A sermon delivered in chapel, based on Matthew 18:21-35
Peter says, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
It sounds like a pretty generous offer to me, particularly when I hear his question immediately after the preceding passage, the one in which Jesus teaches the disciples that if a brother sins against them they should go to him in private and if he refuses to repent, then take along a couple of other people to confront him and if he still refuses to repent, then take it to the whole church, if he still won’t listen and repent, then they should treat him like a tax collector, like someone who isn’t one of them. That’s harsh!
And so when I hear Peter say, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” I find myself ready to pat him on the back and commend him for his generosity.
I suspect he thought he was pretty generous too. He heard the encouragement to confront the one who wronged him in the context of his Jewish upbringing which taught him that if a brother sinned against him, he should forgive him three times. So, when he offers seven instead of three, he really is being generous.
Yet, Jesus, the one who had already told them to confront the one who sinned against them and hold them accountable, says, “Not seven times, but I tell, seventy-seven times.”
His response is a challenge to us, isn’t it? Oh, we struggle with the encouragement to confront the one who wrongs us, probably because the passage holds some difficult sayings about binding and loosing, and we don’t like to think about cutting people off or treating them like tax collectors. Or maybe we struggle because we don’t like conflict, and the idea of confronting someone when we’ve been wronged is hard for us to agree to.
The truth, though, is that if we’re honest with ourselves, well…the truth is, if I’m honest with myself, that part of me that’s very oriented toward justice, working on behalf of those who have been oppressed and hurt by injustices committed by those in power, I want to yell with Jesus, “Yeah! Confront them! Call them to repentance!” And in some way that feels more satisfying than asking someone to forgive the person who’s wronged them.
It’s all a little messy for us, isn’t it? It felt really messy to me when I sat with this passage in preparation for today’s message. I sat with the passage while thoughts of people I know who have been hurt badly by senseless acts of violence or prejudice or abuse ran through my mind. Can we really ask them to forgive? I sat with the passage mindful that in a couple of days we reach the seven-year anniversary of a terrible act of violence in our country, an act of terrorism that’s affected us all deeply and I wonder, what does it mean to ask those most deeply hurt by what happened on 9-11 to forgive? I wonder, how do we call a nation, a government to forgive?
I think it’s difficult for us because forgiveness has been thrown out to us in a rather casual fashion….maybe it conjures up images like this one that it did for me, images of my tired mother, weary from all that she had going on in her life, weary of the fighting and bickering between my brother and me who often said, “I don’t want to hear it! Just kiss and make up!” My friends, no kiss was ever so bitter as the one demanded without justice first! And while in the long run forgiving my brother for irritating or annoying me may really have been as easy as kissing and making up, to glibly suggest that someone hurting from a genuine, painful offense to just kiss and make up, to tell them to just forgive is to cause harm.
That’s why I think holding the two passages together is critical. The two acts of faith that these passages point to need to be held in tension. Our justice-seeking is an act of faith that leaves us empty if it doesn’t point us toward something different, if it isn’t meant to bring about the long-hoped-for reconciliation promised in the kin-dom of God. That’s what I see happening when I hear that our nation’s response to the cries to “Never Forget” what happened on 9-11 is to take the scrap metal from the twin towers and make a battleship! Doesn’t that just lead us down a never-ending road of revenge and hatred?
Without forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, transformation cannot happen. That’s a reality we’re faced with.
And our forgiveness is shallow and meaningless if it doesn’t also name the offense committed and demand change. That, too, is a reality we’re faced with.
As people of God, we stand with those who are hurt and work for change. And as people of God, we also seek to forgive, setting ourselves free to embrace the promised transformation.
The parable Jesus told shows us how we find our way through the messiness. A king demands that a servant pay the debts he owes. The servant begs for the king’s mercy, asking him to be patient until he can pay it off. The king has mercy on him, sets him free and forgives the debt. But the servant, we’re told, immediately encounters another man who owes him money, and demands that the debt be paid. When the fellow servant says he can’t pay and begs for mercy and patience, the first servant, the one fresh from his experience of forgiveness, has the man thrown in prison. When word of what the first servant did reaches the king, he calls him wicked for not having pity on his fellow servant, particularly after having been shown mercy himself. Then he hands him over to be tortured.
Jesus concludes the parable with a difficult saying, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” That difficult saying tempts us to be distracted from the point. We want to debate whether or not a loving God would actually do that to us. But, as anyone who has actually struggled to forgive can tell you, it’s really a moot point. We need not be distracted, because the reality is that when we don’t forgive, we’re holding ourselves prisoner to the anger that for awhile protected us and pointed us to the need for justice. We torture ourselves, making ourselves prisoners to the past and to the pain. And we cut ourselves off from the very work God wishes to do in our lives. Forgiveness sets us free from those things…..when we’re ready. It declares that we no longer believe the past holds such significant sway on the present and future. It declares our faith that change can happen. It takes time, there’s no question, and it is wrong for us to demand that anyone forgive. But when we keep working at this -- and I really think that’s Jesus point in saying seventy-seven times, that we keep at the work as long as there are wrongs to forgive -- then we open the door to peace and reconciliation.
And what helps us do the work? Remembering that we have been forgiven. That’s what the servant failed to do. He failed to take in the power of his experience of having his debt forgiven. So if you need a place to start in the work of forgiveness, if you find that there’s someone or a group of people that you just can’t forgive yet, then find another way to do the work of forgiveness. Don’t start with the big stuff if you aren’t ready. Asking someone to forgive the major offenses without doing the work to get there is like asking someone to run a marathon before she’s made it around the block. We can start by practicing forgiveness in our everyday lives, seeking to offer it where it’s possible. We can start by seeking to forgive ourselves. While we do what we can, we reflect on the multitude of times we have experienced forgiveness and let that move us to show mercy when the time is right. And when we struggle to believe forgiveness is possible, we can turn to people who have done the hard work and let them inspire and challenge us.
During my preparation for this sermon, I watched a documentary entitled “The Power of Forgiveness.” Near the end of the film, a Sufi Muslim man who lives in California, Azim Khamisa, is introduced. Azim’s story is extraordinary. His 20-year-old son was killed delivering a pizza to a group of young men who refused to pay. When Azim’s son, Tariq, told them they could not have the pizza, he was shot in the head in response. Azim used his faith to help him deal with his loss. He observed the prescribed period of mourning, then turn to his religious leaders for help deciding what to do next. He was told to do an act of charity, so after considerable thought, Azim, an investment banker, started a foundation in the name of his son. But he didn’t stop there. He went to the grandfather of the young man who killed his son and asked him to help him build the foundation. The two men now work together in schools and other community organizations to teach others that forgiveness is doorway to transforming the violence and hatred in their neighborhoods to peace.
Forgiveness is possible! The message of the gospel is that change can happen. Hope lies in the present and future. It’s based on the very real possibility of transformation. We demonstrate our conviction that we believe it’s possible when we act in faith and seek justice and forgive.
Who do you need to forgive today? Are ready? It’s okay if you aren’t, but I encourage you, as one who’s struggling with you, find some piece of the work of forgiveness that you can work on today, and open the door to transformation.