How many times should I forgive? As much as we have been forgiven…
During the LA riots over the Rodney King verdict in 1992, truck driver Reginald Denny unknowingly swung his 18-wheeler into the middle of the crowd, where he was dragged from his truck and viciously beaten within an inch of his life. The attack ended when one of the assailants took a concrete cinder block and smashed it into Denny’s head, causing 91 fractures of the skull. Some witnesses to the attack managed to get Denny back into his truck and took him to the hospital.
After a painful recovery, which has never been a full recovery, and after the trial of his assailants, Reginald Denny met face to face with one of the men who had beaten him, shook his hand, and forgave him. A reporter, commenting on the scene, wrote, “It is said that Mr. Denny is suffering from brain damage.”
On October 2, 2006, a troubled milk truck driver named Charlie Roberts walked into an Amish schoolhouse and shot ten little girls, killing five of them, before turning the gun on himself. The world stood amazed when the Amish community then surrounded Roberts’ wife and children and extended forgiveness to him, even attending his funeral. The world looked at this and said something like, “Well, they’re Amish. They are a little strange anyway.”
Brain damage, strangeness—that’s how the world viewed these events because forgiveness—especially in cases like this—isn’t rational, according to the way our world works. We expect something else—retribution, revenge, or at least a lawsuit to settle accounts with those who have wronged us. Someone who forgives such a wrong has to be brain damaged or naturally weird.
When most people think about forgiveness, it looks more like the story about the grandfather of writer James Thurber. When he was on his deathbed, Thurber’s grandfather was asked by his minister, “Have you forgiven all your enemies?” “Haven’t got any,” said the old man. “Remarkable!” the minister said. “But how did a red-blooded, two-fisted old battler like you go through life without making any enemies?” Grandpa Thurber explained casually: “I shot ’em.”
We don’t make a lot of movies about forgiveness. Arnold Schwarzenegger has never said, for example, “I’ll be back…to forgive them.” We don’t immediately think about forgiveness when the neighbors do something heinous, when that guy cuts us off on the highway. We don’t immediately move to forgive those who have wronged us, caused our lives to be turned upside down.
And yet, Jesus tells us to pray: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
In fact, if you look back at the Lord’s Prayer as Jesus lays it out in Matthew’s Gospel, you notice that Jesus actually says this twice (Matthew 6:12, 14). In the part where we usually say, “for thine is the kingdom and the power, and glory forever,” Jesus repeats what might be the most important and difficult parts of the prayer. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Where people normally think of forgiveness as an unlikely option, Jesus makes it a requirement for receiving the forgiveness of God.
Joe mentioned last week that asking for our daily bread is difficult. We want to know we’ll have bread for tomorrow. This is one of those things we wish Jesus hadn’t said. But perhaps nowhere is that more true than with this statement of Jesus about forgiveness. What Jesus states here, what we are to pray for, may not be the result of brain damage, but is certainly in need of brain and soul restructuring.
Look at how this section of today’s Gospel reading begins. Peter asks Jesus how many times they should forgive someone who sins against them….seven times? Wow, that’s a lot. You’d have to be nuts to do that—forgive someone seven times, especially if it’s for the same offense. But Jesus gives what appears to be an even crazier answer: “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times (or in some translations it’s seventy times seven times). In other words, it’s forgiveness beyond counting. Indeed, the implication is that if you’re counting the limits of your forgiveness, you’re not really doing it right.
Forgiveness once, we think, maybe. Seven times? That’s pushing it. Unlimited forgiveness? Impossible. And yet Jesus tells us to pray that we will be forgiven by God inasmuch as we forgive others. How is that possible?
Forgive us our debts…
Well, it’s possible, according to Jesus, because we have been forgiven a lot by God—indeed an infinite amount. This is the point of the parable that Jesus tells next. It’s a story about indebtedness, which wouldn’t have been surprising to Jesus’ audience. In the first century Jewish world, sin was often characterized by the metaphor of indebtedness. That’s why the translation of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew is the way I learned it growing up in the Presbyterian—Forgive us our debts. That’s closer to what Jesus actually said. In Luke it’s “forgive us our sins.” We say, “forgive us our trespasses,” which isn’t a biblical translation but is the way that the Anglican Book of Common Prayer renders it, which was the translation John and Charles Wesley used. “Debts” gives sin a transactional feel, which is what Jesus goes with here in the parable of the unforgiving servant.
