By the Rev. Darren Miner
Last week, the Gospel reading was about church discipline. Specifically, it dealt with how to handle someone who is causing trouble in the congregation. (Father Webber quite understandably opted to preach on the Epistle.) Today’s Gospel reading has to do with forgiving a fellow Christian who has sinned against you. In both cases, the common theme is how to get along with one another in a small, tight-knit community.
The Gospel reading starts out with Peter asking Jesus a question: How often do I have to forgive a fellow disciple who keeps on sinning against me? What a telling question! It tells me that things haven’t changed much in 2000 years. We still struggle to get along. We still struggle to forgive one another. If you have ever served on a parish committee, you know what kind of little sins can happen. Someone interrupts someone else, and the person who was interrupted feels that his or her opinion isn’t valued. Someone tends to talk a bit too long, and another church member makes a show of not listening. Someone is trying to get something done under a deadline, but someone else doesn’t want to rush into the wrong decision. In the course of community life, we inevitably hurt each other’s feelings. Now, these are all little slights, little sins. But they can disrupt the whole community!
Jesus’s answer to this problem is quite simple: forgiveness. Now, Peter imagines that he should forgive someone no more than seven times. That seems like a reasonable limit to him. But Jesus responds that we should forgive one another seventy-seven times. In other words, forgiveness has nothing to do at all with being reasonable.
Figuring that Peter won’t understand this teaching, Jesus tries to explain it with a parable, a short story about a rich king and his slaves. The king forgives a huge debt to a slave who cannot possibly repay what he owes. By rights, the king could sell the slave and all his family in order to recoup a tiny portion of the debt. But when the slave pleads for mercy, the king shows compassion and forgives the entire debt. Now, you have to realize just how large that debt was. Ten thousand talents is just under seven billion dollars! Unfortunately, the slave whose huge debt was erased does not himself learn forgiveness. He accosts a fellow slave who owes him around eleven thousand dollars and demands payment in full. When he doesn’t get it, he has that slave imprisoned!
Then the king gets wind of the first slave’s behavior, he reinstates the entire seven billion dollar debt. And he sentences the unforgiving slave to be tortured until such time as he can pay back the entire amount.
Just in case Peter still doesn’t understand, Jesus comes right out and tells him the moral of the story: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” In other words, God has forgiven you a huge debt that you could not possibly have paid off. But there is one condition: you have to forgive others their debts to you.
That ought to shake us up a bit. We tend to think that forgiveness is both unconditional and free of charge. But evidently, that is just not the case. We are supposed to “pay it forward,” as the saying goes. God forgives us our sins when we cannot possibly pay the price, but then we are expected to follow up by forgiving others their debts, their sins against us.
Forgiveness is meant to be part of the very DNA of the church. So when someone at church irritates you or fails to listen to you or doesn’t respect your opinion, forgive them! Just let it go!
Now, people are sometimes confused about exactly what forgiveness is. But first, let me say what forgiveness is not. It is not forgetting! It is not denial! It is not even reconciliation, although sometimes forgiveness does lead to reconciliation. Forgiveness is fully acknowledging that someone has wronged you and deserves punitive consequences, but then excusing them from those consequences—even if they are not the least bit sorry, even if they show no sign of changing their ways!
Now the main reason we should forgive is because it is God’s will for us. But there is another good reason. If we hold onto our grievances, it changes us over time. It makes us perpetually bitter, resentful, and angry. It hurts us spiritually and makes us the kind of people who cannot receive the benefits of God’s grace. Our own hard-heartedness blocks God’s gift of forgiveness. So, you see, we don’t forgive because the person who wronged us deserves it. He or she doesn’t deserve it at all! We do it for God, and we do it for ourselves.
Now, I wish I could teach you how to forgive. Sometimes, it is very hard to do. Sometimes, we have to forgive again and again until we can finally let go of our anger. The best advice I can give is to refrain from rehearsing the incident in your mind. Don’t obsess on your hurt. That only keeps the hurt fresh. Instead, act out forgiveness toward the offending party, even if you don’t yet feel much forgiveness in your heart. Sometimes acting out forgiveness can lead to feeling forgiveness. Lastly, pray! Pray for yourself, and pray for the person who wronged you. And I don’t mean pray that the person who hurt you gets what he has coming! Instead, pray that God will bless him and keep him. Such prayer can be restorative to one’s own spiritual well-being. For it’s hard to hate someone for whom you are sincerely and devoutly praying.
To sum up, God has forgiven all your debts, every one of your sins, and you are not expected to pay God back. You couldn’t if you tried! But there is something you can do in response to God’s mercy. You can “pay it forward” by forgiving every single member of the Church who has ever wronged you in any way—every last one! Do this, and you will know the Kingdom of Heaven.
© 2017 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.