The Forgiveness Limit

Matthew 18:21-35    No one ever said forgiveness was easy. Forgiveness does not just happen. It has to be intentional, specific to a person or a group regarding a harmful action or inaction. It is a response to being a recipient of God’s forgiveness that we naturally move toward becoming forgivers. But we are bean counters, we like to keep score, to keep track, to keep things even or fair. Peter represents us all when he asks Jesus to put some limits on forgiveness. He figures that since the rabbis teach that forgiving someone 3 times is satisfying the legal limit, that if he suggests forgiving someone 7 times he would be more than generous, even more than double what is required. He wants Jesus to quantify forgiveness, to tell him how much he expects. That is because we human beings have a natural tendency to forgive with conditions and calculators.
As usual, Jesus operates with different parameters. His answer is basically this: forgive often and forgive completely, for you have been forgiven often and completely by God. Jesus responds to Peter’s question with a story that everyone understands. He uses money to demonstrate the power of forgiveness, but the debt owed could be in any currency— the life of a loved one or friend, a job or career, a reputation, etc. He tells about the ludicrously large amount of money that one person owes another– you need to know that 10,000 was the largest number he could think of at that time. That was as high as they would have counted. To owe the king 10,000 talents was to owe him enough money to pay someone for 150,000 years of work. Absurd. Clearly an unimaginable sum, an impossible debt to rack up, an unthinkable amount to forgive. And yet, when the debtor asked to be forgiven, he was! He was set free from an absurdly impossible burden.
He seems to have been untouched by this amazing generosity. Therefore, he has no sense of gratitude. His life has changed and he appears oblivious. His heart has not moved. That is his great mistake. Forgiven with no limit, he is unable to forgive a much smaller sum when someone who owes him the value of about 100 days of work asks to be forgiven. None of this happens in secret. Both men are part of a community, and other eyes and ears are open, aware of the abundant gift and the lack of appropriate change of heart. Word gets around. Fast. Everyone knows the first man was forgiven an impossible amount and now has not made himself able to forgive another. This lack of forgiveness does not sit well with the community. It does not sit well with any of Jesus’ listeners, then or now.
It would be like the troubled young man who set fire to a woodworker’s shop, destroying everything. The shop owner was ready to throw in the towel, but when he found that the young man had gifts with computers and graphics, gifts he needed in the business, he hired him, forgiving his harmful action which had caused complete destruction. Then another angry young person came in and destroyed the computer one day. When the first young man found out who had done it, he couldn’t wait for the law to come down on the villain, but sought him out and beat him up, leaving him with a broken arm in repayment for his harmful action. He gets no leniency from the judge, for he did not connect the way he had been treated with the way he should treat another.
It seems like Peter is asking the wrong question. The question is not how often do I have to forgive my brother, but how do I become one who forgives as a part of my nature? The answer is: recognizing the amazing, impossible forgiveness I have received must color my gratitude and my passing along forgiveness to my sister. Keeping track does not work. Forgiving only when someone “deserves to be forgiven” does not work. Forgiveness is not what someone deserves from you. It is more about what you believe, how you live, how you follow the life of faith.
I want to be very clear: we must not use this story to insist that a person remain in an abusive relationship, forgiving again and again. That is not what Jesus intends for anyone. If you or anyone you know is a victim of abuse, please find a way to first get out of the abusive situation. Only then can you work on forgiveness so that you do not remain imprisoned by bitterness and hate. Tonight we will be discussing a book by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie, Purple Hibiscus. It is a sad tale about a man who uses his version of the Christian faith as the excuse for beating his wife every time she gets pregnant (causing miscarriages), for abusing his children and for refusing any connection with his dying father, who did not become Christian, but maintained the faith of the ancestors. It always makes me cringe when we take the gospel, God’s gift designed to be freeing and life giving, and mash it into something that causes hurt or shame or separation. The church should never look the other way when we find a person in a physically or emotionally abusive relationship.
Forgiveness is hard work. We find it much easier to hold onto a grudge, to a memory of being hurt. Some say we are slow to forgive others because deep down we don’t really believe we can be forgiven ourselves. Could be. I want to take a few moments this morning to offer you the chance to do some forgiving. I am using a short guided forgiveness meditation prepared by a Methodist pastor in Massachusetts, Rev. Steve Garnaas-Holmes. First, I invite you to get as comfortable as you can in your pew. Free your hands and let them rest in your lap.

Settle and breathe deeply. …

Rest for a moment in the peace of God. …

Bring to mind a person you haven’t forgiven. …

Now imagine. The two of you stand together.

Jesus comes and looks at the two of you
with great kindness in his eyes.

He embraces the other.
Perhaps there are words,
though likely you can’t hear them.
Perhaps there are tears.
He holds that person for a long time. …

They release the embrace, look at each other
and smile. …

Jesus turns to you
with great kindness in his eyes.
He embraces you.
Perhaps there are words.
(What might they be?)
He holds you for a long time. …

He releases you and looks at you
and smiles. …

You look at the person you want to forgive.
What is in your heart? …

Imagine yourself telling him or her….

Jesus blesses you and leaves you
with your new heart.

Forgiven we are. Forgivers we shall be. We won’t always get it right. We will rarely find it easy to do. Jesus forgives often and completely. Let’s stop counting and measuring. Let’s make forgiveness a part of our faith practice. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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