Forgiveness is for Heros
Pentecost 17A Matthew 18:21-35
I would like to begin the sermon for today by telling you a Norwegian folktale. Peter Holm was a bridge designer who lived in Oslo, Norway, about a century ago. Peter designed all the bridges in Oslo at the turn of the century and his name was etched into the bronze plaques at the bases of his bridges. Because of his work, Peter Holm became famous and rich. His pockets “were deep” and he invested his vast sums of money. … But as often happens, life turned sour for Peter Holm. The economy in Norway dried up, his investments quickly disintegrated, the government was no longer building bridges, and Peter found himself near bankruptcy. Worse than that, at the same time, his wife of many years, Helga, became sick with diphtheria and she suddenly and unexpectedly died. It was awful. It was a terrible time in Peter Holm’s life. … Peter was left all alone except for the pride and joy of his life, little Austa. Little Austa was nine years old, with long blonde hair, the biggest blue eyes you had ever seen, and her skin was light and fair. Austa beamed with delight at her father and her father delighted in Austa. … In the midst of his depression, Peter Holm decided to give up and quit, and so he moved up north near the Artic Circle to become a blacksmith in a small village. Depression ruled his life and he was running away to bury himself in a remote village. … As he moved to this village, there was already a village blacksmith and that village could not support two “smithies.” The other blacksmith was named The Hammer and The Hammer was as hard as his name. The Hammer was a rugged man, as rugged as the Norwegian mountains and his heart was as cold as the frozen fjords of winter. The Hammer owned a vicious dog that reflected the personality of its owner: with snarly teeth, a vicious growl, and was downright mean. This mongrel was chained to the fence of The Hammer’s workshop and the chain was often stretched tight as the dog growled and nastily barked at a passerby. … One day, the chain broke and the vicious mongrel of a dog attacked the first person in sight and that person was little Austa. The dog mauled her and killed the little girl. … Needless to say, Peter Holm was devastated. His grief was beyond grief and his despair was beyond despair. His grief turned to rage and his rage turned to hate and his hate turned to revenge and every waking moment of the day and every dreaming moment of the night, he was plotting his revenge against The Hammer. The Hammer had escaped with a light punishment from the police, but Peter Holm had lost his life, his daughter, his most precious and possession. … Time passed, and but the anger did not and Peter Holm’s soul dried up as his inner soul became consumed with a hidden rage and bitterness. … One spring, the Hammer planted the seeds for his crop too early. The seeds sprouted; there was a freeze; and his crops were destroyed. The villagers secretly took pleasure in the misfortune of The Hammer. … One night, in that late spring, at two o’clock in the morning, Peter Holm was walking quietly down the streets of the village. There were no sounds in the village except for an occasional barking dog, and the sounds of Peter’s footsteps against the cobbled stones. The village constable was watching the village and approached Peter Holm, “Where are you going at this late hour of the night, Peter Holm?” “To the house of The Hammer.” “And what are you going to do at the house of The Hammer?” There was a long pause as Peter walked away and said to the constable, “I am going to replant the seeds in his garden.” And Peter murmured to himself, “So I can live again. My soul has been dead too long. I need to plant The Hammer’s field so the light of God will finally shine in my soul again.” … And so the long night of hate, resentment and rage ended, and in his forgiveness, Peter Holm could finally look into the face of God again.
Jesus came to teach us the language of love, and the language of love is always the language of forgiveness. Jesus came to teach us that we are called to forgive seventy times seven, infinitely. Jesus came to teach us to break our cycles of revenge. Jesus came to teach us to forgive ourselves and other people, no matter how painful that may be. Jesus came to teach us to forgive ourselves and other people, no matter how difficult that may be. Jesus came to teach us not only to forgive our friends and people that we like but also to forgive our enemies and people with whom we have deep conflicts. Jesus came to teach us that forgiveness is the master key of all human relationships.
