(Genesis 50:15-21, Psalm 103:1-13, Romans 14:1-12)
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.’ 29 Then 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.”
Forgiveness…what does it mean to forgive? Why are we called to forgive? How are we to forgive? These are three important questions that arise from today’s readings. They are important questions because ultimately we can better understand the nature of God by answering them. It is true that God is a forgiving, merciful God. It is also true that we are created in the image of God so we, too, are to be forgiving and merciful. Yet, time and time again, we find it oh so difficult to be show forgiveness and mercy. Why is this? Why must we be told to forgive those who hurt us? Why doesn’t forgiveness just come natural to us? Perhaps because we don’t fully understand what it means to forgive or why we are called to forgive…how we are to forgive. As children, we are taught to ask for forgiveness when we hurt others. We are taught give forgiveness when others come to us seeking forgiveness when they hurt us. In either case, most of us don’t really understand why we’re asking for or giving our forgiveness. Someone older and wiser simply told us to do it so we did it. But as we get older, it only seems harder and harder asking for or giving forgiveness. This is because we start to wonder why forgiveness is important. Our readings for today help us to answer the three questions of what, why, and how but also explain the importance of forgiveness.
In the first reading, we encounter the bold forgiveness that Joseph showed towards his brothers. Joseph was a man who suffered great injustice caused by the wickedness of his brothers. In their anger and jealousy, the brothers robbed Joseph of his coat of many colors, threw him into a pit, sold him into slavery, and convinced their father that he had been killed by a wild animal. By all accounts, Joseph should have been lost to the cruelties of slavery but, because he was a man of God, he rose to great fame and status. After their father’s death, the brothers came to Joseph seeking his forgiveness for the wrongs they had done to him. Joseph, ever the man of God, wouldn’t even acknowledge their wrongs as wrongs. Instead, Joseph’s views their wrongs as God’s tools for getting him to his situation of great fame and status. Joseph said, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” Joseph saw beyond the evil of his brothers’ actions and was able to forgive them. Joseph forgave fully and completely. He could have easily used his great power to strike his brothers down, repaying them evil for evil. But instead he chose to restore the broken relationships with his brothers and provide for them out of his great abundance. Joseph’s forgiveness was a restorative forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is a restorative forgiveness. Our forgiveness ought to be a restorative forgiveness.
King David was fully aware of God’s restorative forgiveness as we see in today’s psalm. He boldly proclaims, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” David praises our God who forgives us our sins and heals us of our diseases so that we might go on living. God shows continual mercy and love toward us. God’s love for us is never-ending. God knows we are sinful. God knows that we bring sin upon ourselves. Just like Joseph and his brothers, God could easily leave us to suffer from our sins; scared and alone. But God doesn’t want that for us. God only wants goodness for each of us…”renewed youth.” As David notes later in the psalm, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” God’s forgiveness is not spiteful or resentful. God doesn’t want to condemn us to separation. God wants us near, clinging to his steadfast love, and his forgiveness helps us do just that.
The apostle Paul warns us not to be so judgmental of each other and allow God to make the judgments. He writes, “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own Lord that they stand or fall.” One day, we all will stand before God one day to account for the life we lived. We all must answer for the goodness and badness we brought into this world. We all must receive God’s restorative forgiveness when our short time in this world comes to an end if we are to enter into His kingdom. As David proclaimed in his psalm, God’s steadfast love is greater than anything we could possibly understand. It is so great that even when passing judgment, God eagerly gives restorative forgiveness. It is a parent’s love—a love that expects the parent to pass judgment AND reconnect a life-giving relationship. My wife shows me this kind of love when she interacts with our kids. I first noticed it in her early parenting of our now teenage daughter and has carried over with our 3 younger children. Whenever my wife will discipline or rebuke the child, she will expect the child to ask for forgiveness. Once the child asks for forgiveness, she gladly gives the forgiveness along with a hug. The relationship is restored. The feeling of love is restored. Not that the love ever really goes anywhere but children can be very fearful of losing love. Nonetheless, my wife illustrates God’s restorative forgiveness and love in her parenting of our children. God’s forgiveness is both judgmental AND loving.
In the reading from Matthew, we encounter Jesus’ parable of a king whose forgiveness is both judgmental and loving. The king’s strongest desire was to forgive the slave of his very large debt owed to the king. He wanted to restore his broken relationship with his slave. The debt had grown to such an impossibly irreconcilable amount that it had become a major obstacle the slave’s relationship with his master. Yet the slave came to the master with nothing more than a penitent heart and the debt was forgiven. The king knows a contrite heart when he sees it. The slave turns around and withholds his mercy from a fellow slave and the king brings his full wrath upon the slave. The king’s forgiveness is both judgmental AND loving. It can be both destructive and restorative. So it is with God’s forgiveness—both judgmental and loving.
