhold our forgiveness. If we abide in the forgiving love of God, it will not be an option. Amen.