Parish Ministries

Genesis 50:15-21; Romans 14:1-12;  Matthew 18:21-35  

When Peter asks Jesus how often he is required to forgive another member of the community who wrongs him, he thinks he is being more than generous by suggesting seven times.  As many as seven times?  Peter asks Jesus.

He must have expected Jesus to comfort him by suggesting seven was beyond the requirements of the law.  “No, not that many times,” Peter was expecting to hear.  

But then comes the hard truth.  Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.  In other translations it is seven times seven or seventy times seven, but the point is the same.  Seven, being a significant number in scripture encompassing all time, seventy-seven times is the scriptural equivalent of times infinity.  

Peter and the rest of the crowd learn that there is no cap on how many times they are to forgive each other.  There is no punch card to complete, there is no getting off the hook for “having tried.”  If you have forgiven, Jesus tells us, and it happens again, you are to forgive again.  For as long as it takes.  As many times as it takes.  Times infinity.

This is hard for many of us to hear.  Especially those of us who are unsure what Jesus means, exactly, by forgive.  

Is Jesus expecting us to forgive?  Yes. Seventy-seven times, at least.  But that is not the same as condone, or forget, or put ourselves in harm’s way repeatedly.

Archbishop Tutu is well considered an expert on forgiveness for his work with the Truth and Reconciliation project in South Africa.  

In the book he wrote with his daughter, Mpho, called “The Book of Forgiving,” they talk about forgiveness in this way:

“Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us. We are bound to the chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped.  Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness, that person will be our jailor.”

We tend to think of forgiveness as transactional.  “I’ll forgive them when they apologize.  I’ll forgive them when they right the wrong they did. I’ll forgive them when I’ve gotten my vengeance.

But forgiveness isn’t transactional.  It is a free gift.  In Genesis Joseph forgives his brothers for their betrayal not for their sake, but for his.  Paul, in his letter to the Romans, encourages grace and forgiveness in the early church for the sake of the community.  Jesus knows the creative power of forgiveness, and he knows the destructive power of anger, resentment, spite, and revenge.

Forgiving someone isn’t about endorsing their bad behavior.  It is about us joining in the creative force of God to break one cycle and begin a new one.  

We need to forgive so we know what it means to be forgiven.  Without forgiving we lack the ability to know the abundance of grace that flows our way each and every day from those who forgive us, and from God who forgives us even before we know we need to be forgiven.

In the parable we call the unforgiving servant, that is the fate of the one who would not forgive.  For those of you not well versed in ancient currency, “a talent was about 130 lbs. of silver and would take a laborer about fifteen years to earn. Which means that the servant owed the king about 150,000 years of labor! In other words, he would never, ever be able to pay this debt back. A denarius, by comparison, was worth about a day’s wage, which meant that the second servant owed the first about a hundred days of labor.

His inability to forgive makes it impossible to feel the abundance of the forgiveness he has been shown.  His inability to forgive keeps him imprisoned in the cycle of anger and suffering.  

At the end of the parable, the unforgiving servant is handed over to never ending torture.  

I get it.  Maybe you do, too.  Maybe there is someone who you have yet to be able to forgive.  And maybe every time that person’s name is mentioned, you feel your heart rate increase. Maybe every time you need to visit that person, or they visit you, you get anxious, a knot in your stomach.  Maybe you know something about this.  It can be never-ending torture, just like Jesus describes.

Forgiveness can be hard, especially the big stuff.  It is a choice between love and anger.  Anger allows us to remain disconnected, disinterested, not accountable for the welfare of the one who has wronged us.

And it is love Jesus compels us to choose.  We are reminded, yet again, that our response to those who wrong us, even those who we call our enemies, is to love them.

Jesus asks that we have compassion for the ones who wrong us.  To understand that their behavior comes from current pain.  Or it will lead to more pain in their future.  

If we want the one who causes us pain to change their behavior, for their sake and the sake of the world, we must love them enough to want them to be free from their cycle of behavior.

We can name the wrong, we can require penance before reconciliation, we can set boundaries on relationships or even let the relationship go.  As we fight for a world full of God’s peace, we have to name what is wrong and work for the change we seek.

Jesus invites us to do that from a place of freedom, from a place of love, from a place that doesn’t seek “to be right” as much as seeks to be “in relationship”.  We can work for change because we want the one who offends us not to suffer anymore, or not to suffer in the future.

This is the demanding ask Jesus puts before his followers, and before us.  Forgiveness requires practice, it requires getting in touch with how much we are forgiven, and it requires incredible strength. As Archbishop Tutu says, “Those who say forgiving is a sign of weaknesss haven’t tried it.”

Over and over again, Jesus invites his followers, including us, to find new life, new freedom, to know what it means to dwell in God’s Kingdom while we still live and move and have our being.

This morning, Jesus reminds us that forgiveness comes to us from God in an abundance we can’t quite grasp, out of a love for us we can’t possibly comprehend.  And Jesus asks us to share that same forgiveness with others through a love God places in our hearts; a love God asks us to choose.


© 2017 The Reverend Jeffrey W. Mello

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