Forgive Him? You’ve got to be kidding!
21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28
But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.
32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.
35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
A Troublesome Scripture
There are some passages of Scripture that are more difficult to digest than others. We read two passages from the scriptures this morning. One was about Joseph who freely forgave his brothers. That’s a nice story. A great ending to the story of conflict between brothers.
But the second story is not quite like that. It too is a story about forgiveness. A man owed a cool ten million dollars to his King. He was in trouble. He didn’t have two nickels to rub together. So the king ordered that all that the man owned should be sold. The man begs for mercy. He asks for more time to try to find the money. But he has no chance of coming up with that kind of an amount. Then to his utter amazement the King granted him forgiveness and erased the debt and the man was debt free.
What a great story. Here is a man in over his head in a sea of red ink. He does not have a chance to make it right. Then forgiveness comes. That terrible weight is lifted off the shoulders. He is a free man. Great story! But wait. We know it doesn’t end there.
For as that fortunate, forgiven, man leaves the bank, he sees a colleague who owes him a hundred dollars. He grabs the man and demands immediate payment. That poor man doesn’t have two cents to rub together. He begs, “give me some time and I’ll pay you as soon as I can.” But no mercy will be shown. He has the poor man arrested and thrown into debtor’s prison until he can pay every penny of the hundred dollars. Not a nice story at all. We are outraged. by the villainy of it all. We make nasty comments about human nature.
But for me the story gets worse. The first event told a great story of human redemption. The second event tells us a nasty story about human evil. But the third part for me is a scary story.
Someone squeals to the king about the man who owed ten million, squeezing the poor man for a measly ten. The perpetrator of that foul deed is dragged back before the king and the forgiveness that was granted earlier is rescinded, and he is thrown in jail until he can pay the last dime of his enormous debt.
Then Jesus, the one who tells this story in three parts, adds a line of explanation. “That is exactly what my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you do not forgive one another from the heart.”
The Scary Truth
That is what I find scary about this story. It seems to infer that after I have been forgiven by God, if I then refuse to grant forgiveness to those who have hurt me, I forfeit the gift of God already given. Could that be true? Tell me it isn’t so. Tell me that God forgives me freely, and would never reverse the pardon he has granted. Tell me instead that God forgives me the 10 million sins I have committed, and now wants me to try to forgive others, but if I don’t succeed, at least I am safe.
By the way, Jesus takes this matter very seriously. In Matthew’s Gospel alone this same message is repeated several times. The most obvious one is found in the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus gave us the Lord’s prayer as a pattern to guide us in our own praying. But there is a sharp edge in this prayer. The petitions read this way,
Give us this day our daily bread
and forgive us our debts
as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil.
And the prayer goes on to its grand conclusion.
But then Jesus once more adds a commentary, just in case we were not paying attention as we were praying.
“if you forgive others their trespasses,
your heavenly Father will also forgive you;
but if you do not forgive others,
neither will your Father forgive you.”
There are those terrible words again. And I’m still scared. Why scared? Because I find forgiving other people so difficult. If the hurt was incidental, it easy to shrug it off and forgive the person who hurt me. But if the hurt done was serious, then forgiveness may be among the hardest thing I will ever do.
The Necessity of Forgiveness
But God is serious. We must forgive those who hurt us. We must do it if His forgiveness is to work real freedom in our own lives.
Why does God insist on this arrangement?
- Forgiveness is not just removing an entry on the Police Blotter.
- Forgiveness is not intended merely to shred the paper work on my past behaviour.
- Forgiveness is not erasing an “F” I made in the course called life so that my transcript looks good.
- Forgiveness is the first step towards the healing of my life.
- Forgiveness is the first step towards making me a new creature in deed and not only in name.
- Forgiveness is a seed planted, that if it grows, will bring a harvest of the fruit of the Spirit of God.
- Forgiveness is the narrow edge of God’s wedge through which all his grace will pour to transform me into the kind of person He designed me to be in the very beginning.
- In forgiving me God says, “let’s forget about the past, and get on with the future.”
- But if I refuseto forgive another, I will keep on living in the past still.
- If I refuseto forgive, I stop the growth of that seed planted in my life from growing because the soil of my life will remain sterile.
- If I refuseto forgive, the healing that forgiveness is intended to bring, will be thwarted. And sick I will stay and t he forgiveness of God will not accomplish anything in my life.
