When my daughter was a teenager, I remember one time when I was very angry with her because of an incident where she had broken not only our expectations, but also our trust. Near the end of the argument, when I think both of us were in tears, she vollied, perhaps a little desperately, “Well, even if I WAS wrong, you’ve GOT to forgive me. I mean, you preach about it all the time, and if you DON’T, I mean, it would be so hypocritical!… It’s your JOB to forgive!”
“Of course I’m going to forgive you! But you’re still in big trouble!” I retorted.
And of course, I did forgive her. Not that there weren’t still some serious consequences for her actions, and not that my anger disappeared right away. But her line to me, “It’s your job to forgive” has always stuck with me.
What she said is true… but it’s not just true of me because I’m a pastor who preaches about forgiveness… It’s true because Jesus said it’s true … and it’s all our jobs to forgive.
“How many times should I forgive someone who sins against me,” Peter asks. “Even seven times?” “Not seven,” says Jesus, “but 77”…. Meaning, basically, an infinite number of times. He ends with, “[You must] forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Jesus uses a story, a parable, full of hilarious exaggeration, to drive home his point.
The slave owed the king 10,000 talents. 10,000, a myriad, was the largest number in the Greek language. A talent was the largest unit of money in the culture. So this is the largest amount of money that could be described. Consider this: The annual tax income for all of Herod the Great’s territories was 900 talents. One talent was the average worker’s pay for 15 years.
In other words, the slave owed the king like a Gazillion dollars!
Jesus’ audience would have laughed at the slave’s plea. “Give me time! I’ll pay it back!” Ha! It would be impossible. He would have to work 150,000 years to pay back that debt.
But the king forgives the debt completely.
The slave barely gets out the door when he corners his fellow slave for the debt owned him. 100 denarias. 100 days worth of wages. If you made $100/ day, or $12.50 an hour for 8 hours, it would be $10,000. It’s not chump change. But by comparison, however, its nothing compared to what the first servant owed the king.
The point Jesus is trying to make is that the debts we owe one another, even when they are significant, are nothing compared to the debt that God has forgiven us. God wipes out the Gazillion ways we fall short.
And of course, in this story, debt is a word used to stand in for Sin. It’s what we owe because of what we’ve done.
Some translations of the Lord’s Prayer use “debt.” “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” But I think the word debt makes it harder to understand…. So many of us are in debt monetarily. But often, what we spent the money on was not morally wrong… it’s just that we are burdened by the weight of the debt. So the story illustrates well the burden we carry until we are forgiven, and the fear of being called to “pay for what we did” but doesn’t really describe the emotional, moral issues around forgiveness.
In the traditional language, we use the word “trespasses” “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” So here we can see the meaning is more about where we have crossed a line, where we have gone in our actions or words to a place where we shouldn’t have gone. It’s still a little metaphorical.
Our more contemporary version of the Lord’s prayer is more direct. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” The word “sin” makes it more clear. A sin is anything that separates us from God, which includes anything that drives a wedge between us and our brother or sister. We can sin in thought, word or deed. We sin by the things we’ve done, and the things we’ve left undone.
Now, It’s not a sin to have a difference of opinion over issues, even strongly held theological issues, as Paul talked about in our Romans reading. We are not to sit in the place of God and judge others. We all belong to Christ, and we will all stand before the judgement seat of God. We should not judge each other. We are called to love each other, even when we see things differently. But when we sin against each other, crossing a moral line, hurting each other by our thoughts, words, or deeds, things done or left undone, then we are to ask for, and give, forgiveness.
“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” The conditional language of the prayer, as well as the condition Jesus puts on his parable should sound a little scary to us. Our own forgiveness from God is at peril if we are unwilling or unable to forgive others.
Forgiveness is our job. and it can be a hard job at that.
Before we go any further, let me first illuminate what Forgiveness is NOT.
Forgiveness is Not
- Forgetting: deep hurts can rarely be wiped out of one’s awareness. Forgiveness won’t make you forget, but it will ease the pain of remembrance.
- Reconciliation: reconciliation takes two people. Reconciliation is the ideal, but an injured party can forgive an offender without reconciliation. So you can’t blame your unforgiveness on the other person.
- Condoning: forgiveness does not say that bad or hurtful behavior was ok.
