Forgiveness for the Sake of All

Matthew 18:21-35

Forgiveness for the Sake of All

September 17, 2017     Maple Grove UMC

 

          One time an extended family member struck my mother in the face—hard enough to knock her down, make her bleed, and give her a black eye.  This was a dear family member, who loved my parents deeply but also had a violent temper.  He was immediately remorseful; nothing like that ever happened again.  But there were serious consequences—he was not allowed  in my parents’ home for a long time.  Eventually they worked things out and forged a new relationship.

          Years later, though, I was talking about that family member with my parents.  I said some uncharitable things about him.  My mother stopped the conversation, looked intently at me, and said, “Glenn, you’ve got to forgive him.”

          I said, “I have.”

          “No,” she said, “you haven’t.”

          I thought about that and said, “Okay, what of it?  Why should I forgive him?  He hit my mother, and that will never be okay.”

          She said, “No, that will never be okay.  But you’ve got to forgive him for the sake of the family.  He is and always will be a member of our family, just like you.  And the whole family depends on you forgiving him.”

         

          Desmond Tutu has written a magnificent book called No Future Without Forgiveness, describing the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa after apartheid.  For decades White people controlled, segregated, deprived and traumatized Blacks and what were then “Colored” people in South Africa.  White military and White police officers beat Blacks for the fun of it.  White authorities made Black activists “disappear.”  Sometimes brutalized Blacks struck back at Whites. 

          So when apartheid ended in 1991, the question was, how would majority Blacks treat the minority Whites who had oppressed them for so long?  Besides vengeance and retaliation, which everyone knew would be catastrophic, history, Tutu writes, presented two models:

  • something like the Nuremberg trials after WWII, where Nazis were hunted down and put on trial for war crimes

Instead, South Africa chose what Tutu calls a “third way”—Truth and Reconciliation.  If perpetrators of violence would publicly confess their crimes and apologize, they would be forgiven and given a fresh start in society.  The Truth and Reconciliation process was gut-wrenching and imperfect, Tutu admits.  But “on its success,” he writes, hinges “the survival of our nation . . .  It is ultimately in our best interest that we become forgiving, repentant, reconciling, and reconciled people, because without forgiveness . . . we have no future.”1

 

               Today’s Gospel reading is a famous teaching on forgiveness.  Just before today’s reading, Jesus lays out his four-step process for dealing with conflict.  This process involves confrontation and accountability for bad behavior, but it also requires forgiveness and reconciliation.  Jesus’ teaching apparently makes Peter a little nervous.  He asks Jesus, “Lord, how many times would I have to forgive someone—as many as, say, seven times?  Seven is a good biblical number.  But Jesus says, “No, not seven, but 77 times.”  Your translation may not say 77 times; it may read 70 times 7 times, or 490 times.  The original Greek can be read either way.  And it doesn’t make any difference.  It’s a number too high to keep track of.  As Martin Luther put it, “Forgiveness is not an occasional art, it is a permanent attitude.”2

 

               There are many reasons it’s important, even necessary, to forgive others.

  • One reason is that Jesus told us to.  For Christians, forgiving others is not a suggestion, it’s a commandment.  Jeanne Bishop’s husband and pregnant sister were shot and left to bleed to death, and the killer showed no remorse.  But Jeanne says, “I have to forgive [their] killer . . . not because he has an excuse—he has none whatsoever.  I forgive not because he asked for it; he has not. . .  Rather I forgive for the One who asked me to and taught me to.”3  One reason to forgive is that Jesus told us to.
  • But sometimes, we do forgive because others need it.  A friend told me that the teenager next door backed into his car.  And every time the kid saw him after that, he’d apologize all over again, “Mr. Jones, I’m so sorry about your car.”  Every time.  Finally my friend said, “Taylor, look at me.  It was a mistake.  You learned a lesson.  I forgive you.”  And the kid never mentioned it again.  Sometimes we forgive because others need to be forgiven.
  • Third, we forgive others so we can be forgiven.  It’s in the Lord’s Prayer:  “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Now, surely it isn’t that God won’t forgive us until we forgive others.  It’s that we can’t really receive forgiveness while we’re holding onto our resentment and bitterness towards others.  We forgive so we can receive forgiveness.
  • Finally, we forgive as part of our own healing, to no longer be controlled by past traumas. Jack Kornfield tells of two ex-prisoners of war who meet after many years. When the first one asks, “Have you forgiven your captors yet?” the second man answers, “No, never.”  “Well then,” the first man replies, “they still have you in prison.”4 We forgive to set our own spirits free.