Why should I forgive that person? Because forgiveness is for our good, not always the good of the person who has hurt us. Forgiveness is for the health of the forgiver, not necessarily the health of the person we forgive. There are times when the other person is not repentant. Sometimes they are no longer alive. It doesn’t matter. We forgive another so that we can move into the future free from anger and resentment.
- If we do not forgive, the person we resent is not hurt, we are. The bitterness we feel can eat us up. The anger can erode all joy in our lives. Hatred will make us hateful.
- If we withhold forgiveness, we let that old event insinuate itself deeper and deeper into our hearts so that the hurt grows bigger and spawns its own harvest, pushing out the fruit of a forgiven life. Original molehills become mountains, and original mountains become mountain ranges that prevent our lives from getting on with it.
- If we do not forgive we will find ourselves living under the control of the person who hurt us forever.
But we know all that don’t we? The crunch is not in our understanding, but in our abilities to forgive. Howdo we forgive that person who hurt us so badly? Some of us want to forgive, long to forgive, but the painful memory insists on resurrecting itself against our better wishes. We say “I want to forgive, but can’t!”
Let me paraphrase the words of St. Augustine. “You would not grieve so, if you had not already forgiven that person.”
It is interesting that the difficult story about forgiveness is preceded by Peter asking a question. “How many times should I forgive that person? Seven times?” Jesus says, not seven, but 70 times 7. Intriguing thought. It was intended to say that as long as that person keeps on sinning against us, we are to keep on forgiving. But I suspect that sometime we have to forgive the doer of an evil deed over and over and over again for that one crime.” Cornelius Plantinga the reformed theologian says
“we should be rehearsing the forgiveness of sins like pianists,
practicing the hard parts over and over till we get them right.”
For sometimes a hurt is so deep that we have to keep on forgiving and forgiving, until one day we wake up and find that we have finally forgiven that person, and the hurt within us is healed. But even before that final resolution comes, we have forgiven them to be best our ability and the forgiving grace of God is continuing the Good work of God in our characters.
Let me explain what forgiveness is not.
What Forgiveness is not
- To forgive does not mean that we can excuse that person and say he didn’t really mean it.
- To forgive does not mean that we condone the evil that was done. Evil is still evil whether I forgive it or not.
- To forgive does not mean I make light of an evil deed or minimize the hurt that was done. The hurt was real and needs to be acknowledged.
- To forgive does not cancel all consequences of wrong action. We can forgive a criminal, but still incarcerate him for the protection of society. All persons are still accountable for their actions.
- To forgive a person does not mean that we can trust that person
- To forgive does not mean we can ever forget the event that hurt. “Forgive and forget” may not be possible or desirable. Forgiveness does not grant amnesia!
Then What is forgiveness?
- To forgive cancels my right for revenge or retaliation. Hear the words of Jesus. You have heard it said “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (A quick way says Calvin Miller to a blind and toothless world) but, says Jesus, instead “turn the other cheek to the one who hits you. Walk the second mile with the one who compels you. Give your coat to the one who is stealing your shirt.” That is the Christian alternative to resentment, revenge and retaliation. (Matt 5:39)
- To forgive is to wish my adversary well. Again Jesus says it “You have heard it said “Love your neighbour but hate your enemy.” but I say to you “love your enemies and pray for them” (Matt 5:44) Wish him well. Pray for him. Care about him. We may not feel inclined to care for You may not ever come to “like” him, but we are called to care abouthim. To forgive is to wish my adversary no evil. Not now and not ever!
- To forgive my enemy is to treat him kindly. Paul adds his words to the words of Jesus. “if your enemy is hungry feed him. If he is thirsty, give him a drink … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with doing good.” Romans 12:20-21. As the book of Proverbs tells us when speaking about the perfect wife, “She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.” The Forgiver will not only refuse to retaliate, but will actually do good to the offender.
But does my forgiving the villain let him off?
I would hope so. I do not want him to suffer the consequences of his evil deeds, anymore than I want to reap all that I have sown. I hope the person who hurt me, changes, becomes penitent, ends up becoming my friend instead of my foe. I hope that we can mend the brokenness in our relationship. It would be wonderful if my abuser became my benefactor. If my worst enemy became my bosom friend.
There are stories out there that have stunned the world because this has happened. These stories grip us because, though they go against the tide of prevailing human attitudes, we know that the stories ring right. To forgive the abuser is a difficult thing to do, but it is a wonderful thing to do. One such story comes from the life of Corrie Ten Boom.
