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?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 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. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 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.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. 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. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’ (NRSV)
Ever since the Sunday of Epiphany, we've been spending some time considering the central practices of the Christian faith. I'm a firm believer that being a Christian isn't just about having a moment of conversion. Being Christian means living our lives in response to God's grace revealed in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. There are beliefs, for sure—the journey starts with the confession that Jesus is our Lord and Savior. But Jesus didn't leave the fishermen in their boats. He didn't leave them floating on the water with little more than a good story of encountering the Son of God. He challenged them to be his followers, his Disciples. Their lives would never be the same, not just because of the moment that Jesus called them, but because Jesus continued to call them in every moment that followed.
So in these weeks between the seasons of Christmas and Lent we're looking at the Holy Scriptures and church tradition that teach us how to respond to the call to discipleship. We're rehearsing what it means to live a Christian life. So far we've considered the practices of worship, healing, and hospitality, and we will yet ponder the work of evangelism and compassion. But today we wrestle with one of the most difficult Christian practices of all: forgiveness.
We're following Jesus up a steep slope today. Forgiveness is irrational. A psychologist will tell you that human beings aren't wired to forgive. When our loved ones or we are wronged, our impulses tend toward vengeance, bitterness, hatred. Mahatma Gandhi wisely observed that an "eye for an eye and soon the world is blind" – but the last time we think to quote Gandhi is when we've been wounded – intentionally or not —by another human being.
It may clash with our natural instincts, but forgiveness is fundamental to Christian spirituality. Each week we pray the words that Jesus taught us—forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. There are records from a church council in sixteenth-century Switzerland that preserve the story of a man who took that prayer quite seriously— so seriously he pretended didn't know the words. He knew that if joined his congregation in speaking them, he would have to forgive the man who had swindled him at the marketplace.
We are a forgiven people called to be a forgiving people. When Jesus taught his followers to forgive—not seven times, but seventy times seven times—it wasn't a footnote to our salvation. Forgiveness is the heart of redemption. Instead of letting his beloved creation remain shackled and suffering, God acted. God poured himself into the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus revealed the mercy of God and absorbed the evil of the world. Instead of condemnation or punishment, Jesus preached the vastness of God's love – a love that overcomes sin in all its forms.
The forgiveness of God is paving the way to a reconciled and restored Creation, one sinner at a time. But when we accept the gift of God's forgiveness, we become beholden to grace. Like the slave whose debts were pardoned by the king in the parable, we must share the gift of forgiveness. It has been said that once we have received the grace of God, we no longer "live for [ourselves]. We live instead as God's servants on behalf of a world that lives too deeply in alienation, bitterness, and various states of war. At our best, we who make up Christ's body in this world offer to this world a new model of handling the sins that grow profusely as crabgrass."
We witnessed a Christian community at its best this past year—and in the midst of the worst this world has to offer. Most of us heard about the tragedy that occurred in Lancaster County Pennsylvania last October, when five schoolgirls were killed in a random and unthinkable act of violence.
Instead of responding in the language of retribution, the girls' Amish community quietly but firmly let it be known that they forgave the man who was responsible. They even made sure that the man's widow would receive a portion of the donations that poured in from sympathetic neighbors. Baffled reporters described their dignity and humanity, and many an editorial echoed the sentiment that the world would be a better place if only more communities could summon that spirit of goodwill.
Yet in the days after the incident, the Jewish writer John Podhoretz, argued that "anger can be as righteous as forgiveness." After all, God cares passionately for justice, too. Without justice, the damage of wrongdoings cannot be restored. But damage cannot be restored without forgiveness, too. Pursuing justice without practicing forgiveness puts us in danger of being overwhelmed by rage and consumed by bitterness. And then we are simply chained to whatever or whoever has hurt us, unable to heal or to imagine any other future but the one imposed by pain.
So I've managed to talk for some time about forgiveness without actually considering how we, as individuals and as a community, might practice forgiveness. We know it's the basis of our relationship with God, we know it is something we are called to do—but how? In my reading this week, I spent a lot of time with an article by L. Gregory Jones on the Christian practice of forgiveness. He manages to address all the complexity and impossibility of forgiveness yet is also practical and hopeful. I want to share some of his suggestions for practicing forgiveness when we have been wronged.
First, we have to become willing to speak truthfully and patiently about the conflict. Tertullian, an early Christian writer, called patience the "mother of mercy." Once we have that measure of calm, its time to acknowledge our anger. I think this is the difference between authentic forgiveness and sweeping transgressions under a rug.
It does no good to pretend that you aren't furious about a thoughtless remark or intentional cruelty. But in the work of forgiveness, the other side of recognizing anger and bitterness is desiring to overcome them. We have to want to let our animosity dissolve. The next piece is to accept that the person who has wronged us is a child of God. We cannot simply paint the ones who have hurt us as soulless enemies. God breathed his spirit into every one of us, even the most egregious sinners. As we consider that the one who has hurt is a beloved child of God, we must remember that we too are loved by God. We have received God's grace and forgiveness, and most likely continue to stand in need of mercy. Strengthened by the grace we ourselves have received, the practice of forgiveness calls us to make a commitment to struggle to change whatever caused the conflict or injury. I think this is where forgiveness makes true justice possible. Many victims become powerful advocates for change, channeling their pain into helping others.
It was only after I read this process of forgiveness a few times that I realized a familiar understanding of forgiveness was missing. Nowhere are we encouraged to "accept an apology." The practice of Christian forgiveness is rooted in God's love, not whether or not the one who has hurt us has repented. The condition for forgiveness is that God has forgiven us.
The reality is that this is profoundly difficult work. Sometimes all we can do is confess to God that we’re working on it, and keep praying that that He will keep working on us. Ultimately, forgiving isn’t something we do in a breath or a day. It’s a way of life that requires a whole lot of prayer. C.S. Lewis wrote this in his journal: “Last week, while at prayer, I suddenly discovered—or felt as if I did—that I had really forgiven someone I have been trying to forgive for over thirty years. Trying, and praying that I might.”
May God give us the strength, the honesty, the patience, and the mercy to be a forgiven and forgiving people. Amen.