Sermon Text: Matthew 18: 21-35
I’ll begin today with two stories of accidents.
The first occurred when I was four years old. I was playing bocce ball in the yard with sister, who was eleven at the time. In bocce ball you throw a little target ball called a jack, and you try to bowl the bocce balls as close to it as you can. At one point the jack became hidden by the grass in the yard, so I went down this hill in our yard to locate it. I found the ball, pointed it out to my sister, and started walking up the hill. She began her turn. As I remember it, she did not roll the ball, but instead threw it underhand, like a slow pitch softball, and my big head got in the way. I was hit right above my left eye. Blood was everywhere. I cried, running half blind around the house back to our garage, bawling that my brain was leaking out of my head.
After my dad set the new land-speed record in our Chrysler minivan and after forty some odd stitches were added to my cranium, I was fine. It was an accident. A minor problem, something that was very easy to forgive despite the bodily harm. Plus, as I’ve mentioned, chicks dig scars. Now, I have the added bonus of ribbing my sister about that time she tried to off me with Italian sporting goods. But there was apology, acceptance, and forgiveness. That’s how it works, even at the age of four.
Fast forward a couple of years to my bus stop. I was in first grade, it may have even been the first day of school. The bus was arriving, the students were meandering towards it to load, and a young man from our neighborhood was impatient, and decided to turn in front of the bus in his sports car, and in the process hit a young girl.
I don’t remember the severity of the accident. I think the girl was okay for the most part. I don’t remember what his punishment was, if he had his license suspended or anything like that. But I do remember this: the neighborhood did not forgive. For as long as I lived there, he was “the guy who ran over the little girl.” That was now his identity to the neighborhood.
That’s the danger when things go wrong, when relationships go wrong, when we don’t forgive. We have a tendency to live in the past, to attach negative labels and identities to the ways we have erred. But without forgiveness that is what becomes of us—we get stuck in the past with no way forward.
Think about the worst mistakes you have made in your life. Think about the moments you’ve apologized for, the moments you’re most guilt-ridden or ashamed of. How would you feel if you were always known for those moments? How would you feel if you could never outgrow or outrun that identity of the time you screwed up? I ask because that is what life would be if we lived in a world without forgiveness. We would always be known by the sum of our worst parts.
That’s what happened to the young man in my neighborhood, and yet, that did not happen with my sister after our accident. In fact, that moment brought us closer together. These are only two examples that I’ve cherry picked. I’m sure each of us has a long list of times when we’ve been forgiven and have not been forgiven, when we forgave and did not forgive.
The problem is that we tend to approach these difficult scenarios like we’re all accountants with green visors and pocket protectors. Like there’s a certain calculus to being wronged and forgiving. That’s when Peter steps up and asks Jesus, “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
I don’t know about you, but seven times seems a bit excessive. In fact, Peter’s suggestion is already over the top. Jewish law prescribes three times for forgiveness. Peter actually doubles that number and adds one. That’s extremely generous. Can you think of a time when you forgave someone seven times for the same offense?
Part of the problem is that we do keep track, even though forgiveness costs us nothing. Jesus responds by moving forgiveness from something that we try to tally into something that is incalculable. It’s where we get the famous line that varies by translation:
Not seven times but seventy-seven times OR seven times seven OR seventy times seven.
Quite frankly, I don’t think it matters what translation you use because that’s more forgiveness than we could ever imagine or execute.
Part of Jesus’ wisdom here is that forgiveness is hardly ever a once and one thing, where we are instantly absolved. Letting go of a grudge, erasing feelings of contempt, not plotting an enemy’s demise…it’s not easy. The act of forgiving takes time. Seventy-seven isn’t necessarily a goal that we’re shooting for, but the acknowledgement that there are a number of baby steps that we must take to fully repair a relationship that has been broken.
Because here’s the thing about forgiveness: It’s all about orientation. Forgiveness is about committing to a relationship moving forward. It’s recognizing that a future together is more important than wrongs in the past. When we forgive we give up holding an action against someone as a way of gaining leverage against them. We’re motivated to live together into a better reality. Forgiveness is a process when we commit to not being controlled by the mistakes of the past.
When God forgives us we find a new way forward. In Jesus’ parable we see this. The King forgives an enormous debt, 10,000 talents. A talent is fifteen years’ worth of wages. That’s 150,000 years of labor. 130 pounds of silver. That’s an insurmountable debt that the King forgives, freeing this man into a better life. And yet, this man cannot do the same for a fellow person who owes him a fraction of that amount.
In the end we have a God who demonstrates forgiveness as part of his character. It’s a chief component of God that is repeated throughout scripture. We hear “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” We are reminded of this character in our confession and forgiveness, in the cup of communion, and in the renewing waters of baptism. It is something God gives to us daily because God is invested in our life together.
The question is, how will we be like God? Can we reflect that mercy and forgiveness that we first receive? Are we invested in a future with those who have wronged us?
In the end, forgiveness is the tool we are given that keeps us from becoming stuck. It releases you from the sometimes abuse power of the past. So while forgiveness is not easy, and while forgiveness is something that cannot be taken lightly, and it cannot be rushed, it is one of the most important gifts of God. One that we receive from God. One that we can share with other people.
We live in a world that has such a hard time forgiving, and therefore the words of forgiveness have the power to inject a little grace into out lives. God’s gift of forgiveness is like water on parched soil, creating new life and new possibilities. May we live into this new life that God offers, utilizing this incredible gift, and sharing it wherever we have experienced brokenness. AMEN