Corrie Ten Boom and her sister were prisoners in Hitler’s Ravensbruk Camp. She was treated terribly. But her sister more so. Her sister was brutalized by one guard, beaten mercilessly and died of her wounds. Corrie Ten Boom nursed a deep resentment towards this German guard. After the war Corrie returned to Germany to talk to the German people about the Forgiveness of God and her forgiveness. Germany suffered under terrible guilt and needed to hear words of hope.
At the close of one of the services, people lined up to speak to her. One of the persons in line was the Prison guard who had killed her sister. He spoke to her. “I was a guard in the prison camp. I appreciated your message tonight. I have come to know Jesus Christ as my saviour, and I have come to you because I need your forgiveness.” When she recognized him, bitterness boiled up inside her. He stood there with his hand extended, but she could not give him her hand. He had killed her sister. He asked again, “will you forgive me?” Within herself she cried to God, “O God help me!” and suddenly she sensed the enablement of God. She took his hand, looked into his eyes, and said “I forgive you” and she knew and he knew that she meant every word.
But Corrie Ten Boom is simply walking in the steps of others who have forgiven the unforgivable.
- Jesus from a cross looked upon the mob below and says “Father forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.”
- Stephen the first martyr of the Christian church is being stoned by another mob.
Saul of Tarsus is in charge of the execution. Stephen cries out to God “Lord do not lay this sin to their charge” and died. And Saul, who would become the great Apostle Paul, heard those words, and they start him on a journey towards God.
Heaping coals of fire.
But when I quoted Paul a few minutes ago I did not complete his words. Let me read them again. “if your enemy is hungry feed him. If he is thirsty, give him a drink, for by doing this you heap coals of fire on his head.”
What do these strange words mean? Paul’s use is not the first time these strange words appear in Scripture. Paul has borrowed these words from the book of Proverbs. (25:21-22)
- Some people think they mean “Do good to your enemy so that his punishment will be even more severe.”That sounds terribly vindictive to me!
- Some think it means, “do good and your enemy will be made very uncomfortable and burn with embarrassment.” Again it sounds vengeful, though in a milder way.
- Let me give you a better read of these words. In Egypt around the time the Book of Proverbs was written, there was a ritual for a person who was sorry and penitential about their sins. The penitent would place a dish of hot coals on their heads as a mark of their willingness to suffer and bear the penalty of their wrong doing. In this strange way they publicly expressed their remorse by their self-induced suffering. (In Israel, by the way, they exchanged the hot coals for the cold ashes of those hot coals. As a sign of sadness, they put on sack cloth and placed ashes on their heads.)
And Paul says “Do good to your enemy. Feed him. Give him drink. You may not only help to end his hunger and his thirst, but also to end his enmity, and bring him to repentance. Doing good may help mend the broken fence and you may win a friend instead of keeping a foe.
The Impossible demand/Offer
But we say. It is too hard to forgive when the hurt is deep. That is true.
Alexander Pope writes “To sin is human, to forgive divine.” He is inferring that forgiveness is something only a God could do. The Pharisees felt this way too. When Jesus said to a paralyzed man “Your sins are forgiven you” the Pharisees retaliated by saying “Only God can forgive sins.” Again their insight is close to accurate. To forgive sin would take the grace of a God.
It has been said that the Sermon on the mount, that asks us to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, give away my top coat as well as my shirt, asks for the impossible. To forgive the abuser is more than any of us can do. Unless of course God is with us! and enables us to do what we could not do in and of ourselves. If God, who forgives me, will stay with me, it may well be possible for me to do the impossible.
What if the person never repents?
But another question rises to the surface. What if I forgive the person, but they are not penitent? Do not want to be friends again? Want to continue the enmity?
We may forgive. but that does not mean the person is forgiven. We may be pitching but they are not catching. Forgiveness is a gift we give, but they are not obligated to receive it.
We may forgive but they can still refuse all friendship. They may continue their evil against us in spite of our forgiving them. Life is sad isn’t it!? For the truth about life is that my forgiving another may not make the world right. May not help bring about change in the other person. I may end up being the only recipient of good.
- We grant forgiveness because it is right, not always because it works.
- We grant forgiveness because we know that bitterness of spirit can consume our lives.
- We grant forgiveness because it is what the other person desperately needs, whether they know it or not.
- We grant forgiveness because that is the first steps towards the healing of our world.
- We grant forgiveness because there is a yearning in our hearts that cries out to God – “O to be like Thee blessed Redeemer. Stamp Thine own image deep on my heart!”