Forgiveness: A Work in Progress

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on September 17, 2017.

Matthew 18:21-35

Those of you who get our mid-week email know that I have had a difficult time finding my way into this sermon on forgiveness. My placeholder for a sermon title is “A Work in Progress,” which meant that when it was time to send out the email and print the bulletin this sermon was only a work in progress; it still is. But it also means that I am a work in progress when it comes to forgiveness, as are each of you.

There are three contexts in which we desire forgiveness.

Some struggle mightily to forgive someone who has hurt or betrayed them.

Others acknowledge the hurt they have caused another, and seek forgiveness from that person.

And still others work to forgive themselves for a wrong they have perpetrated.

Like many, I have experienced all three of these scenarios at one time or another.

Reflecting upon forgiveness in each of these contexts can be extraordinarily painful. I know a number of your struggles to forgive or be forgiven, and I don’t doubt that we could each share painful stories of forgiveness denied. Biblical scholar Karoline Lewis acknowledges that the topic of forgiveness “sets in motion — deeply, tragically, painfully — memories of those people I was reluctant to forgive. It sets in motion thoughts of those waiting for my forgiveness. It sets in motion reminders of those whom I don’t think I can ever forgive.”

I think the pain we experience around forgiveness leads to a common understanding that forgiveness promises relief of our pain. In this sense forgiveness is transactional. In return for forgiveness, I will feel better. Good feelings between myself and another will be restored.

And, in addition to being painful, according to theologian David Lose, forgiveness is just plain difficult.

“I don’t mean,” he writes, “the occasional moment of warm-hearted forgiveness, overlooking someone’s minor slight when you feel magnanimous; nor do I mean the spontaneous forgiveness you feel when someone is genuinely contrite over some accidental – and again preferably minor – fault. What I mean are those things that are really hurtful; those times when the person seems disinclined to take responsibility, let alone apologize; those episodes that continue to wound each time you remember them; those words or deeds that have marked you deeply and painfully and feel like they’ll never go away. Those are things that are so incredibly hard to forgive.”

At a loss as to where to begin, I googled things like “Top 10 Ways to Forgive.” But after pouring over various self-help lists, I had still not found anything especially helpful. Desperate, I turned to the Bible.

Let’s begin by looking at the Greek word aphiemi in the Matthew passage, translated here as forgiveness. Its primary meanings are to send away, release, leave behind, and let go. Matthew uses this same word quite literally when he writes that Peter and Andrew aphiemi, or left their nets to follow Jesus.

Isn’t that interesting, this suggests that forgiveness isn’t about the restoration of good feelings toward someone, but has more to do with releasing and letting go. This might mean releasing attachment to a wrong committed by or against us, and could even require letting go of and leaving behind a person.

Forgiveness is more than a feeling.

The Matthew passage begins with this short exchange between Peter and Jesus. Peter asks Jesus if it is enough to forgive someone who sins against him seven times, and Jesus responds not seven but seventy-seven times. To the casual reader, this might sound like Jesus is setting an impossibly high standard for forgiveness; “OMG Jesus, it’s hard enough to forgive once, and you are asking us to forgive how many times?” But this exchange actually references a passage in Genesis. God promises a “sevenfold vengeance” against anyone who kills Cain; remember Adam and Eve’s son? Sometime later, Cain’s descendent Lamech promises mortal vengeance against a young man who injured him, not sevenfold as God promised, but seventy-seven fold.

Isn’t that interesting? This suggests that anger and hatred multiply over generations.

So, rather than setting an impossibly high bar for forgiveness, Jesus is using a reference from the Torah to demonstrate the power of forgiveness to restore cosmic balance. He is demonstrating a correction to thousands of years of self-centered retribution in order to break the cycle of violence that grips humanity. Jesus is inviting Peter (and us) “to undo the curse of Cain and Lamech that has kept their offspring trapped in cycles of envy, hatred, and retribution across the generations to this day.”

Again, the goal of forgiveness is not to hurt less. There is not a quid pro quo, do this and feel better.

Then Jesus tells a parable about a king who wants to settle accounts with his servants. The king’s servants would travel the kingdom collecting taxes. They were permitted to squeeze some extra money from the peasants for themselves as long as the king gets his cut. It appears that the tax collector in this story had failed to pass along the required percentage he collected, and now owes the kind the enormous sum of 10,000 talents. It would take a laborer about 15 years to earn one talent, so 10,000 talents would take 150,000 years to pay back, obviously impossible.

The servant throws himself upon the king’s mercy, and the king forgives all of this impossibly large debt.

Having just been the recipient of this extraordinary act of forgiveness, the servant is approached by another servant who owes the first servant 100 denarii. Now a denarii is a day’s wage, so this servant owed the other the equivalent of 100 days of labor, a lot, but attainable. But the servant who had just been forgiven by the king refuses to forgive the other’s debt and throws this one into prison.

In this story we might look to the king as our model, that like the king we should seek to be infinitely forgiving.

But the king in the parable represents God. Thankfully, we are not expected to fill the role of God in any of the parables that Jesus tells. God is God so we don’t have to be. And God has already forgiven us everything. That is the message of this parable. Forgiveness isn’t something we need to do, not once, not seven times, not seventy-seven times, because God has already forgiven everything, once and for all.

God’s act of forgiveness is already a limitless, measureless act. Forgiveness is never not present in our lives and in our relationships. Forgiveness is s a constant. It’s not optional. It’s not a choice. We act like it is — and that’s at the heart of Peter’s question. What do I have to do?

Our goal instead is to not be the unforgiving servant.

We cannot expect to be an infinitely forgiving God, but we can strive not to be like the servant who doesn’t acknowledge the king’s forgiveness and, when asked to himself forgive a reasonable debt, instead seeks vengeance.

By recognizing that the heavy lifting of forgiveness has already been accomplished by God, releasing our hold on some wrong perpetrated by or against us might just be attainable, not easy, but attainable.

This might mean taking responsibility for our own pain rather than affixing responsibility for our feelings upon another’s forgiveness. And when we do this we might find we are able to empathize with the pain of those who continue to judge us. Both these, responsibility and empathy, can help us remove ourselves from the unhelpful, outcome-driven forgiveness equation.

As is true for so much of life in the realm of God, there is a certain paradox in this approach to forgiveness. By not making the restoration of our own happiness the goal of forgiveness, but instead working to let go of our desire for others to feel or act in a certain way toward us, we will likely feel better.

Rather than urging you to just forgive, or forgive more, I think I will follow David Lose’ invitation to simply announce the king’s forgiveness, the unbelievable, nearly inconceivable, amazing and unpredictable and possibility-creating forgiveness of God which each of us has been granted, and invite you to recognize, acknowledge and let go into that gift, remembering that we are all a work in progress.

 

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