Look how the story begins. A slave being indebted to his master for any amount of money may not have been uncommon in those days. However, that a slave would have been indebted to the amount of “ten thousand talents” is inconceivable. Ten thousand talents is an astronomical amount. It would be more than the richest citizens in the empire would ever hope to accrue. It was the highest number used in arithmetic at the time – the equivalent of trillions of dollars to us. Jesus doesn’t tell us why the king allowed the servant to wrack up such a debt, but the indebted servant, realizing the precariousness of his situation, throws himself upon the mercy of his master. All is hopeless. And yet, just as the amount of debt is inconceivable, so, too, is the master’s mercy inconceivable. The whole debt is forgiven. It’s an extraordinary act of grace by the master. The slave could never have possibly paid back what he owed.
But the slave who received extravagant mercy walks away from his master’s generosity and fails to be merciful himself. The servant who has just been forgiven his debt refuses to forgive a debt owed him which is five hundred thousand times less than the debt that he owed the king. Unable to pay the one hundred denarii, the second slave is thrown into prison. The chances that the slave in prison would be able to repay the debt are slim at best. The parable describes the reaction of the other slaves who, not being very forgiving themselves, run and report to the king what has occurred. The king, in turn, recalls the first slave and demands an accounting of the original debt. As the unforgiving slave can’t pay off the monetary debt, the slave is tortured until he can pay with his life. The meaning that Jesus wants his audience to hear is plain: As God has been merciful and forgiven us to an infinite degree, so, too, must forgive and be merciful to one another to an infinite degree. The measure of forgiveness that we get is the measure with which we are supposed to give. Our forgiveness by God is contingent upon our willingness to give forgiveness in return. It’s a hard truth, but it’s one that Jesus proclaims repeatedly.
In a world where forgiveness is scarce, that seems like the ranting of a brain-damaged individual. But in the world of God’s kingdom, Jesus says this is to be the norm. But how can that be normal in this world? How can we possibly forgive like that?
Well, first we have to remember that we have the capacity for forgiveness only because God has first forgiven us. Without first experiencing God’s forgiveness in our lives, we have nothing to offer anyone else. Any act of forgiveness we have become capable of extending or expressing to another is directly related to an act of worship to God. Like the servant, we throw ourselves at the feet of God in worship and plead for God’s mercy. Psalm 51 is the kind of prayer we pray at the foot of the king’s throne:
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” In other words, God, in your mercy release my debt. I can’t possibly pay it back, but I can pay it forward. By forgiving others in the way we are forgiven, we offer a genuine Christian form of worship to our God, who saves us through divine forgiveness.
But God knows it is hard for us to let go of our carefully guarded, well-worn baggage of resentments and old hurts. When someone hurts us, we feel a righteous hatred – we know we’re right, when we know that someone else has done something wrong, when we’re certain that the offender owes us or our loved ones or society something, like that servant in Jesus’ parable. We want to grab them by the neck and say, “You owe me! And you will rot until you’ve paid me back!”
Each of us has names and faces of people in our lives that we simply cannot imagine being able to forgive.
— How can we forgive a relative who molested us?
— How can we forgive an ex-spouse who maligns us?
— How can we forgive a thief who has stolen precious memories from us?
–How can we forgive a murderer who has taken the life of someone precious to us?
— How can we forgive a corporation that uses our talents and then discards us?
— How can we forgive a parent who abandons us?
— How can we forgive a child who hates us?
— How can we forgive stupidity, hatred, bigotry, cruelty, greed, gluttony, war, waste, poverty, pollution and genocide?
Forgiveness seems crazy in those contexts, and yet it’s not only possible, it’s necessary, says Jesus. It’s the only way forward, the only way that we can move toward the life of the kingdom. Failure to do so leads to a torturous existence. If we are waiting for restitution, if we’re waiting for apologies, if we think someone owes us before we can forgive them, well, we have remember that sometimes the debt is just too great to ever be paid back. But forgiveness isn’t about getting what we’re owed, instead it’s about giving away our claim on the debt. How do we do that?
