St Stephen’s, Harrisburg
Today’s parable from Matthew’s gospel is possibly the clearest of any of the parables Jesus is recorded as telling. A man owes a great debt, which he is unable to pay. The creditor could have justly imprisoned the debtor, but he instead decides to be merciful, and not only decides against prison, but actually forgives the debt, which was staggering—tens of millions of dollars in today’s money.
Now, the man who has received such astounding mercy is himself also a creditor. One of his colleagues owes him some money—a serious amount, but nothing in comparison to the amount he had just been forgiven—a matter of only a few hundred dollars. But when he meets his debtor, he immediately demands payment, and when such payment is not forthcoming, he exercises his legal option and orders the other man imprisoned.
When word of this gets back to the original creditor, the one described in the narrative as a king, he is infuriated at such a display of ingratitude. He reneges on his prior mercy, and orders the man who owed more than he could possibly ever pay to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
The moral of the story is utterly transparent: If God’s forgiveness of us is to take root and flourish in our lives, then we must be forgiving of those who have sinned against us. This is, of course, much more easily said than done. In fact, the difficulty—dare I say impossibility?—of living this way seems inversely proportional to the clarity of our Lord’s parable. Easy to see, hard to do.
So we need to look at forgiveness today, in the hope that the power and the mystery of forgiveness might eventually sink in and we’ll “get it.” I need to preach about it, in the hope that it might eventually sink in, and I will “get it.” This is for all of us. We need this. We need to lean more and more into the reality of the gospel message proclaimed in this parable.
I’m going to start by making a couple of observations about what forgiveness is not. Before we can understand what forgiveness is, we need to clear the decks of some misconceptions.
First, despite the expression “forgive and forget,” forgiving is not the same thing as forgetting. Forgiving does not necessarily imply forgetting. It is possible to remember an offense, and to still be wounded and hurting from an offense, and yet to forgive the offender. This is perhaps particularly important for us to remember on a Sunday that falls on September 11, and is a milestone anniversary of a monstrous offense against against our entire country. The fact is, that offense, and any of the offenses that we suffer, did happen. To simply pretend it didn’t happen, to forget it prematurely, is to be in an unhealthy state of denial. And to be in sustained denial is ultimately damaging and disintegrating, emotionally and spiritually, to the one in denial. Our God is a God of truth. Christ is the “way, the truth, and the life.” He would have us face the truth, even when an infinitely more pleasant fantasy may be available.
The second misconception is that to forgive is to trust. It’s not. Forgiveness is free and unearned. It is a voluntary, uncoerced act of charity on the part of the forgiver. If the offender receives any grace in this transaction, it is just that—pure grace, not an entitlement, not anything that’s deserved. Trust, on the other hand, must be earned. It must be built up slowly and carefully. It must be proven over time and through adverse conditions. So we need to be able to freely forgive those who have offended us, even if we cannot yet trust them. Forgiveness can precede trust by a wide margin.
Now that we’ve looked at a couple of things forgiveness is not, let’s consider what it might actually be in its own right. I would invite you to envision forgiveness as an act of letting go, an act of release, an act of setting free. More specifically, it is a letting go of two poisonous forces.
First, it is a letting go of anger. When we’re hurt, when we’re wounded, we tend to lash back at our offender in anger. Forgiveness means not doing this. Forgiveness means counting to ten, “taking a pill,” going for a walk—whatever it takes. Words spoken in anger can only escalate a situation that may already be volatile, and lead to behavior which may be severely regretted only minutes later. This is, of course, completely counter-intuitive, and if I were to stand here and tell you that I have not learned the dangers of speaking in anger from repeated personal experience as one speaking in anger, my nose would be long enough to reach the door of the church! But forgiveness means being willing to let go of anger.
Forgiveness also means being willing—and this one may even be harder—forgiveness means being willing to let go of justice. Forgiveness means being willing to surrender that which we may be justly entitled to, that which may be legitimately due us. There is no room for revenge in forgiveness, no room for getting even, no room for avenging lost honor, no room for demanding restitution or reparations.
When the late Pope John Paul visited the man who shot him in 1981, he gave that man his personal forgiveness. He let go of his own right to be angry, and he let go of his own right to personal retribution. Of course, the Pope’s feelings and attitudes have no relevance on whether the Italian justice system should release that man from jail—that’s a public concern. But between John Paul and his offender, there is forgiveness, possibly even reconciliation.
Ultimately, forgiveness is not even an act, a particular behavior located in space and time. Forgiveness is a habit, a way of life. It leads to an enlarged heart—not the kind of enlarged heart that turns a cardiologist’s hair gray, but the kind that is large because it is a reflection of the heart of God. It is a heart that beats in time with God’s own heart. Forgiveness is a costly offering, an expensive sacrifice. It should be, because it finds it fullest expression in that costly sacrifice of the cross, when our Lord interceded for all of us, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
And that, in turn, reminds us of the most enduring benefit of forgiveness. You see, it was our sin that put Jesus on the cross. We are not only victims of sin, but we are offenders and perpetrators. We are the ultimate beneficiaries of the ultimate forgiveness —God’s forgiveness of us. When we forgive others, we open ourselves to being forgiven. And being forgiven is the ultimate release, the ultimate freedom, the ultimate liberation from bondage.