Why is forgiveness so important? Why is forgiveness the master key of all human relationships? Why is forgiveness absolutely necessary in order for you and me to live with any degree of happiness at all? The answer is obvious. … In order to live with normal people like you and me, normal people who are irritable, moody, sassy, angry, imperfect, selfish, impertinent, you need the gift of divine forgiveness to live with each other. O, you can live in conflict, frustration and anger with all those normal and imperfect people around you, but you cannot live happily with imperfect people without the divine gift of forgiveness. People do not change: that is, people will always be imperfect. People will always be irritable, moody, sassy, angry, selfish and impertinent. People will always be imperfect, and the only way to live with imperfect people like you and me is through forgiveness. … Forgiveness is as necessary for life as is air, water and bread. You cannot live without air, water and bread and so also, you cannot live life happily nor effectively in this world of ours without the gift of God’s forgiveness.
It is with these images that we approach the profound gospel lesson today. Peter asked Jesus, “How often should I forgive my brother or sister? Seven times?” Peter thought that he was being rather generous in his question. That is, the morality of the Old Testament and the rabbis who interpreted the Old Testament taught that the maximum forgiveness was three times. Three times and you are out. “Three strikes and you are out.” So by suggesting that forgiveness was seven times, Peter was being rather generous.
And what was Jesus’ response. “Not seven times, Peter, but seventy-seven times.” Infinitely. Limitlessly.
The number “seventy seven” or seventy times seven is a very precise number. That is, this number is found only one other time in the Bible and it is in Genesis 4:24 and the story of Cain, the murderer, and Lamech. Cain gets revenge seven times and Lamech gets revenge “seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven.” How often am I to revenge my brother for murder? “Seventy-seven times.” After the fall of Adam and Eve, the world had become a violent and murderous place, so violent and murderous that God would shortly destroy the world by flood. The story of Lamech symbolizes the cycle of hate, revenge and murder. And Jesus breaks that cycle of hate and revenge. How many times shall I revenge my brother with one more murder? Seventy-seven times? Jesus teaches that we are not to seek revenge, but to forgive our brother and sister seventy-seven times. Matthew 18:22 reverses Genesis 4:24. Forgiveness trumps revenge in God’s blueprint.
Further, to illustrate his teaching about our infinite need for forgiveness and our need to infinitely forgive, Jesus told a story about a king whose servant owed him ten thousand talents. The generous king forgave his servant some ten thousand talents and that same servant then refused to forgive another servant for merely one hundred denarii. Jesus was using humor and hyperbole and exaggeration to make a point.
In today’s language, ten thousand talents would be equivalent to approximately $25,000,000; one hundred denarii would be equivalent to about $50 or a day’s age. Today, the owner of the business would have lent his employee $25,000,000 and then forgiven the $25,000,00. The amount of money of $25,000,000 was staggering, incomprehensible, beyond our wildest imagination and could in no way be paid back. The employee whose incredible debt of $25,000,000 had just been forgiven then refused to forgive the debt of a fellow employee for a mere $50. The employee was willing to receive a vast amount but was willing to give away only a meager amount. The owner of the company, hearing about the stinginess of the first employee, canceled his original gift of $25,000,000. The parable ends with Jesus’ statement, “And so it will be with you if you do not forgive your brother and sister from the heart.”
After today’s gospel lesson, you enjoyed a short drama about Mr. Bill Gates who had loaned $25,000,000 to one of his employees. You laughed at the humor and silliness of the situation, just as the Jews of old would have laughed at the humor and silliness of Jesus’ parable. (This drama needs to be re-enacted in your church after the gospel.)
So what does this mean for us?
First, God’s forgiveness is overwhelmingly abundant, and there is no way that a human mind can comprehend the magnitude of God’s forgiveness. There is no way to comprehend the height and the depth of God’s forgiveness and there is no way that we could repay God for the enormous debt that God paid for our sin. God persistently forgives us for our temper tantrums, our irritability, our losing our temper, our rage, our robbery, rape, murder, incest, apathy, selfishness, suicide. The list of our sins goes on and on and God repeatedly forgives us for our sins. There is no bottom to the well of God’s forgiveness. This parable tells us about God’s overwhelming and abundant forgiveness.
God forgives not only our individual sins but our social sins and social injustices as well. We hear of people dying of hunger and starvation, that half of the world goes to bed hungry at night. We do nothing or close to nothing. And God repeatedly forgives us: again and again and again, day in and day out during our lives.