- Dismissing: forgiveness involves taking the offense seriously, not passing it off as inconsequential or insignificant. All too often, we have a hard time forgiving because we answer even sincere apologies with a dismissive, “Oh, that’s ok. No big deal. ” In actuality, No, it wasn’t OK, and yes, it was a big deal, but I choose to forgive you. Acknowledging the enormity of the hurt makes the forgiveness more powerful.
- Pardoning: at least in some senses of the word. Your forgiveness may or may not include a pardon. A pardon is a legal transaction that releases an offender from the consequences of an action, such as a penalty. My daughter, for example, still had consequences for her actions, even though I forgave her. Forgiveness is a personal transaction that primarily releases the one offended from the offense, and releases the offender to deal with God directly.[i]
All this means that forgiveness does not mean that you put yourself in harm’s way. If your spouse is abusing you, then you need to leave, and file charges, and have them suffer the consequences due them by the law…. But you, in time, need to let go of any hatred in your heart, and forgive them of the hurt and pain they caused you, so you can move on. That’s what forgiveness is.
Which brings us to the hard part of this sermon….
OK – We get it. We need to forgive those who sin against us… We are to forgive each other 77 times… over and over. But how?
Sometimes it’s easy. Small slights are easier of course. Things said or done when we were tired and cranky, or maybe hungry, when we catch ourselves and apologize to each other quickly. It’s easier then, perhaps…
But there are times when it is harder, and when it takes a longer time… and there are incidents where forgiveness may be a life-long project.
Rev. Carla Pratt Keyes, the Pastor of Ginter Park Presbyterian Church, recently shared a story from a blog post she reads. In it, a man described the depression that followed his divorce, that had stemmed from his inability to forgive his ex-wife. “How could she do something like this to me” said a voice in his head everyday – all the time.
Thankfully he had great people around him supporting him… but forgiveness alluded him. Then at work, he was asked to change the password to log onto the work station, and he knew it would be a password that he would need to type in every day for a month, probably multiple times a day. Something prompted him to type, “Forgive her” using a 3 for the E in Her. “Forgiveh3r” was what he typed every time his computer locked. Every time his screen saver, with her photo appeared. Every time he came back from eating lunch alone. “Forgive her. Forgive her. Forgive her,” he typed. And in time, he says, it changed the way he looked at his ex-wife. It helped him to accept how things had happened at the end of their marriage. It changed his mood.
God’s Grace comes, and the burden of unforgiveness is lifted, And we find ourselves free.
Sometimes, especially when someone has done violence against us or a loved one, forgiveness may take longer, but even then, its possible. There are beautiful stories of forgiveness and reconciliation that have come out in places like South African and Rwanda, where those who murdered or persecuted others have confessed the sin of their action, and been absolved by their victims or victims’ family. It takes a willingness to see the other as a child of God. But this kind of forgiveness is difficult.
When you are faced trying to forgive someone for something so major, and you are not sure how you will do it, then start with praying for them… praying God’s best for them. Jesus said, Pray for your enemies. Bless those who persecute you. Praying for someone, even someone we hate at the moment, can change our heart, and prepare us to forgive.
I believe it’s the willingness of our hearts that Jesus looks at, not the quality of the final efforts of our forgiveness. I know that sometimes, even when I think I’ve forgiven someone, something will happen that will trigger another bout of anger, and make me realize that I haven’t fully let it go, and haven’t fully given that person over to God, and I have to do some more forgiveness work.
Forgiveness is work. And it’s our job.
And let’s not forget, as we talk about the job of forgiving each other, we need to also forgive ourselves. Just as we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves, which means we are, indeed, to love ourselves, we also must forgive ourselves. Because God has already forgiven us.
God forgives us first. Notice the king forgave the servant his huge debt first… It was only when the servant wouldn’t forgive his fellow servant that his unforgiveness hurt him. We are called to pay forward the forgiveness we have already received, so that we don’t jeopardize the freedom that God, in his mercy, intends us to have.
How often do we need to forgive? More often than we can count. It’s your job! But thanks be to God, God forgives us first. Amen.
[i] Adapted from Robert D. Enright, in Niki Denison, “To Live & Forget,” On Wisconsin (November-December 1992).