Life Together: Begin with Forgiveness
by Louise Westfall
Then Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if a brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Some theological discourse takes place high in the heavens, but not this one. Peter asks a practical question: not about the concept of forgiveness, but about forgiving a specific person– a friend, a family member who has hurt him. You know he thought he was being generous when he suggests “seven times.” I think we can imagine his reaction when Jesus blows it up to an absurd degree. How often should I forgive others? Yes.
The rest of today’s text is a story Jesus told to highlight this point, and the dire consequences of an unforgiving heart. A reading from Matthew in the eighteenth chapter at the twenty-third verse. Listen for God’s Word to you. [Matthew 18:23-35]
The strong note of judgment makes me cringe, but on the other hand, who would deny the hell of a broken relationship, no matter who is at fault? Every time we offer the Lord’s Prayer, we are reminded that this business of forgiveness is not only important, it’s necessary for our own wholeness and well-being. Since it’s such a crucial part of our life together, here at the beginning of a year-long focus on Christian community, we begin with forgiveness, that marvelous, misunderstood magic that helps us restore relationships when we’ve been wronged. Forgiveness allows do-overs. Forgiveness cancels indebtedness. Forgiveness blazes a trail towards regained trust and ignites hope that things can be, will be different. No one pretends it’s easy or even natural. Several of “The Twelve Steps” which have proven so life-changing for many recovering from drug or alcohol addiction speak to this process of admitting one’s responsibility, forgiving self and others, and making amends when possible. I asked a friend in recovery for a quote on forgiveness for this sermon. She laughed. But then, more seriously, she took a deep breath and responded: It’s hard work.
Well yes it is. And every last one of us knows what I’m talking about from personal experience. We’ve all done things we regret. We’ve all said words we wish we could call back. Sometimes we have been sorry for not speaking up—offering support instead of letting someone twist in the wind alone. There are small unacknowledged slights that slowly fester into resentment; there are marital spats that suddenly ignite into “piling on” — a recitation of every past mistake. And if we are very honest, we will admit that holding a grudge feels good — at least for a while — if we are the wronged party. To say “I’m sorry” requires humility and courage; to say “I forgive you,” requires humility and courage. The poet said, To err is human, to forgive divine. But Jesus didn’t see it that way. Forgiveness is not a spiritual discipline reserved for the holiest among us: it’s a daily work-out for our human souls.
… And I think this severe text offers some personal training that could help us grow in our ability to forgive.
I wonder if a little smile played at Jesus’ lips as he told this story. Because it’s actually just as absurd as his multiplication of Peter’s magnanimous offer to forgive seven times. The slave owed the king ten thousand talents. One talent alone was worth 15 years’ of his wages. How in the world did a slave come to borrow that huge amount from his master? And what chance did he ever have of paying it back (some 600 years later!). The guy’s peer owed him a hundred denarii — barely 3 months’ minimum wage. Seems to me Jesus wasn’t offering this as a prescription: You who have been forgiven so much, ought to forgive the pittance you are owed. Doesn’t that just perpetuate the transactional perspective that makes forgiveness difficult in the first place?! Always keeping track of offenses and apologies? He said/she said … they always … you never … Jesus instead seems to be describing a reality we know all too well: the self-righteous calculation that insists we are owed more than we are in debt. If that is the way we view life, then the grace of forgiveness won’t make sense to us. Being set free from debts we didn’t pay — debts we couldn’t pay — won’t make a difference to us at all. And Jesus makes it clear that we will remain in a debtor’s prison of our own making; cut off from others, tortured by the prospect of a balance sheet that doesn’t balance. Ever.
By contrast, Jesus described God as a ruler whose compassion is without limit or reason, completely out of proportion to the debt owed or the debtor’s ability to repay it. In Christian community we call it “grace,” and it has the power to change us for the very reason that we can’t afford it. We can’t buy it or store it up or do anything to earn it. All we can do is accept it and let it seep into our soul’s Excel spread sheet and obliterate every column, every number until you can’t read, tally, or total it. Clean and clear.
And when we receive it, a very different story will emerge. One not built by transaction, mathematical equivalency between debts incurred and debts repaid. No, this story will be a tale of wealth multiplied and freedom experienced as a re-set, a fresh start with extraordinary possibilities.
Here’s one such story: you may remember an incident ten years ago in which a gunman barricaded himself into a one-room Amish schoolhouse near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and killed five children, and injured five others before taking his own life. As horrifying as the incident was, it became even more memorable because the Amish community immediately forgave the gunman and surrounded his devastated parents with kindness and casseroles.
A National Public Radio reporter recently went back to the community to check in. She spoke with the shooter’s mother Terri, and was reminded of the absolute shame they felt for their son’s action. We resigned ourselves to the fact that we could never face our neighbors again. But that was before they experienced grace. At the graveside service for their son, more than forty Amish showed up, standing silently behind them at a respectful distance. You could feel the love that just emanated from them, Terri put it. And that love didn’t give up. Over the decade, the Amish community has continued to reach out, slowly, sensitively. A father of one of the murdered children responded to the reporter’s skepticism: None of us would ever have chosen this. But the relationships that we have built through it — you can’t put a price on that. Terri understandably found it hard to accept their forgiveness. Seeing one of the seriously injured children moved her to ask the family if she could care for her. So nearly every day she comes to bathe and read to Roseanna. I will never forget the destruction caused by my son … but the Amish community’s choice to allow life to move forward has been a healing balm for us … I think it’s a message the world needs. [from National Public Radio’s StoryCorps, September 30, 2016]
In a world where retaliation is viewed as strength; amid the wreckage of broken marriages and destroyed friendships; for all the crossed-arms and judgmental looks that create wide breaches within the beloved community; and for the sleepless nights of self-recrimination and regret: this is the message we need. To err is human; thank God for the One from whose fount of grace we can drink deeply and receive every day what we need to forgive from the heart.
I invite us, each one, in the silence that follows to bring to mind a person with whom you have a strained relationship. Rather than reviewing the wrongs, rehashing the arguments, or reliving the hurt, picture yourself filled to overflowing with God’s unconditional love. Simply sit with that image for a time, until we rise to sing a hymn of thanksgiving for the grace to which we are all debtors.