 

          All of those are good reasons to forgive.  But in light of our theme of “God-Centered Wellbeing and Community,” there’s one more reason:  We forgive others for the good of all, for the sake of the community, whether that community is your family, the church, our country, or what have you.  If we are going to live together, we have to find a way to forgive one another. 

          Now, I’m going to start by remembering what forgiveness is not.  Forgiveness is not forgetting—besides being impossible, forgiveness is about dealing with what happened, not forgetting it.  Forgiveness is not letting people get away with things—Jesus commands us to forgive 77 times, but in the context of confronting and holding people accountable for their behavior.  Forgiveness does not mean staying with someone who’s hurting you—you can forgive and protect yourself.  There’s much more to say here, but I want to save a few minutes to think about why and how forgiveness is important in community.

  1. For one thing, forgiveness rids a community of the poison of bitterness and resentment.  That’s what my mother was talking about—my anger at that family member was affecting the whole family.  In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes, “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.”  If Paul had heard about these two women’s disagreement in prison hundreds of miles away, clearly their dispute was no longer just personal.  It was poisoning the whole church. They needed to work things out for the good of all the Philippians.
  2. Forgiveness is—at least partly--a community act.  In its context in the gospel, the question isn’t simply, “How many times do I personally have to forgive someone who sins against me?”  The question is, “How many times should the community follow Jesus’ four-step process for dealing with trouble in the church?  How many times should we confront and restore those who cause pain?”5  The burden of forgiving is not just on you or on me, but on us together.

     That’s why every time someone is baptized here, we say together, “We will surround this child, this person, with a community of love and forgiveness. . .”  We become forgiving individuals by being part of a forgiving community.  When I am unforgiving or you are unforgiving, how will our children know that forgiveness is the heart of the gospel?

  1.  Finally, forgiveness is the only way people can be restored to community.  Chris Dorsey points out that the king in Jesus’ parable forgave the enormous debt of the first slave because it was “important to the king that the slave and his family . . . continue as productive members of the community.”6 Sure, you can throw a debtor in prison, but how does that help the productivity of the country?  Sure you can ostracize and stay angry at someone who hurts your feelings, but how does that help the community?

     And this restoration to community works in both directions.  Miroslav Volf says that when I refuse to forgive, I exclude my enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.7 When we refuse to forgive, we think that we’re punishing and excluding the other person.  And we are.  What we fail to realize is that we are punishing and excluding ourselves to exactly the same extent.  “Our inability to forgive,” writes Chris Dorsey, “is just as disruptive to community as the original transgression.” 

 

          Forgiveness removes poison from the community.  Forgiveness is what Christians do together, what we receive from God and model for our children.  And forgiveness is the only way to restore others and ourselves to community.  No wonder Jesus said, “How many times do you need to forgive?  As many as it takes.  As many as it takes.”

 

 

1Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 165.

2 Alive Now (March/April 2003), 5.

3 John M. Buchanan, “A Historic Ban,” Editor’s Desk, The Christian Century (April 5, 2011), 3.

4 https://jackkornfield.com/the-practice-of-forgiveness/.

5 See Susan E. Hylen, “Forgiveness and Life in Community,” Interpretation 54/2 (April 2000), 152.

6 Chris Dorsey, Living By the Word, The Christian Century (August 30, 2017), 18.

7 Miroslav Volf, “Overcoming the Double Exclusion,” Circuit Rider (March/April 2003), 17.

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