Prior to the parable in today’s gospel reading, we read of an exchange between Peter and Jesus. Our reading comes immediately after last week’s reading from Matthew about what we should do when another church member sins against us. Jesus told his disciples to first approach the sinner alone, then with someone else, then with two or three people, and, when those fail, with the whole church. If the sinner refuses to listen to anyone else, then he/she is to be separated from the group, cast away as “a Gentile or tax collector.” Both last week’s reading and this week’s reading rely on each other. Whereas last week’s reading was quick to promote judgment and separation, this week’s reading is about restoring broken relationships. Before we’re quick to cast our fellow church member out as a Gentile or tax collector, we might consider Jesus’ recommendation for forgiveness. When Peter asks how often we should forgive church members who sin against us, we are told to forgive seventy-seven times or seventy times seven times, depending on which translation you prefer. Of course, the actual number of times we are to forgive is inconsequential. Jesus could have said seven thousand or seven million times! The point is that we ought to forgive much longer and much more than we’d think is reasonable. We are to have a continually forgiving heart.
Why should we have a continually forgiving heart? Well, what does it mean to forgive? Our word ‘forgive’ comes from the Greek word, ‘aphiemi.’ Now I rarely refer to the original Greek words of Scripture but I think this one is helpful. ‘Aphiemi’ means “to send away” or “to make apart.” When we forgive, we send away whatever debt is owed to us, whatever wrongdoing that was committed against us. Likewise, whenever we’re forgiven then our debts and wrongdoings are sent away. This is not to say that they have been forgotten. Debts and wrongdoings are not easily forgotten, certainly not by simple forgiveness. Sending them away doesn’t deny their ever having existed. It simply means getting the debts or wrongdoings out of the way. Our debts and wrongdoings can get in the way of healthy, life-giving relationships. I can think of very few relationships that are so inherently evil, so inherently destructive, and so inherently bad that nothing good can come out of them. Most relationships can produce some type of good, some type of enrichment, and some type of sustenance. Even the destructive relationships in our lives are productive in that they create a space for new, life-giving relationships to thrive. Even Joseph understood his brothers’ destruction as making a way for his life-giving relationships to come about. When debts and wrongdoings are sent away, life can flourish.
When we forgive or are forgiven, there is more sent away than the debts and wrongdoings. We send away all of the destructive thoughts and emotions surrounding the debts too. We send away all of our fears, anxieties, bitterness, anger, regret, and hopelessness. We’re freed from the cages that these emotions can create in us. We’re freed from ourselves…from our ugly selves!! This is mainly why Jesus wants us to forgive. Jesus is all about freedom. Jesus doesn’t want us to be slaves to anything, let alone our destructive emotions. Jesus wants to free us. Jesus wants us in life-enriching relationships. In last week’s gospel reading, Jesus states, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” This includes binding ourselves!! When we withhold forgiveness, we bind someone else and most importantly ourselves. We’re caged and bound. Ephesians 4:26-27, 31 states, “And don’t sin by letting anger gain control over you. Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, for anger gives a mighty foothold to the Devil. Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of malicious behavior.” Paul knew that withholding forgiveness led to anger which in turn opened the door for the Devil to come into our lives. Once the Devil is in your life, he’ll eat away at you and tear you down to nothing. No, forgiveness frees us from both the Devil and ourselves. In our children’s message, we heard that when we forgive we are given a gift—a gift of freedom from ourselves! This is why we are to forgive!
So we know what it means to forgive, we know why we are to forgive, but how do we go about forgiving? Matthew teaches us in ch. 5, vs 44, “Love you enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” We are to show our enemies love, forgiving love, and unexpected love. 1 Peter 3:9 says, “Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate when people say unkind things to you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God wants you to do, and he will bless you for it.” God blesses you by freeing you from yourself; from your anxiety, anger, bitterness, fear, hopelessness, and regret. Make no mistake, it is not easy to show forgiveness. It takes a lot of courage to love your enemy. It takes strong faith to believe Paul when he state in Romans 12:19, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” No, taking the high road often involves doing the hard task of forgiving.
Lucky for us, we believe in a God who strongly values forgiveness. This is why the Father sent the Son to show love to us and die for us. We need God’s forgiveness as much as we need forgiveness from each other. I came across a quote from an anonymous author: “If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator; If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist; If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist; If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer; But our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent us a Savior.” Forgiveness restores broken relationships and allows love to return and flourish. Without forgiveness there is no love…forgive not, love not.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.