Forgiveness: A sermon on Matthew 18:21-35 by Michelle Ellis, Sept. 13, 2020
In preparing to look at this text together I’ve been imagining the scenario that prompted this question from Peter about how many times he needs to forgive. Maybe Jesus and the disciples have gathered for a meal and hangout at Peter’s place for the fourth time that week and yet again, he’s been left alone with the dishes. Maybe he and Andrew arranged to meet three times to work on fixing his roof together and three times, Andrew was a no-show. Maybe Philip cheated Peter at work and keeps telling Peter to forgive him and forget about it. And Peter’s thinking, “okay, I’ve been patient, I’ve been generous, I’ve given lots of grace and second chances, but I just can’t take it anymore! How many times do I need to forgive??”
What I so appreciate about this passage is that it invites me to remember yet again that Jesus’ disciples were real-life human beings who were working out in real time what it looked like to follow Jesus and live in his kingdom way. And they did this in the messiness of their families, community with one another, with the wider culture and everything in between.
I believe that navigating well through conflict and hurts that inevitably happen in relationships and in community is one of the most powerful and healing ways that followers of Jesus can walk with each other in the kingdom way. Naming hurts, listening and seeking to understand, feeling the pain of another, saying I’m sorry with sincerity, asking for forgiveness and forgiving each other are powerful acts where we can model to each other what God is like. They are ways that we can be healed.
Can I tell you something else though? I’m not sure that we as a Christian community know how to do this well. I think the way of forgiveness is one of the treasures we have been given. But I’m not sure that we know that. My sense is that often, we stuff our feelings and let bitterness and unresolved conflict flourish perhaps somehow believing that anything is better than conflict. I also think this treasure is desperately needed in our community here and also in the wider world. I’m not sure that navigating the roads of conflict, apology and forgiveness is something many people know how to do. Often, it seems that simply disagreeing with someone is an insult. When conflicts and hurts do occur, they can seem like insurmountable obstacles that cannot be overcome. So we can fear them and avoid them. Apologies can often be insincere, given out of obligation, without really understanding the pain of the other. Forgiveness can be stated in the same way, without any of the sense of being understood and without the healing that is meant to accompany it.
What does forgiveness really mean? What is Peter getting at in his question? What does it look like to forgive and to be forgiven?
Jesus’ parable spells out clearly what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is cancelling debt. When somebody harms you, does you wrong, sins against you — they are in your debt. Forgiveness is cancelling debt. Forgiveness is saying — you do not have to pay me back. Forgiveness is saying — I’m not going to seek revenge. I won’t be sending the lone-sharks to break your kneecaps. Although forgiveness and reconciliation are very closely related — they are different. You can forgive someone even if they never apologize. Forgiving someone is choosing not to get even. Reconciliation is the next step — its working with the other person to restore the relationship. That is more like a dance — just as it takes two to tango, it takes two to reconcile.
You may know that at Jesus time, there was Jewish teaching that said you would forgive someone up to three times. After that, you were off the hook — the fourth time you could come out with guns blazing.
So when Peter asks whether he was called to forgive up to seven times, he likely thought that was quite generous. And he was, right? I mean, how many times must we put up with people treating us badly? When Jesus says, up to seventy-seven times, which is another way of saying an infinite number of times, does that mean we let people walk all over us? Does it mean we grin and bear it when people treat us unjustly or betray us or insult us over and over and over again? In Jesus parable he shows us that forgiveness means that you will not get even. You will not seek revenge. But I want you to also note something interesting — forgiveness does not mean you keep painting a target on your chest. Forgiveness does not mean excusing bad behaviour, like you would excuse a burp at the supper table. Forgiving doesn’t mean pretending like it never happened. Forgiveness is not saying, “thank you sir, may I have another”. Forgiving doesn’t mean you pretend or deny that you were hurt.
Forgiveness does not mean you keep lending the crook money. Let me tell you what forgiveness means: Forgiveness means you choose not to get payback.
