“Lord, How often should I forgive a person who hurts me?” Matthew 18: 21
I have mixed feelings about this time of year. Children are back in school. The slower pace of the last months has shifted into another gear. One more summer is over. Yet it feels good to return to that familiar rhythm we all have known since we used to go off to school in the fall. There’s a renewed sense of energy and connection with those we haven’t seen for a while. Our church is a livelier place as AJN children and their parents return to fill the hallways with conversation, laughter, and the occasional crying protest.
Yesterday morning in this sanctuary, Susan Bottum and the Children’s Ministry staff welcomed our Sunday School teachers back. There were at least 75 women and men present who have committed themselves to teaching church school to our children. I thank God for them and the important work they do. What they do is pass along the lessons of our faith in telling the stories of the Bible. And whether we’re children or grown ups, the telling of stories is one of the best ways to come to know the wonder of God’s love and the responsibility of God’s call on our life.
Jesus liked to tell stories, of course. Stories that still these thousands of years later serve to challenge us, comfort us, and help us live our lives more fully even as we deal with the difficulties and ambiguities we know. Today’s story points us toward the path of forgiveness that leads to the nurturing and restoring of our relationships – some of which are strained, some of which are fractured.
Along their journey to Jerusalem, Peter and the other disciples listened to Jesus as he taught the crowds coming to see him. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy,” (Matthew 5:7) he said. Then a few days later, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15)
Peter wondered about this preoccupation with grace and mercy, so after Jesus finished talking about how important it is to worry about the lost sheep and to forgive those who hurt you, he asked Jesus, “How often do I have to forgive someone who has done me wrong? Is seven times enough?” You can understand Peter wanting to have some clarification. It’s hard to believe that forgiveness should be without limits. Being gracious and merciful is admirable and all, but what about accountability? It’s why we speak of someone ‘earning’ forgiveness, or of a person having to do such and such to ‘deserve’ forgiveness. We are prone to keep score and to measure our forgiveness against the wrong that has been done. So how many times do you have to be hurt by someone who is supposed to love you? How many times do you have to endure the same tiresome lies, the same painful slights, the same failed expectations? How many times, Jesus? Is seven times enough?
Peter was actually being generous because many of the rabbis of his day said that three times was plenty. But Jesus said, “Peter, how about 77 times?” It was as if to say, “If you’re counting the number of times you have forgiven someone, then you have never really forgiven. Forgiving is something you never get done with.” According to Jesus, you do not keep score. You just do it. Then to underscore the point, Jesus told a parable about forgiveness – involving circumstances so exaggerated that surely his listeners found it amusing.
The fun begins in the opening scene, when a king, settling up accounts with his slaves, discovers that one of his trusted civil servants is on the books with a debt of ten thousand talents, which is something like five tons of silver. We’re talking big money here, an outlandish debt that an Egyptian pharaoh couldn’t come up with, much less a slave.
The king realizes that repayment is out of the question, so attempting to at least cut his losses he orders the slave to be sold along with the slave’s family and all his worldly possessions.
Realizing his desperate predicament, the slave falls to his knees and begs for an extension on his loan. “Have patience with me and I will pay you everything.” Well the king must have been amused because he responds to this ridiculous request with an even more preposterous response. He forgives the debt – every last penny of it – and sets the slave free. No threats, no recriminations, just extravagant forgiveness, pure and simple.
But at this point the story takes a darker turn. The slave runs out of the king’s room to tell the good news to his family. On the way, with words of forgiveness still ringing in his ears, he encounters a fellow slave, who, as luck would have it, owes him about 100 dinari, no more than a few dollars. And so he, remembering how much he has been forgiven, forgives the fellow his relatively small debt. Right? Nope! Instead he takes his fellow servant by the throat and demands payment. The second slave pleads, “Have patience with me and I’ll repay you.” (Sound familiar?) But showing no mercy, the first slave has the second one thrown in jail.
You can imagine what anyone listening to the story would have thought of this guy. “The audacity of that jerk! Doesn’t he get it? One act of mercy deserves another at the least.” When the king hears about what the slave has done, he throws the guy in prison to be punished.
“Good for the king,” we say along with the people listening to Jesus. “The guy deserves it.” End of lesson? Not quite. Jesus closes his parable saying, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from the heart.”
A little harsh? Maybe not. The warning of this parable seems to be: you will find yourself in prison if you don’t find a way to forgive.
The sad truth is to live an unforgiving life is to live in a small place with no outside windows…where you sit and nurse your wounds…where your heart beats with bitterness…where you sentence yourself to a self imposed, dreary place.
