“Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” –Matthew 18:33
Forgiveness is a foreign concept in the world we live in today, really since the beginning of time. In a world that is governed by retaliation and revenge and getting even, forgiveness is hard to find, it’s a scarce commodity.
So when Jesus came preaching a gospel where forgiveness was front and center, it caused some confusion, it raised a lot of questions, even with those who were close to him.
The gospel reading that we just heard begins with a question having to do with forgiveness, and it was posed by one of Jesus’ closest followers, Peter.
Peter asks Jesus, “How many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to 7 times?”
Jesus responds, “not just 7 times, Peter, but 77 or 70 x 7 times.”
And then Jesus tells a story to illustrate what kind of forgiveness he’s talking about.
The story here is a parable; a parable is a story that uses metaphors involving people in order to describe what God and the Kingdom of God are all about, and how Christians are called to live as citizens of that Kingdom.
Here are a few things that I see Jesus teaching us about forgiveness from this parable:
First of all, God has this boundless capacity to forgive us. Forgiveness is part of God’s nature, it’s in God’s DNA.
The Psalm that we read as the call to worship proclaims a God who is full of compassion and grace, who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast, faithful love for people.
It’s a God who doesn’t want to give us what we deserve when we fail Him and others, but who is eager to forgive and forget. He casts our sins to the deepest parts of the ocean, as far as the east is from the west.
Forgiveness was a centerpiece of the inauguration of the Kingdom, the Reign of God that Jesus came to fulfill. He went around forgiving all kinds of people, and that set them free from their demons, from their past, gave them a new lease on life.
Even to those who nailed him to the cross, Jesus offered forgiveness…forgive them, Father, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
So first of all, forgiveness is something that God offers us freely. And the second thing that we learn from this parable is that forgiveness is something that we are invited to receive, and receive it with a spirit of gratitude.
Forgiveness is a gift that we don’t deserve, but is offered to us anyway. That’s what grace is all about.
We can’t always be judges of other people’s hearts, but it seems from the response of the servant here that if he had truly been grateful to the King for forgiving him his debt, that it would have softened his heart to give him compassion and show grace to the servant under him who owed him money.
Instead, he just went out to confront the guy who was indebted to him, and had him thrown into prison until he could repay him.
You see, gratitude and thanksgiving to God should translate into actions to express that gratitude.
There’s a story where Jesus heals 10 men in a village who had leprosy, and only one of the 10 took the time to come back to thank him. Jesus praised this man for showing his gratitude to Jesus.
And along with thanking God, in our parable today, we are reminded of the best way to respond to the forgiveness that we receive from God,
And that’s to pass it on to other people, paying God’s forgiveness forward by forgiving others as God has forgiven us.
Jesus had some strong words for the servant in this parable and for those who aren’t willing to forgive others. In the Sermon on the Mount, he even says that if we don’t forgive others, we won’t be able to experience God’s forgiveness for us.
This is one of those teachings that I find hard to understand, because it makes it seem like there are strings attached to being able to receive God’s forgiveness. I don’t have time now to unpack this more, and maybe it’s just one of the many paradoxes we encounter in scripture.
It’s a free gift but there are conditions to it. One thing that I have come to realize over the years is that loving God and loving our neighbors and even our enemies go hand in hand—they’re intertwined.
It’s crystal clear that God has a high expectation that we be ready and willing to forgive others. Ephesians 4:32 says “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
The song we sang: Jesus said “Freely you have received…now freely give”, is based on Jesus’ words when he sends out his 12 disciples to preach the good news of the Kingdom, where healing and forgiveness were central.
Then after Jesus’ death and resurrection, there’s this powerful scene where he appears to his disciples and says to them:
John 20:21-23 Peace by with you… As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. Then he breathed on them, hopefully they weren’t in the midst of a pandemic when he did this!
Says Receive the HS. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Think about this…Jesus is giving his followers, back then and even to this day.. the authority and the power and the privilege of helping people find forgiveness, of forgiving their sins and setting them free.
He’s entrusting us with carrying on his ministry of love and grace, which so often involves helping people experience healing and hope through offering and receiving forgiveness.
Based on what I’ve seen, heard, and experienced personally, there is nothing more moving, nothing more inspiring, nothing that expresses the love of God more clearly and powerfully than when forgiveness happens in a relationship that has been broken.
And I can’t think of a more powerful story of forgiveness than what took place in the Amish community of Nickel Mines in Lancaster County PA back in the fall of 2006.
Maybe you know the story. Even so, I’m going to share it, because it’s so powerful, and it’s one of those stories that I could hear over and over again.
A man named Charles Roberts who was wrestling with his own demons.
He was so overcome with bitterness and anger at God for losing a child through a miscarriage, and some other things that tormented him.
That one day he walked into an Amish school in Nickel Mines with a gun and shot 10 girls before turning the gun on himself and taking his own life.
Five little girls died in the carnage, and five more were left wounded.
Of course it was all over the national news and people across the country were horrified by what they heard and the images they saw.
But it was what happened in the aftermath of that terrible tragedy that really should have been the most newsworthy.
You see, the very next day elders from the Amish church in the community, along with parents who had lost children, went to the house of Charles Roberts’ mother, Terri Roberts.