Now this is where the dance between forgiveness and reconciliation comes in. You may choose not to make the person pay, but that doesn’t mean your automatically friends again. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean that you’ll walk arm and arm through Eddy Park.
To get there, reconciliation needs to happen. Those are the hard conversations we’ve been talking about these last few Sundays. Reconciliation means holding the person who hurt you to account. Note what I just said, holding them to account. In other words, its saying, “you don’t have to pay me back, but this is what you owe me.” This is what how you’ve wronged me. Reconciliation means naming the hurt that has occurred and insisting upon being heard. Reconciliation means having these difficult conversations. Reconciliation means making promises not to hurt in the same way again and intending to keep them.
I think that revenge closes the door on reconciliation. When we pay someone back, the possibility for reconciliation diminishes exponentially. For this reason, Jesus’ council to forgive an infinite number of times is keeping open the possibility for reconciliation. Always choosing to forgiveness means never, ever give up on the possibility of true reconciliation. Jesus is saying is never give up on pursuing real reconciliation because that is important kingdom work.
Forgiveness isn’t only about reconciling with another. Forgiveness is about reconciling with ourselves — finding our own healing. Have you heard the saying that holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die? Forgiveness is spitting out that poison. Forgiveness is medicine for healing. A few years ago when the Truth and Reconciliation commission was doing it’s work, I was listening on the radio to a live event where an indigenous mother and son were singing together a song they had written to express their forgiveness to the hurt and injustice they endured as indigenous people in Canada. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard. The song had such power. They didn’t deny or excuse the real hurt. They faced it. They made the decision to forgive. They did not choose revenge. The song had such joy and power. As they were singing, I was aware that they were healed people. What they had endured did not have power over them. They spit out the poison and so became healed. I knew this had to be the work of God. In light of everything that had happened, they modelled what freedom and forgiveness look like. Forgiveness has a cost, but there is also such beauty and joy in it and it was a true gift to get to witness that.
In the parable that Jesus told in the story, there is a financial cost to the one who forgave the debt. The servant owed a huge amount of money. The combined wages of 15 years. The master chose to bear that loss. Forgiveness is not cheap. Forgiveness has a cost. When we say that forgiving is choosing not to force someone to pay you back — that cost has to be absorbed somewhere. The financial costs are seldom the worst. Forgiveness means facing and naming your own pain and bearing it. One person defined forgiveness to me as bearing pain. Forgiveness is bearing the cost of the pain which another person has inflicted upon you. Again, the cost of bearing that pain is nothing compared to the huge cost to the bitterness, depression and despair that can come from holding grudges and holding pain close and not letting it go.
Forgiveness is the heart and soul of the gospel. When Jesus came to make us right with God, he chose to bear our pain. He chose to take on the pain of our unfaithfulness, of our deceit, our smallness, our selfishness. He took our pain on freely, not out of obligation, but out of love. He chose to not pay us back for what we’ve done. If you want to see the cost of forgiveness, look to the cross. If you want to see 70 time 7 look at Jesus wounded, bloody, lacerated body on the cross. When you meditate on the cross, when you look at what it cost God to forgive us — its not surprising to hear Jesus say that just like the unforgiving servant was thrown in prison for making his debtor pay — “so my Father in heaven will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart”. When Christ has forgiven us so freely, how could we ever seek revenge?
And in the cross we see the powerful witness of loves power to break the rule that if you hurt me, I will make you pay. On the cross, we see love's power to offer complete, undeserved, gratuitous forgiveness. On the cross we see the door thrown wide open for reconciliation — and when we walk through that door we hear the words forgiveness earned. We hear “you are totally accepted, and nothing you do can take that way. You are totally loved, totally received, and totally at rest because nothing can separate you from the source of love even though you cannot do enough good things to earn your right to be there.” Forgiveness opens the door for loves power to make right what was wrong. It’s the unique, powerful work of God.