Every Sunday we repeat the Lord’s Prayer saying, “Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The unavoidable implication of both these words of prayer and the parable of the Unforgiving Servant is that the experience of being forgiven ought to empower us to forgive others.
Ought to. The problem is that the “letting go” forgiveness requires is risky. Change is not easy, especially in personal relationships. So I cannot stand up here and tell you it’s easy to forgive someone who has wronged you. And letting go of the past, letting go of pain, does not necessarily happen in a short time. Forgiveness can be hard to do. There are some divisions so long-standing, some wounds so deep, some betrayals so final that forgiveness seems utterly impossible. But without forgiveness, we imprison ourselves, stuck in the mud of past hurts, unable to move forward.
The problem isn’t knowing what we ought to do; the problem is finding the courage to give up that oddly satisfying resentment you have harbored so long it has become a part of you. Until you have forgiven however, you are a captive of your own anger and resentment. Ironically, the person who created the pain still exerts influence over you. But if you are able to find it within yourself to let go and forgive, maybe partially at first, then slowly with God’s help, you come to a better place. Jesus tells us to be merciful as God is merciful because he knows how corrosive an unforgiving heart can be. Whenever we store up negative feelings about another, those feelings become a burden on our soul.
The late Henri Nouwen wrote: “To forgive another person from the heart is an act of liberation. We set that person free from the negative bonds that exist between us. We say, ‘I no longer hold your offense against you.’ But there is more. We also free ourselves from the burden of the ‘offended one.’ As long as we do not forgive those who have wounded us, we carry them with us, or worse pull them as a heavy load. The great temptation is to cling in anger to our enemies and then define ourselves as being offended and wounded by them. Forgiveness therefore liberates not only the other but also ourselves.” (Bread for the Journey, p. 26)
Forgiveness enables a fresh start both for you and the other person.
Anne Lamott is one of my favorite spiritual authors because of her candor, irreverence and humorous take on her own foibles. She wrote about her struggle with forgiveness in Traveling Mercies. She wanted to work on forgiveness, so she made a list of everyone who had done her wrong over the years, including “…three relatives, two old boyfriends, and one teacher in a pear tree.” She tried to will herself into believing that she had forgiven them, but realized she was only pretending. So she decided to put everyone on hold – everyone except for one woman who she dubbed her “Enemy Lite.” The woman was another single parent whose son was a friend of her son, Sam. A person Anne comments “was so warm and friendly that it might have astounded her to learn we were enemies.”
Anne had a number of grievances against “Enemy Lite.” One was that because Anne had not carefully read the school papers about schedules during the summer, she didn’t know Wednesdays were “minimum days, with school out over forty five minutes earlier than usual.” So for five weeks she was late picking up Sam on that day. “Enemy Lite” knew about it from her own son, and on a field trip they were chaperoning together, she sweetly said: “I just want you to know, Annie, that if you have any questions about how the classroom works, I’d really love to be there for you.” It didn’t help, Anne writes, that beneath this woman’s down jacket she was wearing latex bicycle shorts, “and I’ll tell you why,” she continues, “because she can…I smiled back at her. I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus [blush seven shades of red].”
On top of this, “Enemy Lite’s” child was an “early reader,” while Sam was a “late reader.” Anne puts in parentheses: “Albert Einstein was a ‘late reader.’ Theodore Kaczynski was an ‘early reader.’ Not that I am at all defensive on the subject.”
Then one day when she was picking up Sam at his friend’s house, “Enemy Lite” offered to make some tea. Anne reluctantly told her, “OK,” as she looked around at the expensive things in the house. When Sam was ready leave, she went over to help him put on his shoes. As she began to loosen up her son’s shoe laces, without realizing what she was doing, she sneaked a peak at the other boy’s sneaker – just to see how her kid lined up in shoe size. Lamott writes: “And I finally got it. The veil dropped. I got that I am as mad as a hatter. I saw that I was the one worried that my child wasn’t doing well enough in school. That I was the one who thought I was out of shape. And that I was trying to get her to carry all this for me because it hurt too much to carry it myself.” She concludes: “She was the one pouring tea for me. She was the one who’d been taking care of my son. Like God and certain parents do, she had forgiven me almost before I had even done anything that I needed to be forgiven for. (pp. 128-137) Anne Lamott discovered the double grace of forgiveness.
Let us pray…
Lord, make me an instrument of
Where there is hatred, let me sow
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled,
but to console.
To be understood, as to understand.
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving, that we receive,
And it is in pardoning, that we are
(Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi)
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.