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.” (Matt. 18:21-22)
The early 60’s was a lot like today – a politically-charged time in the life of America. The supreme court called for the desegregation of schools, but, sadly, gave no real timetable for it. Individual states were dragging their feet so the civil rights movement began to ramp up, pressing for integration of not only schools but buses and restaurants. And into this tense time of marches, demonstrations and rallies came George Wallace.
George Wallace, a circuit judge, was elected Governor of Alabama in 1963 and he put the full weight of his office in opposition to the civil rights movement. In his inaugural address on the steps of the capital in Montgomery he spoke those infamous words: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” His position helped foster a climate of violence against those seeking an end to segregation...violence in a church in Birmingham, on a bridge in Selma, in the city streets and on the college campus.
But what many people fail to remember is that George Wallace changed over time. He did not hold those narrow views forever. He transformed - repenting completely and utterly from his former views, and for the rest of his life he was engaged in a campaign seeking forgiveness. Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis claimed a victory for the civil rights movement in George Wallace, saying that he should be remembered for his capacity to change. But Wallace never experienced the forgiveness of the American people he desired and it pained him to the day of his death. He once asked a Washington Post reporter in an interview: “Why? Why am I not forgiven?”
Wallace’s question hangs in the air of history unanswered. Why haven’t we forgiven him? Granted, it’s difficult given the severity of his role early on, but without forgiveness there can be no healing, no moving forward into a brighter future.
Forgiveness is something we are all familiar with and especially those of us who are church-goers. It’s part of the vocabulary of the church. When we recite the “Apostle’s Creed” we profess our belief in it: “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins...” When we pray “The Lord’s Prayer,” forgiveness is included: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” And the word is found throughout the Bible, not least of all in today’s passage in Matthew...where Jesus claims the centrality of forgiveness for his followers.
The passage begins with a question from Peter following a particularly difficult lesson from Jesus on dealing with sinners in the church. “Lord, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Peter is looking for a limit to forgiveness and hopes that seven is the magic number. But he’s not even close: Jesus says: “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.” In other words – there is no limit to forgiveness, Peter! Forgiveness must be offered continually... and the reason is provided in the parable that follows...
A king wishes to settle accounts with his slaves so he brings before him a slave who owes him ten talents. He doesn’t have the money... and in truth, an Egyptian Pharaoh could not repay such a large sum, let alone a slave. So, the king orders the slave be sold together with his family and all their possessions. He’s going to cut his losses and recoup whatever he can. But the slave begs for patience and promises he will repay. It’s an obvious lie but for some reason, the king takes pity on the man and forgives the debt entirely. It’s a massive act of forgiveness!
But then the story turns dark: the forgiven slave goes out and comes upon another slave who owed him a measly 100 denarii. He seizes the slave by the throat and demands payment. This slave also responds, “Have patience with me and I will pay the debt.” But the forgiven slave shows no mercy and throws the debtor into prison until he can repay him.
Word gets around the slave community what has happened and the king hears about it. He is incensed... calls for the slave he has forgiven and says: “’You wicked slave! I forgave you but you did not show mercy in return!’ So, he handed him over to be tortured till he would pay his debt.” The parable ends with these ominous words: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Notice how the parable comes to roost upon the ears of the hearers in the end. God has forgiven us a debt so large that we can never repay it on our own. A royal pardon is our only hope of salvation. So, who are we to speak about rationing forgiveness to others? As one commentator puts it: “The little boat in which we are sailing is floating on a deep sea of grace so our forgiveness is not to be dispensed with an eyedropper but a fire hose.”
Jesus is saying that we must offer forgiveness liberally and constantly because the debt of forgiveness that God has paid on our behalf is massive. A failure to forgive on our part displays our failure to grasp the price paid for our own freedom in Christ. So, we either claim our freedom in Christ and forgive others, or we risk losing our greatest gift.
Obviously, Jesus considered forgiveness extremely important. Why? Why such an emphasis on forgiveness? Because without it none of our relationship can survive. Without forgiveness our friendships cannot flourish, our churches cannot function, our marriages cannot grow... because we have proven over and over again our propensity to bruise and hurt even those we love!
Not surprising then, that every major religion teaches the importance of forgiveness and now, even the scientific world is getting in on the act. There is now medical proof that forgiveness plays a key role in our emotional and physical health! People who forgive, increase their own health as well as that of their debtor. How so? Forgiveness lowers the stress that people experience in life. Put into religious language, forgiveness helps restore shalom - that state of peace where everything is once more according to God’s design and purpose.
