The Practice of Forgiveness (Genesis 50:15-21; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35)
Most of us like stories that have happy endings – it’s just one of those built-in ways in which we cope with our own stories that we hope will turn out well, but don’t always. Jesus told a story one day that dealt with the topic of forgiveness. And it didn’t turn out in a way that would make many of us comfortable or happy.
The story is found in Matthew chapter 18, which gathers together materials that give the Gospel writer’s take on Jesus’ teaching about how to be a community of faith together in hard times. He said that it was important that disciples be deeply committed to take care of one another – especially those he called “little ones.” By this term Jesus certainly meant actual children, but his words also applied to those who are child-like in their openness and humility. At the beginning of chapter 18, he called these “the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” He counseled community members to conduct themselves carefully in order not to make faith harder than it already is for those “little ones” both inside and outside the community. Jesus is not only, or primarily, interested in our words about grace, care and concern for the humble and child-like, but more importantly in actions. He’s interested in practice that grows out of thoughtful trust in a God of love.
In last week’s Gospel Lesson, we saw that, sometimes, thoughtful trust in a God of love means that communities have to deal with those times when we do wrong to one another or maybe even to the whole community. To revisit that lesson for just a moment, those verses are not about excommunication but reconciliation. To add something to which I only alluded last week, Jesus spoke about how important it is that, before real reconciliation can happen, there needs to be recognition of what’s wrong and a willingness not to let the wrongs of the past set the course of the future (that’s what forgiveness and reconciliation are). When that doesn’t prove possible Jesus said, finally, that disciples should treat the wrongdoers as “Gentiles and tax-collectors,” which, as I pointed out last week, doesn’t mean treat them as if they don’t belong, but treat them the way Jesus did, gently as those who may not yet understand how things work, and, so, with respect. Again, note how all this is really about how we practice our faith rather than simply how we talk about it, or present it, or sell it in the marketplace. We also need to remember that Jesus’ words here would have been understood in his culture (and really in the Bible as a whole), as addressed to communities not simply to individuals. They are not primarily about each one of us doing the forgiving, but how we live together as a forgiving community. Of course, that will involve individuals, but Matthew is giving these words of Jesus to his community, not just to individuals. That’s an important part of reading the Bible today. Downplay the individualism.
Jesus has raised a difficult topic of how we do practice our faith with those who have “done us wrong.” How do we actually, truly, forgive people? Every religion I know of talks about this as important in one way or another. How do Christians practice forgiveness in communities? Simon Peter, in the introduction to today’s lesson, knew he was supposed to forgive. Some rabbis in his day had read the Prophecy of Amos chapters 1-2, where God said, “For three rebellions and for four, I will not turn back punishment.” This was often read to mean that God would forgive three times, but punish on the fourth. As humans we cannot expect to be more generous than God. So we are required to forgive three times. When Peter said to Jesus, “How often shall another member of the church sin against me, and I forgive?” He doubled the rabbis’ three times and added one for good measure when he said, “Seven times.” In the closest Gospel parallel to this text, found in Luke 17:4, the answer is “seven times.” So “Good Job, Peter!” Or is it? Jesus’ response is, not seven, but either seventy times seven times or seventy seven times depending on how one takes the Greek. The point is that talking about “forgiveness” in terms of “numbers” is not practicing forgiveness in the way Jesus’ commends. Forgiveness is a matter of one’s ingrained attitude to others that leads to habitual action, not a matter of not of holy bookkeeping.
To illustrate what he meant Jesus told this story of a servant who had been forgiven a debt by the king that it is estimated would have taken 150,000 years to repay, at the then-current day labourer’s wage. But, even though he had been greatly forgiven, this servant would not forgive a much smaller debt from one of his fellow servants. It didn’t come out well for this unforgiving one, and he ended up in darkness. And nobody wants to be there. But this story isn’t just difficult because this one ends up in darkness. It’s difficult because Jesus suggests that you and I need to identify with this unforgiving servant. We have all been forgiven a great deal by God. How can we fail to have learned the lesson? Jesus even offends us by suggesting that God is like this ancient monarch who will punish those of us who don’t forgive the little things. Is this a God of love?
