Forgiveness Not A Doormat


Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Matthew 18: 21 – 35.  Focus on the difference between forgiving and being a doormat.

It’s been a few years now, but I will never forget going to court with a friend who was awaiting sentencing on assault charges. We were sitting in Judge Sullivan’s courtroom in Hackensack. I remember thinking this guy who had been a former Episcopal priest before becoming a Superior court judge was handing out sentences the way King Solomon did – with wisdom.

If you remember King Solomon told the two women who came before him, both claiming to be the baby’s mother, that the only way to offer resolution on the issue of maternity would be to cut the baby in two. And once the birth mother heard this she immediately gave up her rights to her son so he could live. Upon seeing this Solomon awarded the child to the woman who spared the boy’s life.

Well I can tell you King Solomon had nothing over Judge Sullivan. He behaved just like the king in today’s parable, and for five hours I watched as he dispensed just the right measure of justice and mercy in every case that came before him.

Unless you’ve sat in a criminal court for any length of time its hard to appreciate just how sweet mercy is when given or how stark justice is when received. I will never forget the emotion in the courtroom when Judge Sullivan sentenced this 18-year-old boy to a four-year state prison term for failing to break his heroin addiction.

To see the reaction of this kid as the police officers came up behind him and put handcuffs on him and to hear his mother and sister crying in the courtroom was like having the fear of the Lord put in you.

Even the prosecutors and probation officers were silenced by this sentence. No one expected it. This judge had just given a kid who had never been in prison a day in his life, a kid who had never hurt anybody, except himself, a four-year state prison sentence.

But the judge also did something else, he made sure that this kid, his lawyer and his family understood that he would release this young man from prison the moment he was admitted into a twelve to eighteen month drug rehab program.

And in offering this mercy, or forgiveness if you will, he said, “You’re a young man and you still have a chance to build a life for yourself, so this isn’t about the law it’s about saving your life and the only way I can do that is to put you in a place where you will be forced to kick your habit.”

In short, this judge was telling this kid and all of those who were supposed to be there helping him to get their acts together and get this kid into treatment, something, it should be pointed out – they could have done before appearing in court.

What I’ve come to believe is that a lot of conflict and suffering among people could be wiped out if each one of us would do one truly simple thing: honestly, and deeply accept responsibility for our humanness. Think about all of the times we’ve gotten into meaningless arguments or trouble just because we could not stand to look at the painful truth about ourselves.

There really is no earth shattering news here if you think about it. It’s called the human condition. It’s called the doctrine of sin. And every one of us is affected by it. Most of us live in the world of me and mine. Most of us have to make a special effort to work at being thoughtful of others, at being good listeners, at being really honest and spiritually disciplined with our own behavior.

So when Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive his neighbor who has wronged him, he’s asking a legal question, which is something most of us tend to do. Tell me what I have to do. But as is the case with most legal questions brought to Jesus, he deals with it by telling Peter in a witty way – “Not seven times, but seven times seventy.” Forgive your neighbor until you don’t have to.

But what if you are in an abusive relationship? Are you supposed to forgive the person beating you seven times seventy? No! This is not what Jesus is talking about. He’s not telling us to be doormats when someone is abusing us.

Like last week’s sermon on confronting a disruptive person in the community. Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness can also be abused. Forgiveness does not mean embracing violence done to us.

In our context, forgiveness is a gift of grace, a reflection of God’s love, not the curse of further violence and abuse. So hear the call to forgive seven times seventy is a counter-balance to the way we are instructed to confront one another as discussed last week.

Confrontation without forgiveness does not offer good news, and neither does offering forgiveness that pretends confrontation is unnecessary. Both justice and mercy are needed.

This is a case of forgiving the sinner, but not the sin. I forgive you, but I do not forgive the violence. For the relationship to continue, the violence must stop. And even if the relationship does not continue, my heart will be in a state of forgiveness, not fear, anger or resentment.

So Jesus tells the parable of the unforgiving servant and the forgiving master to illustrate what he means. When one person breaks the trust of an intimate relationship they create a debt: they now owe the other person some kind of payment to make amends, to show remorse or to compensate for the damage done to the relationship.

But then as now, that is not always possible. Sometimes the debt is beyond anything that can be paid back. Then as now, the only solution, the only means to restore the relationship was through mercy for the debt to be forgiven.

But notice it’s not the behavior that is forgiven. It is not even the person who is forgiven per se; it is the debt owed that is forgiven. Forgiveness is not a get out of jail free card. Forgiveness makes judgments. Forgiveness actually stands for right behavior and right relationships.

And since this is the case, forgiveness therefore does not stand for everything. But it’s not something that can be legally quantified as in the case of our parable or in the case of Judge Sullivan. What Jesus is calling us to do is to give up calculating who owes whom what and instead develop a heart of forgiveness, which is a shift in attitude not a shift that says, anything goes.

When our underlying belief is that we are to be perfect, even if it is a subconscious thought, then any little threat to that perfection becomes a matter of perceived life and death. But when you accept that you are sinner and far from perfect then the stakes are lowered and forgiveness becomes possible.

We know this to be true in our minds, but we still live too much as if we are supposed to be perfect, and as if the world will end if anybody finds out that we are not. What a waste of time and energy. Wouldn’t life be much easier and more productive if we all just fessed up that the emperor has no clothes, and we are all the very things we would like to deny to the death?

When this spirit is not embraced, it leads to the kind of hypocrisy that we heard about in today’s text, where the very one who was forgiven his own large debt, failed to forgive a smaller debt owed to him.

It seems so obvious, but which one of us here hasn’t held a grudge or resentment toward another person at some point in our lives? We all have and that’s why Jesus tells Peter he must forgive seven times seventy times. As he teaches us to pray: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

It reminds me of a poster I recently saw: “Lord, may my words be sweet and tender. For tomorrow I may have to eat them.” Our capacity to see ourselves honestly makes forgiveness possible, but our pretensions to perfection makes forgiveness necessary. Amen


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