The magnitude of God’s forgiveness is overwhelming. Is it $25 million dollars? $25 billion dollars? Trillion dollars? Quadrillion dollars? Quintaquillion dollars? The number is beyond our imagination. That is what Jesus intended.
The purpose of God’s magnanimous generosity is inspire us, lift us up, and motivate us to be forgiving people in all of our relationships. We are to forgive…what your husband or wife did to your marriage some fifteen years ago and you cannot really get over it. What the rapist did to your body. What the drunk driver did to your child or spouse when that child or spouse was killed in that car accident so long ago. What your brother or sister did to you when you were growing up? What your mother did to you? What your father did to you. How your children repeatedly did not live up to your expectations. How your friend talked painfully behind your back. How that person at work repeatedly hurts you.
The purpose of God’s overwhelmingly generous forgiveness is to motivate us, lift us up, and inspire us to be forgiving people, so that our souls do not dry up with the white heat of rage, anger and bitterness. We are not to be stingy, penurious or frugal with our forgiveness to others when God’s forgiveness towards us is so incredibly generous.
But the second point in this parable is also true. That is, we are not only inspired, motivate and lifted up to be more forgiving people, but we hear that we are commanded to be forgiving people. There is a threat in this parable, and the threat is not veiled. When you come to the end of the parable, Jesus clearly says, “And God will not forgive you if you do not forgive your brother and sister from the heart.” The threat from God is clear.
This same threat is found in Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. We pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Matthew adds at that point, “For if you do not forgive the trespasses of others neither will God forgive you your trespasses.” I sometimes wonder how life would have changed if we had memorized and recited Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer on a daily or weekly basis. “Neither will God forgive you if you do not forgive the sins of others.” Ouch.
The same threat is found in the Biblical story about bringing your gifts to the altar. If you bring your gifts to the altar or come to Holy Communion and kneel at the altar to receive God’s gift of forgiveness; and while you are at the altar, you suddenly remember a conflict you are having with your mother, father, brother, sister, child, friend, neighbor or work associate, leave the altar and the church, go and find that person with whom you have a conflict, reconcile, and then come back to the altar to receive God’s forgiveness. It is rather ludicrous to come to the altar and ask for God’s abundant forgiveness for your sins if you are unwilling to forgive the comparatively petty sins of others. It is ludicrous to ask God’s forgiveness when you are unwilling to forgive others.
In this story, we discover that we have to option whether or not to forgive. We find that we have no choice whether or not to forgive. We discover that we cannot cling to our grudge that says, “I am going to hang onto my feelings of revenge no matter what. ‘They’ won’t change and so I am going to hate and burn with anger inside.” We discover that we cannot cling to feelings that say, “I am going to hang on to this grievance until they say they are sorry and are sufficiently penitent.”
When people do not let go of their legitimate anger, revenge and grievances, those feelings turn even more sour and the soul dries up inside. Feelings of anger, resentment, and revenge turn bitter, and bitterness overwhelms the soul within.
If more people understood the threat of Jesus; that is, if you do not forgive, neither will God forgive you, perhaps the world would be a little different.
The third point of the parable is also true. The number, seventy-seven or seventy times seven, reverses the seventy-seven in Genesis 4:24. In Genesis 4:24, seventy-seven refers to the number of times a person get revenge; in Matthew 18:22 refers to the forgiveness of God. Genesis 4 refers to the spirit and actions of Cain and Lamech; Matthew 18 refers to the spirit and actions of Jesus in his life and on the cross. Matthew 18 intentionally reverses Genesis 4.
Sometimes, people interpret this saying about seventy-seven times personally rather than nationally. Sometimes people say that forgiveness is intended to speak to individuals but not to nations. I feel differently about this. I see the cycle of violence and revenge repeated between ethnic groups and nations. We clearly see this escalating cycle of violence and revenge between the Palestinians and the Israelies, between the nations of Pakistan and India, between the USA and Russia during the Cold War. So many nations get into this pattern and cycle of escalating revenge and violence. “You bomb me and I will bomb you back even worse. You kill some of my citizens and I will kill even more of your citizens.” We witness a gradually escalating scale of violence. Sometimes, people can use the language of justice simply as verbal cover-up for revenge.