Well we remember that forgiveness:
* is not forgetting; rather, it is choosing not to actively remember.
*Forgiveness is not saying to the other party: “You’re okay.” Rather, it is saying, “I’m okay, and I am willing to let God deal with whether you’re okay; and if you’re not, how you can become okay.”
* Forgiveness is not saying, “I don’t feel the pain anymore.” Rather, it is saying, “I do not feel the need to hold on to your involvement in my pain anymore.”
It’s about releasing the debt we’re owed, which we can only do because God has released our debt first.
I once had a chance to hear a lecture by Terry Anderson, a hostage in Lebanon for seven years. He had a remarkable story to tell. His book Den of Lions is about his ordeal, but is really more about the healing powers of forgiveness in one’s life. He admits that, as a Catholic, he was often told to forgive, but the gospel never became real for him until he began to forgive his captors. “Forgiveness doesn’t have anything to do with one’s enemies,” he says. Forgiveness doesn’t mean there isn’t any anger, but is rather, letting go of that anger. If you hold on to the anger, you only hurt yourself, family and friends. He also observes that his journey toward forgiveness did not start after he was released, but while he was still a hostage.
It would be great to think that our forgiving someone their offense against us would change them, make them sorry, compel them to make amends. But it doesn’t often work that way. Truth is that we can only change ourselves and no amount of coercion can motivate the unmotivated to change. Forgiveness, as Terry Anderson said, is really more about us – dealing with the stuff going on inside of us and intentionally releasing it, not letting anger and bitterness and resentment control us.
This is hard enough to do with others, but I’ve found that it’s even harder to forgive ourselves. That’s a consistent theme I find with people I’ve counseled – often their anger and bitterness against someone else has turned inward and their past failures and baggage keep coming back around the carousel over and over again, paralyzing them. When we’re stuck in that cycle, we are in need of healing.
Remember that when Jesus came preaching, he announced the “year of the Lord’s favor.” Some interpreters connect that back to the passage we read earlier in Deuteronomy—an echo of the Jubilee year when all debts were to be canceled. There’s no evidence that the Israelites actually did what’s listed there, but Jesus did and in a new way. Jesus arrived and not only preached this message of forgiveness of debts—in this case, the debt of sin—he also lived it out in his ministry. Often in the Gospels when Jesus healed someone he didn’t do it like the TV preachers do – “Be healed!” – but he usually said, “Your sins are forgiven.” This drove the Pharisees nuts – only God, in their mind, could forgive sins. But Jesus was acting on God’s behalf, proclaiming a new reality – your sins are forgiven! That’s when real healing began to take place – a weight lifted off the shoulders, new life breaking in. If God can forgive us, no matter what we’ve done, and if we can forgive others, releasing the debt and our anger – then perhaps we can forgive ourselves, too. It’s the first step toward healing—it’s casting off the old so that we can become citizens of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
And Jesus lived out that debt-canceling forgiveness in another way as well. Hanging on the cross, he forgave those who put him there. He could have righteously screamed out his pain, like those crucified next to him, called down curses, called on God to collect what was owed him for his pain. But Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” It’s crazy, it’s strange—so strange that it caused a rational Roman centurion to see something very different in this crucified man—Surely, he is the Son of God!
But we know what Jesus was doing here. He was canceling a debt. Indeed, it was there on the cross that he canceled all our debts to God. “God made us alive with Jesus,” says Paul in Colossians 2:13-14, “when he forgave us all our trespasses erasing the record (cheirographon – literally a record of debt) against us. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.”
Your debt to God has been paid in full, nailed to a cross and signed in blood. And now the crucified Christ says, you go now and forgive the debts against you.
So, who owes you today? Whose debt do you continue to hold on to? Who do you want to choke out until you get satisfaction? Jesus invites you to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
Crazy? Well, to some. But in God’s kingdom, it’s the crazy forgivers who will find new life!
William H. Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, Lord, Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer and the Christian Life. Abingdon Press, 2008.