Forgiven and Forgive PDF Print E-mail
Written by Pat Ireland   
Monday, 15 September 2014 21:02

First Presbyterian Church, Cottonwood Falls, KS

Forgiven and Forgiving: Matthew 18:21-35

Rev. Pat Ireland, Pastor

September 14, 2014


Matthew 18:21-35   CEB

21 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?”

22 Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times. 23 Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle accounts, they brought to him a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold. 25 Because the servant didn’t have enough to pay it back, the master ordered that he should be sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, and that the proceeds should be used as payment. 26 But the servant fell down, kneeled before him, and said, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ 27 The master had compassion on that servant, released him, and forgave the loan.

28 “When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred coins. He grabbed him around the throat and said, ‘Pay me back what you owe me.’

29 “Then his fellow servant fell down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ 30 But he refused. Instead, he threw him into prison until he paid back his debt.

31 “When his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply offended.  They came and told their master all that happened. 32 His master called the first servant and said, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. 33 Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ 34 His master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners, until he had paid the whole debt.

35 “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

It’s pretty obvious the lesson is about forgiveness!   But it is a difficult word to hear, because we find forgiveness difficult -- both to receive and to give.  However, it is also an urgent word, because receiving and giving forgiveness is central to our faith.

Tom Long a well-known contemporary preacher and author reminds us: “The New Testament is always calling us to do what we cannot do.  No, we ourselves cannot forgive, but as we strive to forgive we are given God’s forgiveness as a gift.  We are not called to create forgiveness; that is beyond us. We are called instead to participate in a forgiveness given to us as a gift.”

Let us Pray:  Oh Holy Spirit, guide the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts that we might forgive as we have been forgiven.  Amen

Forgiveness is central to our faith.   Though it is a divine quality it is essential to being fully human.  It is at the heart of our Bible’s story.  The Old Testament calls it covenant loyalty or everlasting mercy.  In the New Testament it is the cross.   This book (Bible)  teaches us to be “like God.” The Hebrew scripture use the word is Holy - set apart from the profane.  The Gospels call it following Jesus.

In his stump speech, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to be perfect, even as God is perfect.  I used to stumble on that thought until I realized it means: whole, complete, finished.  As in when Jesus cries from the cross, “It is finished.”  I’ve done the best I could.   It is done.

Perhaps, in his mortality Jesus wondered if it was enough... perhaps that is why he also said, “Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit.”  Maybe he thought he failed completely as he cried out, “Eli, Eli, Why have you forsaken me?”      ... Ah but that road is for another time.

This week, we are faced with the issue of forgiveness.  In the Lord’s Prayer we pray, ‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors’.  This week we are faced with a difficult teaching and an awkward story about story about forgiveness.  Both challenge us to love one another as God as loved us.

Matthew has been telling about Jesus’ miracles and teachings.  Today’s lesson was preceded by a lesson on telling the truth in love.  Jesus has instructed the community of conflict and promised to be with them as they struggle to maintain community in the midst of conflict.

Upon hearing this, Peter, apparently trying to limit his responsibility, asks:  “Well, just how many times must I do this?  How many times must I forgive?... Seven times?”  And he is thinking that’s a really generous suggestion – a holy number for an inspired thought.

The rabbinical standard for forgiving repeat offenders was three, based on Amos 1-2 -- "For three transgressions … and for four, I will not revoke the punishment," a phrase repeated several times in those chapters.  The idea is that God forgives three sins and punishes the fourth.  Peter senses that Jesus wants the disciples to extend themselves even further, so he doubles the standard and then adds one for good measure.

But Peter is thinking about quantity.  Jesus transforms the question into a matter of attitude.   Jesus teaches that life in God's reign calls for a daily release of all that keeps us in debt to one another and to God.

Then, Jesus tells us a story to drive home the point.  Now we, who considered ourselves forgiving and saved, might be tempted to reduce this story to an allegory in which the King represents God, casting judgment on sinners.  To do that however, makes God arbitrary in first offering and then withdrawing forgiveness and one who "tortures" those who fail to obey.

This is certainly not the God Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5-7)    Instead, this story is told to compare and contrast the ways of the world with the ways of the God’s realm.

As usual Jesus exaggerates!   The debt of 10,000 talents would be around a billion dollars today.  Even the "small" debt of a hundred day's wages would be far more than an ordinary person might have incurred.

One scholar wondered if we might think of such a huge debt as a political statement about the global economy.  But Jesus was speaking to peasants not nations.

However, for those faced with slavery and prison, forgiveness of debt was a very real issues, literally.  Their whole lives as well as their futures were bound up with their fiscal obligations.  For them, pardon of debt had little to do with guilt.  It represented, instead, the restoration to life and the renewal of hope.

If we see the king as simply a 1st century potentate then the offer of forgiveness that is later withdrawn is understood as protecting the king's security, reputation, and power against potential rivals: a worldly response.

Jesus’ parable invites us to contrast forgiveness, used as a weapon to enhance one's power (as the king wields it), with God's call to forgive without an eye toward personal credit.

