Forgiveness is a Christian Way of Life
Sermon by Steven McClelland on Matthew 18: 21 – 35. Focus on why forgiveness needs to be a constant way of life for Christians. Check out Jody Sinkway and Bill Ucker’s solo following the sermon.
Throughout the 18th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus in parable after parable, Jesus makes the same point over and over again: that the family of God – is the most important thing in the world, and that those who want to be members of it are called to do everything in their power to nourish and strengthen it.
Nothing is to get in the way of that, not their quarrels with one another, not their rivalries, not their tendency to put each other down, not even their sins. If one of them goes astray, they are to leave the rest of the flock and go find the lost one; if one of them does wrong and separates himself from the community, they are to go and try and bring him back.
So as Peter listens to this he becomes concerned about what, exactly, is required of him. He is looking for a guideline, a limit as to how far he must go in this relationship business. “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” he asks, no doubt thinking that seven is a lot of times, more times than most people can forgive anyone, but Jesus doesn’t give him credit for this.
Instead Jesus says, “I don’t’ say to you seven times, but seventy times seven,” which is about the same as saying there are no limits to forgiveness, that forgiving those who sin against us is not something we ever get done with but something that becomes a way of life that never ends.
Now on the surface, this parable seems like a straightforward lesson on the Golden Rule: Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. Or more to the point: Do unto others as you would have God do unto you, because if you don’t forgive your brother from your heart your heavenly Father will have you hauled off to jail.
Now this may very well be true. And I believe that there is a judgment that we will face for the way we’ve lived our lives but I don’t believe it is God who throws us in that jail. I believe we place ourselves in it by those same actions that we then attribute to God’s judgment and I think we’ll see this as we take a closer look at what made this servant so wicked, so unable to forgive a mere fraction of the debt that he himself had just been forgiven?
When I think about my own experiences with forgiveness, it’s clear to me that the only reason I’m able to forgive at all, is because I have been forgiven, because thanks to someone else, I know how it feels to have my debts cancelled and my credit restored. It’s an incredible experience, but it’s never one of my own doing. All I have ever been able to do is ask for it, but when it has been granted it has come to me from outside myself, a free gift from someone who I have hurt, who I have owed, but who’s decided that what’s more important than getting even with me is remaining in a loving relationship with me.
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.
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.
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 forgiveness is not a get out of jail free card. Forgiveness makes judgments. Forgiveness actually stands for right behavior and right relationships. 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.
Now we know how the story ends. The king throws this guy into jail until he can pay his debt, which amounts to a life sentence – End of story. The moral being that you’d better forgive or else the same will happen to you. But I don’t think that’s the main message or meaning of this parable. I think the message is this: Do unto others as has already been done unto you.
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.”
Forgiveness comes from a heart and mind that understands that we’ve already been forgiven, by someone to whom we owe everything – our life and breath, our brown eyes and blonde hair, someone who has taken the stack of our IOU’s and torn them in two for one reason and one reason alone: because that someone wants to remain in relationship with you and me, and wants us to be free to respond in kind.
When someone like that has stopped keeping score on you, you feel sort of foolish keeping score on the people in your own life. You feel sort of petty wanting to write others off when you’ve been forgiven and forgiven and loved and loved over and over, not because you or I deserve it, because we don’t. But we sure do need it. Amen