By Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm. (View the sermon and worship here).
Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
I’ll bet Peter thought that he had really gotten the message, that Jesus would be proud of him for understanding the importance of forgiveness. I’ll also bet that he felt rather crushed by Jesus’ reply, which amounts to saying that Peter ALWAYS had to forgive, and that he would never have forgiven “enough”.
Jesus followed his answer to Peter with a distinctly disturbing parable.
It’s about a king who shows mercy to slave who has accumulated massive debt by entirely forgiving the debt.
The parable goes on following the slave who has been forgiven, who in turn runs across a fellow slave who owes HIM money. The one who has been shown mercy, when his opportunity comes, has no mercy at all, and arranges for his debtor to be thrown into prison.
When the king learns of the first slave’s hard-heartedness, he turns him over to be tortured.
Jesus tells the story with a frequent and familiar introduction: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like this”, and it’s not hard to understand the point, especially if we pay attention to the figures involved in the two slaves’ debts:
This parable-of-the-Kingdom reminds Peter – and us - how extravagantly we are forgiven by God:
Our failings are numerous, beyond measure, and yet we are loved and accepted by God beyond our deserving or our comprehension.
The parable asks us - how, then, can we refuse to extend compassion and generosity to one another?
A good sentiment, but I’m sure we all know what a huge ask this can be.
Some of the wrongs we are called to overlook – a phone call not returned, a thoughtless remark, are small potatoes, and forgiving them doesn’t cost much and even allows us to feel good about ourselves.
Other debts can cause us so much pain that they feel utterly unforgiveable. Some of the wrongs done us cause true, ongoing hurt every time we think about them and seem like they’ll never go away. Wrongs can be hardest to forgive when the other person won’t acknowledge or take responsibility for their wrongdoing, let alone apologize.
Holding onto unforgiven hurts can ultimately do more damage to the one who cannot forgive than it does to the wrongdoer, however. Nurturing resentment, hurt, and anger can become its own prison, leading us into bitterness and self-pity that separate us from others. Forgiveness frees us.
You may be familiar with a story that was much-publicized back in October of 2006; it’s worth remembering again.
A man in Lancaster County PA was unable to get over his grief over his daughter’s death, nine years previously, and was unable to forgive God. He entered a one-room schoolhouse in a nearby Amish community and shot ten young schoolgirls to death.
It’s a horrible story, and one can barely imagine what it may have felt like to the peace-loving Amish community. But their response was equally unimaginable. Here’s an excerpt from a report at the time:
In the midst of their grief over this shocking loss, the Amish community didn’t cast blame, they didn’t point fingers, they didn’t hold a press conference with attorneys at their sides. Instead, they reached out with grace and compassion toward the killer’s family.
The afternoon of the shooting an Amish grandfather of one of the girls who was killed expressed forgiveness toward the killer, Charles Roberts. That same day Amish neighbors visited the Roberts family to comfort them in their sorrow and pain.
Later that week the Roberts family was invited to the funeral of one of the Amish girls who had been killed. And Amish mourners outnumbered the non-Amish at Charles Roberts’ funeral.
Perhaps Martin Luther King had it right: “Forgiveness is not an occasional act,” he said; “it is a constant attitude.”
Jesus calls on us to live out of a spirit of generosity, just as God shows immeasurable generosity to us – not keeping a record of wrongs done us and what we are owed in compensation - but of compassion for the many ways in which we all stumble and fail, a spirit of readiness to extend new chances to others, to let them get it right.
Having said all of this, I also believe that accountability is important, and that “get out of jail free” cards are not always called for, and not always what is best for us.
Considering this passage this year, in a time when we need and are trying to come to terms with the deep and persistent wrongs done by white America to our citizens of color, I also see it as dangerous to hold up limitless human-to-human forgiveness as an ideal.
I don’t have easy answers, but I do feel that there are some principles that are consistent with the Gospel that we need to hold in tension with the mandate to forgive.
Again, no easy answers, but I think there are some principles we might apply when looking at the question of forgiving wrongdoings:
So, hearing this gospel, let us strive to live into and extend to others the inexhaustible grace that has been extended to us. And let us do it with judiciousness and wisdom.
Let us extend compassion to one another in ways that help us all to take responsibility for our acts and to live, more and more, into the Kingdom of God.
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