The parable goes one step further, recalling Jesus' teaching in the Lord's Prayer.  Only as we treat others with authentic love can we know how deeply God seeks to offer each of us a fresh start, beginning this very day.

Let me say flat out that I don’t think Jesus was using the story to threaten or scare folks into practicing forgiveness.  I think Jesus was alluding to the truth that we cannot live in the household of love and forgiveness without practicing it.  We cannot be “saved”, we cannot be “whole” without learning to forgive.

But forgiveness is a complex issue and there are a wide variety of sins from offending or hurting another’s feelings all they way to ethnic cleansing.  Though it might be appropriate to simply forgive an unintentional insult, surely it is not appropriate to forgive and forget the holocaust in Germany or Darfur.

Marjorie Thompson begins with what forgiveness is not.

Forgiveness is not just a good idea, or an option to be selectively used depending on the circumstances or when we choose.

Forgiveness is not a cover-up or a game of "let's pretend;" a performance in which we shrug our shoulders and pretend the offense was "no big deal," acting as if it didn't matter.

Forgiveness is not teeth-gritting determination to keep going no matter what, refusing to let a wrong done to you affect, or be a barrier to, your progress.

"Forgiveness does not mean denying our hurt. It is not to be a doormat or to play the martyr."   Nor does forgiveness mean "putting the other person on probation," ready to snatch it back if the person doesn't live up to our expectations.

And perhaps most surprisingly, forgiveness is not forgetting.

So, then what is forgiveness?  Webster gives some help here, defining the verb forgive as "to cease to feel resentment" against someone, "to pardon, to give up resentment," or "to grant relief from payment."?? Marjorie describes forgiveness as making a choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be.  It is a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for revenge.

But notice there is no repentance in this story.  We are not talking about the offenders’ response, but how we respond as one who has been offended.

This is hard stuff.  Hurt feelings and destructive memories are not to be discounted, however, neither is living in anger.  And perhaps the reason Jesus tells us forgive as God forgives is because he understands the dangers of not forgiving, the dangers of holding on anger, resentment, and fear

Our attitude of forgiveness is not for the other person's sake, but for our own wellbeing.   Holding deeply held grudges affects me more than the begrudged person.  Forgiveness heals me.  It can remove my inner turmoil.  Forgiving the other doesn't restore the relationship, but it needs to precede any chance of reconciliation.

So, what does it mean, "to forgive"?  The literal meaning of the Greek word, aphiemi, is "to send away" or "to make apart."  If we think of sin as "missing the mark" -- not hitting the perfect bulls-eye, forgiveness is "removing" or "taking away" all the errant arrows that have missed perfection. Nothing imperfect remains.  They have been "sent away,"  "removed".  In terms of reconciliation, we might say that forgiveness "sends away" whatever has been keeping people apart.  Forgiveness precedes reconciliation.

Forgiving one's self is being released from whatever keeps one "bound."  Anger or feelings of vengeance are "sent away."  By forgiving, one is no longer under the control of that past sinful act he/she suffered.   One might define forgiveness as "Not letting past behaviors determine how I will act and feel in the present."  It is being released from the control those past events and feelings had over me.

Until we forgive, we are controlled by another’s past actions.  When we seek to forgive, we change that which we can, our own heart, and are again free become the person God desires.

This is hard stuff, but when we remember all the times we have missed the mark with others and with God, and realize that God desires to take all of that away, to erase it, to make it of no consequence then we must work on forgiving others as a means of accepting the grace God offers to us.

Because of our free will, our own willfulness, there is a sense in which God can only forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors.  If we insist on retaining the anger and hurt that distances us from our neighbor, we will at the same time distance ourselves from the God.

That is why, when I was most deeply hurt, it helped me to think of forgiveness as desiring for the other what God desired for them.  Now, I confess, I took some comfort in imaging, that perhaps God wanted that person to know that they had wronged me.  However, the matter was transferred to God’s realm and removed from mine.

If/when I can desire for the other what God desires for them, I no longer need to harbor the pain and resentment of what they did to me.   I have made room for God’s work in both our lives.  Forgiving, then might be as “simple” and as difficult as inviting God to work on us... and them.  Perhaps is akin to Jesus Gethsemane prayer:  “Not my will but thine be done.”

Christians are called to be forgiving towards all who have sinned against us whether or not they are repentant.

Let me repeat: our attitude of forgiveness is not for the other person's sake, but for our own wellbeing.  Jesus tells the story for his own followers.  The King is not God, equivocating on forgiveness.  The torture is not God’s judgment but the anger of resentment, which we continue to harbor; the anger that separates us from our brothers and sisters and from God.

So Jesus tells us to forgive and keep on forgiving 70 times 7, because only by forgiving can I truly understand what God has forgiven me.  When I realize the cost of forgiveness by offering it to others, then I begin to realize the cost of God’s love for me.  God calls us to forgive the small debt so in order to appreciate the greatness of our own forgiven debt.

God calls us to love a little, to forgive a little, so that we can know “the breadth and length and height and depth [of God’s love] and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”  Ephesians 3:18-19









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