The biblical text for this sermon can be found here.
What is your experience of forgiveness? There is a lot that could be said about forgiveness. In some ways, forgiveness is something better addressed in a bible study. I won’t have time to say all that could be said today. I will have to leave some important aspect of forgiveness unsaid for the sake of focus.
All of us have felt wronged by someone at some point – from minor things to major things. What do we do with those times? How do we respond? All of us have done something at some point that hurt someone else. How do we want to be treated when we do that?
Our experiences with forgiveness help shape our understandings of what forgiveness is and isn’t. Our experience of forgiveness also shapes our interpretation of what Jesus says.
I will be dividing my comments today in two parts. In the first part I will be taking a look at forgiveness within the larger context of Matthew 18.
In the second part I will be look more specifically as forgiveness as Jesus addresses it in our gospel lesson for today.
For the first part, I would like to begin with you a story. The story I am about to share is a matter of public record, you can go to a court house and look it up – so I am not telling tales out of school.
There is a primarily ELCA Lutheran community in southern Minnesota where about 60 years ago a mechanic in town began to entice young boys to come into his shop where he would sexually abuse them. These boys never said anything or did anything. These young boys grew up and thirty years later finally stood up and put a stop to the abuse – but only after they discovered that this same man had now abused their sons. Over the course of more than 30 years – hundreds of young boys were abused by this man.
Why had this mechanic been allowed to continue to abuse? There might be several reasons. But, one of them was that there was a false understanding in that community about what forgiveness is.
In this community, there was an understanding that accountability was the opposite of forgiveness. Those who were abused kept quiet because they believed that forgive and forget – meant pretend it didn’t happen – there was no room for accountability in their understanding of forgiveness.
The dysfunction and shame from all those years of abuse continues to wreak havoc in the lives of people of that community.
How do you hear Peter’s question, “How many times must I forgive?” Do you hear Peter asking, “How often must I be taken advantage of?”
It is important to hear Peter’s question in its context. Immediately before this, Jesus tells people: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Did you notice: Jesus says point out the fault! Jesus also says, “If the one who hurt you doesn’t listen take witnesses, then tell the church.” He doesn’t say suffer alone in silence.
If we take seriously pointing out the fault – forgiveness is not about playing the fool and being taken advantage of. Let’s be clear: When we talk say forgive and forget: the “forget” part means stop holding a grudge or seeking revenge – it doesn’t mean pretend it didn’t happen. Over my years in ministry I have encountered more people than I can count who refused to deal with domestic abuse because they also thought that forgiveness meant you had to pretend the abuse didn’t happen.
I wonder if we think that accountability has no place in forgiveness because we do not want to be accountable to God for the things we have done wrong. Don’t we really want forgiveness without confession? It is hard to come clean about what we have done wrong. Won’t we rather God just forgave us without the embarrassment of acknowledging our sins?
We love to sin. God loves to forgive. It’s a great arrangement. But, notice even in the parable the lord calls in his servant for a reckoning. We do a general confession in worship because we would be here all day if we were going to list them all. But, confession involves coming clean about our sins. Certainly, Jesus forgives us we need not dwell on past sins.
It is easy to fall into one ditch or the other here. Luther felt that he must constantly confess and was afraid he would leave a sin unconfessed. He was struggled to experience a sense of forgiveness.
But, there is also a danger of falling off into the opposite ditch, where forgiveness is a philosophical concept, rather than grounded in concrete relationship. In this case, forgiveness is generalized to the point that God grants forgiveness before any sin is committed. So there is no need to be concerned, or any need for confession, or repentance. Bonhoeffer called this “cheap grace.”
I find the 12 steps of Alcoholic Anonymous helpful in thinking about accountability and forgiveness. Four of the 12 steps of AA deal with forgiveness. Consider:
Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Step 5: Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
In AA forgiveness happens within accountability. AA seeks to create healthy people and healthy relationships. In Matthew 18 Jesus is talking about the things that make for healthy relationships.
As we turn now to the second part of this discussion on forgiveness we will be looking more specifically at our gospel lesson. Jesus also knows that we can get nit-picky. There is a part of us that doesn’t want to stop with just ending bad behavior – there is a part of us that wants revenge – that wants to get even. There is part of us that wants to keep score.
Think about it there are a lot of places in our lives where we keep score. How did the Twins do? Are they still in the playoffs? The Hastings Raiders played on Friday, what was the score? How about them Vikings? What did you get on the test? Did you take the SAT? How did you do? How are your weekly sales? – How did your last performance review go? – What was week’s worship attendance?
There is an old dictum: “What we measure – we improve.” There is something to that, but we also know that there is something about keeping score that doesn’t work when it comes to relationships based on love. There is meme from the TV show “Rules of Engagement” gets at that.
It would seem Peter has the screw-up bank in mind when he asks, “How often must I forgive?” Jesus answer to Peter’s question seems to imply Jesus thinks Peter wants to keep score – nurse old hurts in the screw-up bank. Peter seems to be asking, “How many times to I need to forgive before I can get even?” Jesus says, “Really? Do you want God to keep score with you? You may want to rethink that.” Jesus knows that a relationship built on banking old hurts and keeping score for the purpose of getting even doesn’t work. Healthy loving relationships are not transactional.
Being in a healthy relationship with God means that we understand that God’s love and forgiveness can’t be earned. That’s not how it works. God wants us to show the same forgiveness to each other that we have received from God. To drive home this point Jesus tells a parable about two servants.
One owes ten thousand talents. A talent is about 130 pounds of silver, which would take a laborer about 15 years to earn. He owed 10,000 talents. He owes about 150,000 years of service! Jesus wants it to be clear we can’t earn God’s love – not even in 150,000 years of labor. It is Impossible to repay.
In the parable, the slave is forgiven this incredible debt. But then, having been forgiven he goes out and refuses to forgive another servant who owes him a hundred denarii – about 100 days of wages. Hearing about it – the master calls the first slave back in and now treats him has he treated his fellow slave.
Jesus wants us to believe that he has at work in our lives – repairing, restoring, resurrecting our lives so that we can let go and let God – it is not our place to get even or seek revenge. Forgiveness is not easy – but we also trust that God is at work with us as we seek to find our way. Amen.