Presbyterian minister and author, Marjorie Thompson puts it this way:
“To forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair such punishment may seem... Forgiveness involves excusing persons from the punitive consequences they deserve because of their behavior. The behavior remains condemned, but the offender is released from its effects as far as the forgiver is concerned. Forgiveness means the power of the original wound’s power to hold us trapped is broken.”
I have a friend who lost both of his children in some years ago now. A truck loaded with steel plowed right into the back of his car on the interstate. It was the truck driver’s fault – rubbernecking... observing an accident on the opposite side of the interstate, as his truck rolled along and right into the back of my friend’s stopped vehicle. My friend could see it all coming in his rear-view mirror but he had nowhere to go with traffic stopped ahead of him so he just braced. Both kids were in the back seat. One died instantly, one after being flown to a nearby hospital. Both my friend and his wife suffered injuries and were hospitalized.
More than a year later my friend and his wife met that truck driver – back in court. The driver was, of course, found guilty and fined accordingly. But more importantly, the judge gave my friend and his wife opportunity to address the trucker... and his words to the trucker still astound me to this day. He told the man: “We forgive you.” We forgive - easy words? Not at all - they were offered through tears, and a pit in his stomach the size of his fist because the day had revived all the tragedy of that accident and their tremendous loss. But his words were powerful, life altering. Once spoken they released the offender from condemnation for his action and opened up the possibility that he could possibly forgive himself someday. And those words also empowered my friend and his wife to rise above the wounds that trapped them in victimhood to live once again. (Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.) Today the two of them have returned to live in the same town where the accident happened and are living once again.
This is the power of forgiveness at work. And there is no substitute for it. Only forgiveness has the power to reconcile broken relationships, restore unity, and take our dead ends in life and give them a future. And in this age of deep division where we are divided in every way - politically, racially, nationally, religiously, and ideologically, we need the power of forgiveness more than ever.
Reconciliation is the only true hope our nation and its people have. And I’ll bet there’s not a single person here today without a need to forgive or be forgiven by someone.
Back in 1992 I attended Presbyterian Youth Triennium at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN. The Presbyterian Church in Canada sent 600 youth to the event that year and there were over 5000 youth in total. They were all divided into small groups of about 20 youth and I was one of those small group leaders. On the first day one of the teenagers came up to me after our group meeting and introduced herself - she was a Canadian Presbyterian, and a member of a predominantly black congregation near to my congregation. She asked me if I knew the church and I said yes. A candidate for ministry from my congregation had done an internship there and had mentioned it. I remember the intern mentioning that the church had little regard for the clock... they started late, ran late in worship, stayed late to visit with each other and this frustrated her in her ministry with them. I mentioned this in a joking fashion to the teen, but she didn’t laugh. She didn’t see the humor in it at all. It was an awkward moment and then we both went our way.
She showed up for small group the next day but she really didn’t participate much in group discussion. She came up to me afterwards and told me that she was upset about what I’d said about her church yesterday. She felt it was a disparaging remark. I tried to dance around my words – but she was having nothing of it. She left unsatisfied with my response.
That night I didn’t sleep very well - I had to do some soul searching over that incident. The next day she was in class again, but she was sullen and unresponsive in group discussion. After class I pulled her aside and said, “I couldn’t sleep last night because I realized how insensitive my comments were to you about your church. I need to apologize. I’m sorry I ever said them.” She nodded and smiled a Mona Lisa-sized smile and went on her way.
The next day she was her old self again... upbeat, bubbly and participating fully in group discussions. She even brought a couple friend along with her. When I asked about them, she said, “These are my friends, and they don’t really like their own small groups. Is it OK if they come to ours?”
I smiled much larger than Mona Lisa ever did and said “yes.” I was happy because our world had changed. Something very big had happened and there was a new tomorrow. What made it happen? I think you know!
Forgiveness is powerful – it can transform hearts and change history. I know nothing more powerful than this - not guns, not marches, not tweets or even political rhetoric. That’s why God uses forgiveness. God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, to save our world, destined for a tragic end, giving us a fresh new beginning. How so? When he hung on the cross he looked down upon us, in all our guilt and said: “Father, forgive them...”
So, who do you need to forgive?