“On Forgiveness”
August 19, 2018 at Christ Church, Summit
Rev. Caroline Lawson Dean

Matthew 18:21-34
Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord how many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
“Therefore the kindom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
The servant fell on his knees before him, ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
But when the servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him, ‘Pay back what you owe me!” he demanded.
His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me and I will pay you back.’
But he refused. Instead he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt…
Then the master called the servant in, ‘You wicked servant, I canceled all of your debt because you begged me to – shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” In anger his master handed him over to the jailers and had him tortured until he paid pack all he owed.

Let us pray: God of Love, we come to you in the midst of our struggles to forgive – give us new insight this day. And when we are ready, oh God, grant us the courage to take the path of forgiveness. God of Love we also pray today for those who are carrying the pain of a particular wound and for those carrying the pain of the “one who wounds” and for all of us who carry a bit of both, we pray for healing by the power of you Spirit and in the name of your Son, Amen.

“How many times do I forgive?” Peter asks Jesus. It’s as if Peter is asking “when are we ‘off the hook?’” When can we say “I tried to confront them. I told them honestly how they hurt me, and they didn’t change, they keep making the same mistake!” “So am I off the hook, right Jesus?” “I have permission to be resentful – to cut them out of my life in unfettered bitterness and anger?”
And don’t we all share Peter’s question? Falling into the “score keeping” trap, keeping a subconscious list of tally of marks for ourselves and against one another? How many times have we thought to ourselves, “I have kept my end of the bargain in this friendship, marriage, familial tie, in this work relationship – I have been honest, up front, reconciling…and now time is up. I am done. It’s time to officially proclaim that you are deemed “unforgiven!” I am entitled to feel however I need to feel and treat you however I need to treat you in order to process my pain.” There is something so tempting, almost indulgent about this proposition. It feels like freedom. It feels like justice. But is it?
Last week we talked about our image of God. One of the images of God that we need to re-imagine is the image of God as the “Great Scorekeeper.” The “All-Seeing-Eye” who is constantly updating tally sheets tracking each person’s behavior. Imagine if Jesus says “Yes Peter, after about seven times – that sounds right – that’s the end of a good practice of forgiveness.” Instead Jesus says, “Seven times seventy” as if to say “you can’t keep track Peter, try to keep forgiving.” But don’t we sometimes imagine a God who does has a certain number in mind, a sort of “forgiveness limit,” a threshold – once we cross it – we are done. But is this the kind of God that Jesus’ ministry reflects?
Before we move on we should also pause here and recognize the ways that this text has been abused. Religious leaders have counselled women to stay in abusive relationships as they work to “forgive” their partners “seventy times seven times.” This is a gross misunderstanding of what it means to forgive someone. Forgiveness does not mean that one sanctions the pain that has been inflicted upon them. Forgiveness does not mean staying in an unhealthy relationship. Certainly there is a way to forgive while also maintaining healthy boundaries & holding each other accountable. If so then what does this kind of forgiveness look like?
Desmund Tutu and his daughter the Reverend Mpho Tutu in their “Book of Forgiving” talk about the choice that we have on a reconciling path to renew a relationship or release it. Now of course some relationships are harder to release – but in an unhealthy co-dependent pattern – certainly release and forgiveness are possible.
In response to Peter’s question “How many times do we forgive?” Jesus tells a story. It is a story of a harsh and also a merciful king. The king has one servant with extreme debt. The original audience would have recognized this amount “ten thousand bags of talents” as a laughable, almost impossible debt to repay. The servant begs the king “have patience! I will repay the debt (perhaps, again, an impossible promise). The king not only has mercy on the man to give him more time, he forgives the debt entirely (again an extreme response). This servant then immediately goes out to recall his own debts. He violently accosts a man with a much smaller debt. The man cries out “Have patience, I will repay you!” (a much more feasible promise). In an absurd twist the man throws his fellow servant in jail. The one who was given an amazing gift of mercy, for some reason, cannot channel that gift of forgiveness towards his own kindred, another indebted servant. The king finds out about the incident and throws his servant in jail in anger. In the face of extravagant mercy this servant is unchanged. His harsh treatment towards another, for a much smaller debt, is absurd.
Commentators write about the hyperbole in this text – a hyperbole meant to shock us and stir us from our state of numbness. It is as if Jesus is saying “there is something important here, pay attention.” There is a great punishment, indeed a spiritual imprisonment, perhaps even with torturous consequences, when we cannot channel the mercy and forgiveness offered to us towards each other.
When I think about why it is so hard for me to forgive, much less to even begin a conversation oriented around my pain or the pain that I have inflicted, there are several things that come to mind:
First there is the lie that I so easily believe: “If I forgive a person, my pain will not be honored. I will somehow be enabling suffering in the world, as the person continues to hurt me and others.” But what if seeking forgiveness actually helps us name and indeed seek healing for our wounds? What if forgiveness can happen right alongside healthy boundaries and a process of accountability? What if forgiveness actually opens up the opportunity for a person who has made a mistake to change and to grow?
Secondly if I am honest, I can be a bit stubborn – yes even at times self-righteous. I tell myself the lie that “I am more uniquely righteous than some other person or group of people. This person is the ‘wounder’ and I am the ‘wounded.’ But what if we are all equally caught up in human brokenness? I know it is hard to imagine in many situations – but what if you could be in your enemy’s shoes one day – even if only in some small way? What if I am forgiven just as much as I am in need of forgiveness? We all know that the man who was forgiven his debt should have run out into the world in joy, forgiving the debts of his fellow servants and letting their shared freedom unite them. And yet how many times are we like the one who has been given great mercy and blessing that we so stubbornly refuse to channel for others?
Which brings me to the last – perhaps the largest stumbling block for me in a conversation about forgiveness. It takes a lot of work to be a reconciling agent in the world. It is much easier, even indulgent, to mull over how we have been wronged – cycling between pain, anger and resentment – and starting over again. It takes a good amount of energy for us to say the words “You have hurt me.” And even more energy to hear the words “You have hurt me.” And even more energy to respond with grace & openness. Lastly, it is a gut punch when you do gin up the courage to say, “You have hurt me” and there is no acknowledgement of your pain. How do you forgive when you are alone in the process? (Perhaps a sermon for another day).
What does your own unique struggle with forgiveness and reconciliation look like?
Rev. Nadia Bolz Weber is a speaker, author and Lutheran pastor. Bolz Weber is also in recovery which has given her a unique perspective on the challenges and the spiritual freedoms of a process of forgiveness. (VIDEO) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VhmRkUtPra8)
“In the end if we aren’t careful we can sometimes absorb the worst of our enemy and even start to become them.” That’s it! The gift of forgiveness is not only for the one who has offended but for ourselves. In this time of division and troubling public rhetoric, it can be so easy to sink into resentfulness and cynicism. What if we could weave into our lives spiritual practices of forgiveness to help us connect in our personal relationships and even across the great divides of our current moment? What if we could practice humility & forgiveness alongside justice-work and truth-telling?
And then there are those of us who aren’t ready. And this is an important spiritual space. Sometimes the pain is so big or complicated that it requires time. Desmund Tutu and Mhpo Tutu write about the “prayer before the prayer.” A prayer for those who are aren’t ready to forgive. Let us pause for a moment to pray – for all of us – who are holding on to pain and who are waiting for the day when we are ready to begin the path of forgiveness.
I reached out to Tom to see if he would read this poem for us today – and instead – he has set it to music. Thank you Tom for sharing your gift with us today. Let us pray:

“I want to be willing to forgive
But I dare not ask for the will to forgive
In case you give it to me
And I am not yet ready
I am not yet ready for my heart to soften
I am not yet ready to be vulnerable again
Not yet ready to see that there is humanity in my tormentor’s eyes
Or that the one who hurt me may also have cried
Grant me the will to want to forgive
Grant it to me not yet but soon.
I am not yet ready for the journey
I am not yet interested in the path
I am at the prayer before the prayer of forgiveness
Grant me the will to want to forgive
Grant it to me not yet but soon
Is there a place where we can meet?
You and me
The place in the middle
Where we straddle the lines
Where you are right
And I am right too
And both of us are wrong and wronged
Can we meet there?
And look for the place where the path begins
The path that ends when we forgive.
Grant me the will to want to forgive
Grant it to me not yet but soon.”

And so beloved go now, in the knowledge that you are forgiven “seventy times seven million.” That God’s mercy is big enough to cover us and to cover the ones who hurt us. Go now releasing a bit of resentment, a bit of cynicism, a bit of self-righteousness, that we might be free. Go out in a renewed commitment to the messy path of reconciliation. And when we are blocked from the knowledge of God’s mercy in our lives, may we have the courage to start again – to channel love and kindness in the world – even in our times of great trial.

Amen.