In our Gospel for last week, Jesus sat his disciples down and taught them how to handle conflicts when they arise within the community. This week, building on that discussion, Peter wants to know – when a conflict arises how many times should he forgive another person? Thinking he is being very generous Peter volunteers an answer to his own question – “As many as seven times?” he asks Jesus. No Jesus says, not seven times, you must forgive 77 times (or as other translations say 7 x 70 or 490 times). Don’t let the numbers confuse you. The exact number is not the point here. Jesus is saying there is no limit to forgiveness. The spirit of forgiveness should so pervade our lives that we simply lose count of how many times we are required to forgive.
Jesus goes on to illustrate his point by telling his disciples the parable of the Unforgiving Slave. In this story, a king goes out to settle his accounts with the slaves who manage his business. He discovers that one slave owes him 10,000 talents. Now the talent was the largest unit of money in those days. It was equivalent to 45 pounds of silver or the amount of money a manual laborer might earn in 15 years. To owe someone 10,000 talents was Jesus’ way of saying that the servant owed his master an unbelievable sum, an amount that could never be paid back. It’s like my kids used to say when they were little and the saw something really expensive – “Dad, I bet that thing is worth a gazillion dollars!” When the slave admits he cannot repay such an amount and begs for mercy, the king in an incredible act of generosity, has pity on him and forgives the debt.
Not long after, this same slave encounters one of his fellow salves who owes him a hundred denarii, or about three months pay. This is a substantial amount but you would expect that after being forgiven so much this slave could forgive a debt which by comparison amounts to very little. However, this slave is unable to give anything close to the same kind of mercy he received and so he throws this second debtor into prison. When the king hears what his slave has done he revokes his forgiveness and orders the slave to be horribly punished. The point here is simple – God forgives you and me for every wrong we have done in life. God does so freely; forgiveness is not something we can earn. It is a gift given to every person. But in return God expects, demands, us to forgive others not once, not twice, but endlessly.
Some people think that forgiveness is an old and worn concept. All our lives we have heard about the importance of forgiving others, and at some point all of us have needed the forgiveness of another. It’s a lesson that begins in early childhood when we hear our first unkind word. But just because we know about forgiveness does not mean we’re any good at offering or accepting it. As a priest who has worked in church communities his entire ministry, I think almost every serious relationship problem has at its core some issue of forgiveness. Whether it is a church community, a family relationship, a marriage, a child, or a friendship – the degree to which we can forgive and accept forgiveness from another person dictates the health of that relationship. I often see marriages fall apart because one or both parties cannot forgive. I see communities fall apart because people can’t let go of old conflicts and festering wounds. I see young people damage their lives and their futures because they cannot forgive or receive real forgiveness from a parent and therefore cannot forgive themselves. And I see adult after adult in crisis because they live toxic and dysfunctional lives where forgiveness is often the core issue.
Nelson Mandela once described how he felt the day he walked out of prison after so many years behind bars. “As I walked across the courtyard that day I thought to myself, ‘They’ve taken everything from you that matters. Your cause is dead. Your family is gone. Your friends have been killed. Now they’re releasing you, but there’s nothing left for you out there.’ And I hated them for what they had taken from me. Then, I sensed an inner voice saying to me, ‘Nelson! For twenty-seven years you were their prisoner, but you were always a free man! Don’t allow them to make you into a free man, only to turn you into their prisoner!'”
How many of us are prisoners of our own unwillingness to forgive or accept forgiveness? It is an important question that affects not only our spiritual wellbeing but our physical health as well. Researchers at the Mayo clinic recently reported that holding onto grudges and bitterness results in long term health problems. Forgiveness, on the other hand, can – lower blood pressure, reduce stress, decrease the risk of alcohol or substance abuse, and ease chronic pain. Jesus knew what he was talking about.
But, let’s be honest, forgiveness isn’t easy. In fact, the human animal is not programmed to be good at forgiveness. Forgiveness is not some innate, natural human emotion. Vengeance, retribution, violence these are all natural human qualities. It’s natural for the human animal to defend itself, to snarl and crouch in a defensive position when attacked, to howl when wronged, to bite back when bitten.1 And even when we want to forgive we sometimes find that we cannot, the wound is just too great, the offense too large.
The old saying, “to err is human, to forgive divine,” is really true. But we need to know that by virtue of our baptisms we have been given the divine gift of forgiveness. First, we have been lowered into the same spiritual waters in which Jesus washed, the Jesus who said of his enemies on the cross – “forgive them for they know not what they do.” Second, in the waters of baptism we have died with Christ and risen to a new life not limited by the power of human sin. We have been forgiven and set free to be more than an animal who is defined by the need for retribution and revenge. Third, in baptism we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit which means among other things that there is nothing we can do that cannot be forgiven and nothing done to us that God cannot empower us to forgive. In truth, forgiving is the only way to be fair to ourselves. It is the best form of self-interest. For only forgiveness liberates us from a painful past into a brand new future. Hear this – not to forgive is to suffer endlessly the pain of yesterday and to allow the present and the future to be devoured by the past. Only forgiveness sets us free.2
In Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables, Jean Valjean served a 19 year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread in order to feed his sister’s family. Finally, he is set free. A Bishop is the only one who will befriend the embittered man. Valjean rewards him by stealing some of his silver. He is caught red-handed by the police.
The Bishop, you will recall, is called to the police station to press charges. Instead of doing that, he brings Valjean his candlestick holders as well. Valjean is forever changed. He extends grace to an orphan child and raises her as his own. He forgives the policeman who wanted to put him back in jail. Finally he dies, holding in his hand the two candlesticks that the bishop gave him. What is it that so completely changed this embittered man? He learned to extend mercy, because mercy had been extended to him.
Friends, every time we enter this sanctuary we have a symbol of the forgiveness that has been extended to us. It is the cross. Accept the grace that is offered to you this morning and then, in the name of the One who has forgiven you a debt which you cannot possibly repay, extend that grace to others.3 Amen.
1. Will Willimon
2. J. Randall O’Brien
3. Author unknown, eSermons.com