Now, I want to be careful not to misunderstand a parable as something it’s not and stretch it too far so as to claim an identity between the God of Jesus and some ancient potentate who forgives and then un-forgives simply because he can. Jesus doesn’t say when or how God punishes those who don’t forgive. So I must guess about this, and my guess here is that there are two ways to practice forgiveness, and that God respects us enough to allow us to do it either way. The first practice speaks of numbers and accounting; forgiveness is a matter of “how much?” and “how often?” and “for what?” The other assumes that forgiveness is a matter of our basic stance and attitude that shapes our habitual behaviour in the world. We do not let past wrongs shape future possibilities. Jesus’ parable suggests that the latter practice is better, and if that is so, then we will understand that forgiveness, like so many other things in Christian life, starts as a gift of God, and develops, as we receive and use the gift, into a disciplined life that involves both God’s grace and our effort. It begins in the realization that we are forgiven, not just potentially, but actually forgiven, and, so, can live in the light of that truth as it relates to ourselves, and others. But if not, God will allow us to use the language and ways of the counting house. This way of looking at forgiveness, if we grasp who we really are, will, frankly punish us all our lives long. We will end up beating ourselves into the ground with our own choice of practice. If we choose to play by these rules, Jesus says, we must understand that we will spend our time in debt over our heads, and we will never get to the point that we forgive others enough to be good. This is one reason why many give up on the Christian life. The choice is ours. And God underwrites it. Again, this is intended to apply to communities of Jesus’ disciples, not only individuals.
We looked at a part of the Joseph story in a recent sermon. The story began with Joseph’s dreams. He dreamt his parents and brothers would serve him. They didn’t like it, and his brothers threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery in Egypt to show him who had power. They lied to their father that Joseph had been killed. Joseph’s dream, however, came true in Egypt. He became an important person there, and, in a time of famine, his family came to him, not knowing it was he, and, in a real sense, served him. He had the power. They say it in today’s lesson: “We are your servants.” Yes, Joseph’s dream came true.
But God had a dream even before Joseph had one. God dreamed of caring for people on earth and loving them through this family descended from Abraham, including Joseph’s family. The thing to believe and trust in here is that God’s dream will come true, through many twists and turns in the road. It is true that Joseph’s brothers had meant to ill treat him and harm him. And they did. The pain and sorrow of Joseph’s life in prison, etc., were real. But even more real was God’s dream for the world. Joseph said in our text today (and let me translate it a little differently): “Even though you planned to harm me, God planned to work for my good, in order to preserve you, my family, here alive.” Joseph did not claim that the danger was not real. No, he had suffered. In fact, the children of Joseph and his brothers would suffer many more things in Egypt before they were done (as those of us who have read the story of Joseph’s descendants in Egypt will know). If we romanticise God’s ways with people and forget that there is danger in life, then we’ll not be prepared for the reality of life in the world we live in. Bad things happen even to good people. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. Scoundrels get away with our money. Jobs get lost. Pension plans get pirated for many, while others get six and even seven figure bonuses and stock deals. Emails and credit scores get hacked. To underestimate the danger in the world is not realistic and can lead us to suffer.
But, in spite of the reality of the danger, Joseph had his own dream of the way life was going to be for him, and that dream probably kept him moving through the danger. And even more real, more basic to the whole foundation of the universe, than either the danger or Joseph’s dream (or ours) is God’s dream to care for and live with people. That meant that Joseph would not allow the past wrongs to thwart future possibilities.
In spite of what it looks like in the moment, God’s dream is coming true. We may not live long enough to see it all, but God’s love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness will triumph and people will be preserved alive. For operating beneath our dreams, and, in spite of all the danger, is God’s dream of wholeness and grace. The Joseph story teaches us that. And for God’s dream to be realized in this world, God’s children need to refuse to allow the wrongs that have been done to destroy the future. In other words, God’s dream requires that God’s people practice forgiveness as God does. Communities of faith, and the people in them, need to do what they can to keep past wrong from setting the agenda for the future.
We base that practice trusting that, although the danger is real, God’s dream is even more real, and will, in due course, come true in our world. The goal of the practice of forgiveness is to realize God’s dream of love, grace, and mercy for the whole world, even if just a little, in our own lives. And for that to happen, we must learn to forgive as a lifestyle.
When we understand that the practice of forgiveness begins with God’s dream, God’s gift, and develops into a discipline, we can begin to understand how, in the church, we can do what Paul suggested in Romans 14, and accept one another, differences and all, because we have been accepted by God, differences and all. It’s not that our differences don’t sometimes rub us the wrong way, but we realize more and more that these difficulties are actually wonderful opportunities to practice love and patience, grace, inclusion, and forgiveness. Living together is never easy and, nobody said in should be. In the end of the day, however, it’s not our judgments on one another that will matter. We’re really not ultimately in the judge’s seat. Jesus is. And the questions he will ask are not about whether it was always pleasant, or whether we were always in agreement on things like politics or theology. The questions Jesus will ask will be about practicing love and mercy, grace and forgiveness. The bottom line is the realization that we really do belong together if we belong to Christ, no matter who we are. God knows us completely and loves us absolutely, and that means we are forgiven. Understand that and it will open a door that will allow us to begin to live a life, not of counting up, even to seventy times seven, but a life of forgiving because forgiven.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.