I believe that Jesus’ words of Matthew 18:22 intentionally reverses the cycle of revenge between individuals, families, clans, tribes, ethnic loyalties, and nations. Today, we see the cycle of revenge especially between people with their ethnic loyalties. In the Balkans, in central Africa, in Ireland, and all over the globe. I believe that Matthew 18:22 speaks to the whole world of human relationships and is not confined to conflicts with individuals, but refers to tribes, clans, ethnicities and nations as well.
The last point of the parable is also true. That is, forgiveness is for heroes, because true forgiveness takes great courage of heart. Thomas Kepler once wrote that “forgiveness is for heroes.” Lawrence Stern, the eighteenth century novelist, wrote that “only the brave know how to forgive.” Only the brave know how to forgive because forgiveness takes great courage when everyone around you is shouting for a “pound of flesh” and revenge. C. S. Lewis wrote that “everybody thinks forgiveness is a good idea until they have something serious to forgive.”
God’s forgiveness is not for small hearted people but for people with great hearts. For people with the hearts of Jesus. Forgiveness is for big hearted people like Jesus who on the cross said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Forgiveness is for big hearted people like the first martyr Stephen, when being killed by stones thrown viciously at his head and body, said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Forgiveness is for big hearted people like Abraham Lincoln, when others want to inflict revenge on the Rebels of the South, said, “With malice towards none.”
Others want their pounds of flesh after the Civil War; Abraham Lincoln was of a different spirit. The people of Christ have a different spirit than the popular spirit of revenge.
What is forgiveness? Forgiveness is an attitude of the heart. Forgiveness is having the heart of Jesus living in your heart. Forgiveness is “letting go” of how people have hurt you in the past.
The Greek word for forgiveness is “apheiami” which means “letting go.” In the children’s sermon for today, I had the children pick up an imaginary rock and let it go and drop it by their shoes. I then had all of them pick up those imaginary rocks and throw them three feet way; they then went and picked up those rocks again. The third time, I had their throw those rocks as far as they could and those rocks sailed out of sight, over a cliff, out of sound, out of reach to pick them up again. And so it is with forgiveness. Forgiveness is letting go of the way you have been hurt in life, and taking that painful hurt and dropping not at your feet to be picked up again but hurling it over a cliff. That pain bounds and falls down below the high cliff, soon out of sight, eventually out of sound, until it is no more. Then, you clasp your hands with that person who has hurt you, join your hands, and walk to the sunset. That is what my mentor, Dr. Morris Wee, told me so many years ago. We need to let go of that pain in such a way that we do not pick it up again. It needs to be thrown over a cliff, out of sight and out of sound and out of mind and heart. That is forgiveness. The pain no longer eats at you any more.
Forgiveness takes time. The deeper the pain, the longer it takes to heal.
I do not believe in cheap forgiveness or cheap grace. I do not believe that forgiveness is to become an excuse to be a doormat, to let someone walk on your personally. I do not believe it is healthy or good to let someone walk on you and get away with repeatedly abusing you and you then are to tolerate such abuse in the name of forgiveness. That is not what Jesus is talking about. We are not to be door mats, personally, ethnically or nationally. We are not to let people abuse us. Knowing that, Jesus invites us to forgive ourselves, our family, our friends, our neighbors, our enemies and other imperfect people who surround us every day of our lives.
One time, Peter came up to Jesus and was feeling rather magnanimous and said, “Jesus, how often shall I forgive my brother and sister for their sins against me? Seven times?” Three times of forgiveness was normal for Old Testament law and custom and so Peter was generous in suggesting seven times. Jesus said, “Not seven times but seventy-seven times.” Peter and the other disciples were stunned and then Jesus told them a story to illustrate what he was talking about. Jesus said, “There was a king who loaned his servant ten thousand!!! Talents…” Amen.
CHILDREN’S SERMON: Have the children pick up an imaginary rock and let go of it on the ground. Pick that imaginary rock again and throw it three feet away. Pick up that rock again. Finally, throw the rock as far as possible, over a cliff, where the rock falls farther and farther away, until it is heard nor seen no more. That is forgiveness.
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