They said to her “we forgive your son for what he did. We know this is hard for you, and we want you to know that we will support you and walk with you through the pain and grief that you are experiencing”.
Imagine the reaction Terri Roberts probably had. Initially, it would have been shock, something like “are these people crazy, or what?” And then, “how in the world can they respond this way to what my son did to their children?” Shouldn’t they be avoiding me, shunning me since I’m the murderer’s mother?”
But this Amish community, like many others, believes in forgiveness. They have received God’s forgiveness and they believe that as Christians they are called to pass it on to others as a natural expression of their gratitude to God.
In their communities they teach forgiveness, they practice it with one another, and they pass it on to their children and to future generations. As a result, forgiveness has become part of their DNA.
Terri Roberts became the recipient of this forgiveness, and it guided her on a journey of finding new hope in life. She was welcomed into the life of this Amish community, and one thing that helped bring her healing was a relationship that she established with a girl named Rosanna.
Rosanna was one of the girls injured in the shooting, and she was left paralyzed as a result. For many years, on Thursday nights, Terri Roberts would go over to Rosanna’s house and read and sing to her before bedtime. What a beautiful story of healing and reconciliation.
Mrs. Roberts felt moved to share her story with those outside of the community, so for many years up until she died a few years ago, she toured the country sharing her incredible story of finding God’s forgiveness and healing through the love and grace shown to her by that Amish community in Nickel Mines.
I believe that she even made it to Harrisonburg, VA and told her story at Eastern Mennonite University. Her story is told in this book, Forgiven, which I’m happy to lend you if you’re interested in reading it for yourself.
Most of us probably never have to experience a tragedy like what happened at Nickel Mines, although there are no guarantees.
But if we call ourselves followers of Jesus, we are entrusted with being messengers of God’s forgiveness in the world that we live in.
And in order for it to become part of our DNA, like in that Amish community, it starts by putting it into practice in our everyday lives—
It’s like a muscle-as we practice it in small ways, the muscle strengthens over time so we have the strength to show forgiveness in more challenging situations. Really, anytime forgiveness is shown, it’s a miracle in my book.
It best begins by teaching forgiveness to our children, and the children’s book “forgive and let go” give some good principles for building a foundation for forgiveness to take place.
In the book Forgive and Forget, Lewis Smedes offers some good wisdom about the process of forgiveness in relationships.
Four stages of forgiving:
We hurt- often by those who are close to us, whom we have loved and trusted.
We need to acknowledge it, not deny it, gloss over it or bury it, or be too proud to admit it. It takes courage and vulnerability and honesty to acknowledge the hurt that we feel.
We feel some hate, or get angry, as the children’s book said. “Smedes reminds us that we can hate most painfully the people we love most passionately” p. 21
When we don’t face or deny the hatred that we feel, we take a detour around the possibility of forgiveness p. 22
There, hidden and suppressed, it will eventually infect all our relationship in ways we cannot predict…
But when we admit our anger and allow ourselves to feel it, we open ourselves up to the healing miracle of forgiveness.” P. 22
We heal ourselves: we choose to forgive, because God has forgiven us and calls us to pass on that forgiveness to others. Smedes says that forgiving is like performing spiritual surgery inside of our soul p. 27
And like so often with surgery, the healing process can take a long time, like I’m sure it did for Terri Roberts. You may not be able to completely forget it, but you are free to move on.
Smedes says one other thing that I really like here:
“You will know that forgiveness has begun when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.” P. 29
Being able to wish them well is the fruit of forgiveness.
And then Smedes says that the fourth and final stage of forgiveness is when we come together with those who hurt us.
And we take the time to honestly share how what they said or did hurt us, without sugarcoating it.
And hopefully, this encounter will include hearing them take responsibility for what they did, confessing it, saying they’re sorry, and a pledge to try and not hurt you again.
It can be a painful, messy, process. But by the grace of God, Smedes says that their pain and your pain create the point and counterpoint for the rhythm of reconciliation.
Of course, there are times when we and others aren’t willing to confess what we did to hurt someone, and sometimes we are others aren’t willing or ready to forgive. Forgiveness can’t be forced.
But let’s remember that when we hold grudges, our hands and our hearts are not free to receive God’s mercy.
And in times when it’s hard to confess or forgive, let’s trust in the promise that God forgives us, and allow that to sustain us.
And of course, sometimes the person we need to forgive the most is ourselves. And again, we are called to draw on the promise that God’s acceptance of us is unconditional, that nothing can separate us from his love, and that His forgiveness is there for us fto reach out and receive.
Receiving God’s gift of forgiveness is the key to being able to love ourselves and forgive ourselves, no matter what we’ve done.
Hebrews 12:15: See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. (Forgiveness fleshes this out).
God’s forgiving love and grace is more powerful than any other force in the world—it is so powerful that it can overcome hatred, prejudice, bitterness, resentment, our desire for retaliation and revenge, it can even overcome our own self-hatred.
My hope and prayer for us here at Daniels Run Peace Church is that we will be a church where forgiveness is part of our DNA when we are gathered together and when we are scattered in our homes, our communities, our workplaces, and wherever we walk upon God’s great earth.
Freely we have received God’s forgiveness, so let us freely share it with others. AMEN.