September 14, 2014

Matthew 18:21-35

“As We Forgive”

Way back in Matthew chapter six, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray. He encourages them to pray honestly and sincerely, telling them not to be concerned with using many words, and not to pray just to be seen praying by others.

And then Jesus teaches them the prayer we still use every Sunday in our worship. He says, “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.”

And Jesus goes on to explain, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

How often we pray the Lord’s Prayer and ask for God’s forgiveness of our sins! How often those words slip easily across our lips, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”! But how very rarely do we pause to consider the implications of that prayer!

We know and trust that God’s forgiveness of our sins goes well beyond our deserving, but we may not often think about what we promise in that prayer, that we also will forgive. We won’t just forgive good-intentioned people who meant us no harm and made a mistake, but like Jesus we will forgive people who meant to hurt us, and succeeded, and who have not made up for it or earned our forgiveness.

Peter had been listening and learning from Jesus for quite a while by the time we get to his question in today’s passage from Matthew. He knew that God was merciful and forgiving, and he’d watched Jesus enact that mercy in the way he welcomed and included obviously sinful people. Peter also knew that he himself was sinful, and Jesus had called him and made him into a leader in the community that he was forming around himself.

But after receiving Jesus’ instructions for how to deal with a brother or sister in the community of followers who sins against you, Peter wants to know how many times we should forgive. His proposal to forgive seven times sounds extravagantly generous, especially since there is no mention of repentance by the offending party. But Jesus’ response is far beyond Peter’s proposal, and not only in greatly extending the quantity. The Greek number Jesus suggests can be understood as “seventy seven times” or even “seventy times seven times – that’s 490 times.”

But the difference between Peter’s proposal and Jesus’ pronouncement is not a matter of math or linguistics, but of the nature of forgiveness. Whoever counts has not forgiven at all, but is only biding time. The kind of forgiveness called for is beyond all calculation, as the story Jesus tells makes very clear.

Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a merciful and forgiving king. It’s not that the king forgives a small debt owed to him by one of his slaves, but he has compassion on a slave who cannot possibly pay the massive debt of ten thousand talents. A talent was a large sum of money, about the amount a labourer would earn in fifteen years of work, so ten thousand talents is an absolutely huge amount that a slave has no chance of returning.

When the slave begs for patience and promises to repay the debt, the king has pity on him and forgives the debt instead, releasing him from prison and sending him on his way. That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like.

But the slave immediately goes out and demands immediate payment from a fellow slave who owes him a much smaller amount. When the other slave begs for patience, the forgiven slave refuses and throws him into prison until he can pay the debt.

The forgiven slave has a choice – to live in the kingdom of heaven, rejoicing in the mercy he has received, and passing along that mercy to others – or to live in another kind of kingdom in which everyone must pay their debts and be punished for what they owe. He can’t choose mercy for himself while exacting punishment on his fellow slave.

Jesus teaches us to pray: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” You see, living in the kingdom of heaven that Jesus inaugurates on earth includes both experiencing the forgiving love of God that does not count our sins against us, and doing our utmost to extend that mercy to others.

In a pastoral commentary on this text, Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn notes that, “Jesus speaks to the necessity of forgiveness because he knows the effects unforgiveness has on individuals and communities. There are so many situations within our society, in the world, in our churches, in our families, and in our workplaces that, when not dealt with, can sow the seeds of bitterness and fester into deep, painful wounds.

“Often we don’t really want to forgive someone or ask for their forgiveness, even though we know we ‘should.’ One reason may be a desire for revenge. We may simply want to get back at someone for what was done to us. We may want to return the hurt by inverting the Golden Rule, ‘Do unto others as they have done unto you.’

“We may resist forgiving another because we think that the person who hurt us ought to do or say something to mend the hurt, or repay us for what we have experienced. We want to put conditions on forgiveness. We may resist forgiving another because of our own pride or lack of real sense of how much God has forgiven us. The servant in the parable who is forgiven a huge debt but is unwilling to forgive a small one has no sense in his heart or mind of the generosity and graciousness shown to him.

“Forgiveness means to release, to let go of the other. Forgiveness is not denying our hurt. When we minimize what has happened to us, gloss over it, tell ourselves that it was not really that bad, we cannot really forgive…

“Forgiveness is also not a matter of putting other persons on probation, waiting for them to do something wrong so we can take it back. Forgiveness is not an excuse for unjust behaviour, and to forgive is not necessarily to forget… Some events and situations we should not forget:

the Holocaust, slavery, ethnic cleansing, exploitation of children and women, mistreatment of Native peoples, the infidelity of a spouse, a lie told that turned your life upside down, abuse, or betrayal.”

A Presbyterian minister, Marjorie Thompson, describes forgiveness in this way: “To forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair such punishment may seem… Forgiveness involves excusing persons from the punitive consequences they deserve because of their behaviour. The behaviour remains condemned, but the offender is released from its effects as far as the forgiver is concerned.”

During the season of Lent last year, we did a Bible study called, “Learning Forgiveness.” About fifteen people were drawn to the practical, though difficult topic, of learning to forgive as God has forgiven us. We studied various scripture passages, and reflected on our own experiences of being forgiven and learning to forgive others. And although it became very clear that forgiving is not easy, many of our experiences demonstrated that when we do choose to forgive, we not only release the offender from punishment, but we very often release ourselves from the pain and anguish of holding on to our anger and hurt.

Perhaps you have heard the often-told story of one prisoner of war who asked another, “Have you forgiven your captors yet?”
“I will never do that,” the second one answered.
“Then they still have you in prison, don’t they?” the first one replied.

Rabbi Harold Kushner tells another story: “A woman in my congregation comes to see me. She is a single mother, divorced, working to support herself and three young children. She says to me, ‘Since my husband walked out on us, every month is a struggle to pay our bills. I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies, while he’s living it up with his new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him?’

“I answer her, ‘I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically, but you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you’re hurting yourself.’”

A final story comes from church council records in sixteenth-century Switzerland. Asked to repeat the Lord’s Prayer, a man pretended he did not know it, because he knew that if he said it he would have to forgive the merchant who cheated him – and that was something he had no intention of doing!

This morning we are reminded of God’s amazing capacity to forgive us our sins. God does not count, tally, and exact punishment, but God wants to set us free so that we can live in love and forgive others from our hearts. If we choose to live in the kingdom of heaven on earth that Jesus inaugurated, we will rejoice in God’s mercy and choose to show mercy and compassion for others.

May God help us, day by day, to learn forgiveness and to live the prayer we recite week by week: O Lord, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Amen.