Sermons from St
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 seven?
Jesus’ answer, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy seven times.” Of course it’s a symbolic number, Jesus wasn’t into number games; he expects us to forgive and makes it clear that there should be no limits to our forgiveness just as there are no limits to the number of times Jesus forgives us. It is interesting to note though that in Jewish tradition there was a limit placed on forgiveness, it stated that forgiveness was restricted to three times but if there was a 4th time needed then God punished. Peter’s question and Jesus’ response just highlight the void between human thinking and the way of God and in fact anyone who keeps the score hasn’t forgiven at all. Christian forgiveness goes far beyond counting.
While we all know that forgiveness is the Christian default setting (it is a message constantly reiterated throughout the Bible) and we can even reason that it is psychologically healthier to do so we may still find it an almost impossible thing to do. Forgiveness is not always easy and as C.S. Lewis once put it, ‘Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea that is until he has something to forgive!”
If hurts and resentments run deep then heartfelt forgiveness becomes a real challenge; especially when so often the people we find it hardest to forgive are the people closest to us parents, siblings or close friends, after all these are people that we thought really cared for us, so why would they hurt us or us hurt them?
The answer to that is probably that we are very ordinary human beings, wounded people with all the faults and weaknesses of human characteristics and although we try to be more Christ-like (or at least I hope we do!) we are still a long way from being perfect as God is perfect. But by forgiving others we come to share God’s transcendent freedom through his grace, mercy and love and in turn it becomes an act of liberation.
In fact only last week I read a comment on a social media site which said, ‘Holding a grudge won’t make you strong; it makes you bitter. Forgiving doesn’t make you weak; it sets you free.’
The parable of the master and the servant gives us a vivid picture of how, what we are being asked to do fits into the wider context of divine mercy. As is typical, part of the parable’s point is made through exaggeration.
The first servant who was a minor official to the king was in real trouble; he had either mismanaged what the king had entrusted to him or he had failed to fulfil a contract to raise taxes and owed an unrealistic amount of money – representing about 150,000 years of the amount a daily labourer is paid. Clearly the debt was unrealistic and impossible to pay and all this poor man could do was beg for mercy and then to his great amazement, the king was magnanimous and the servant’s debt was forgiven.
We are then left with a strange gap in the parable because we don’t hear how the servant responded to the news, the fact that he was spared prison, whether he was grateful, or if he and his family celebrated or whether he reflected on the meaning of freedom. We can only assume that the man had not grasped the king’s mercy and so did not realise the true meaning of forgiveness.
Perhaps he considered his forgiveness to be justice or a power game and failed to see that he was a recipient of mercy and love. So when the second servant did just as he had done and asked for mercy, he was refused and sent to prison. It was clear that the man forgiven couldn’t recognise himself in the same situation as second servant and so was unable to offer the mercy he had been shown.
So the story of the master who cancels the debt without any fuss only to find that same servant did the opposite to someone else must not be lost on us and the message is made abundantly clear in the closing line of the Gospel.
‘That is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart.’ The story tells of the danger of an unforgiving heart.
The pardoning presence of God in our own lives is dependent on us showing a similar spirit of forgiveness to those who have wronged us, forgiveness is a matter of the heart, a symbolic place that opens up to God and allows a transformation of the inner person, something the first servant had not experienced. He wasn’t ready to forgive as he had been forgiven.
His heart was not open as our hearts must be open, so that we become able and willing to forgive others and then we in turn will be open to receive God’s love and forgiveness in abundance.
It’s a hard lesson which doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting, the memory of pain and hurt may stay with us for a long time, from our experiences of life we are painfully aware that many relationships are scarred by old hurts and good friendships broken but forgiving can help to change the way we remember. It can stop the wrongs from eating into us and poisoning our lives, whilst also helping us to reclaim our human dignity and eventually inner peace.
Jesus always maintained his dignity, especially on the cross, the time and the place we are reminded of his boundless forgiveness. In spite of his own pain and suffering he stepped beyond the violence and offered up his heartfelt prayer for those who crucified him. ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’
Jesus forgave out of love, a love so great that it moved beyond all the wrongs inflicted on him to extend his affection for us all, sinful humanity, to his absolute and unexpected forgiveness.
There have always been sinners and there always will be, we only have to think back to the story of Adam and Eve, or more recent acts of atrocities and violence to recognise that we are part of a human chain of anger, resentment and bitterness but today let’s let go of the past and move forward towards new growth and understanding. Today let’s see take a look at our relationships with others to see how they can be improved or healed. Yes, we are all capable of inflicting wounds and yes, we all need to forgive and yes, we all need to be forgiven.
God’s forgiveness is unconditional, knows no bounds and given as often as we need and ask for it. We are then empowered to reach out to those who have hurt us, or to seek forgiveness from those we have hurt.
This then becomes our way of sharing God’s love and mercy and Peter’s question and Jesus’ answer say it all. Life is too short to be wasted fuelling fires of resentment or bitterness but only when we have grasped the immense mercy of God in forgiving us our own sins can we truly offer forgiveness to those who have offended us.
So, if you’re still counting how many times you’ve forgiven someone, you’re not really forgiving them at all and Jesus’ message is clearly saying is don’t even think about the counting, just do it!
God of forgiveness
Soften our hearts
Heal us of old hurts and wounds
Help us to forgive as you forgive
And bring us to know inner peace. Amen