January 20, 2019 Matthew 18:21-35
Roger Barkley Congregational Church of Northridge
We’re spending the first couple of weeks of the new year talking about how we can reorient our spirits so that we will be more fully alive in 2019.
One of the biggest difficulties I’ve had throughout my life is that I am hampered by being human.
Being human, my natural disposition is to hold on to old hurts and resentments.
I don’t know about you, but there are some painful things that happened to me when I was a child that I’ve kept alive by telling and retelling them to myself over and over.
I was just thinking about some of them when I realized that I am the only person still alive from those incidents, but because I’ve continued to feed their memories, those people might as well be alive and hurting me today.
There was a time when I turned those old hurts into excuses for why my life wasn’t going well.
Seeing myself as their victim, I had an excuse for carrying a chip and my shoulder and for making bad and destructive choices in my life.
And for a long time, I held tight to the unfairness I’d suffered in an irrational (and largely unconscious) attempt to punish those who’d hurt me.
But holding on to resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
Before I can have a life open to the present blessings, I have to release those old hurts and resentments.
But wait: before we lay yet another guilt trip on ourselves for not having forgiven something or someone from the past, let me remind you that un-forgiveness is the natural human state.
Philip Yancey writes that “(Unforgiveness) plays like a background static of life for families, nations, and institutions. [It] is sadly our natural human state. … We nurse sores, go to elaborate lengths to rationalize our behavior, perpetuate family feuds, punish ourselves, punish others – all to avoid the most unnatural act of forgiving.”
Today’s parable suggests another possibility.
First, remember the social context in which Jesus was teaching.
According to the Mosaic Law:
Exodus 21:23-25 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
Notice that this doesn’t command tit for tac response.
Rather, this was an enormous advance in human justice because it placed limitations on what punishment could be extracted for a crime or as a civil penalty.
So, if someone stole some sheep, you couldn’t go kill them.
If someone’s cattle damaged a crop, you were only responsible for that loss, no more.
But now Jesus comes along and talks about a whole new dimension of forgiveness.
Peter asks, how many times should I forgive, seven times?
That was generous of Peter because some rabbis taught that forgiving three times was sufficient.
In either case – three or seven – they are assuming that there is a limit on how much we are to forgive.
Jesus answers seventy-seven times … which is really just a metaphor for an unlimited number of times … a way of explaining that forgiveness is not an act, but a process.
Forgiveness is the process of giving up all hope for a perfect yesterday, and for traumatic events, that happens a little at a time.
The first servant in Jesus’ parable owed more than could be paid in a lifetime.
Most likely, he was assigned to collect taxes from farmers under his care, keeping a share for himself and passing the rest to the king.
But if they endured something like a drought, then the tax revenue would dry up but the servant would still be on the hook for the same revenue.
In this case, after a few years the revenue he owed accrued to 10,000 bags of gold, probably more than all the money circulating in the region.
Jesus frequently used hyperboles like this to make his point … in this case that the debt was beyond repayment.
The king realized that he couldn’t recover the money, but by forgiving the servant
he would at least gain the reputation of being an honorable man – a valuable thing in the honor/shame society of the Ancient Near East.
Parables are not simple morality tales.
Jesus begins many by saying The Kingdom of God is like …
With that, they invite us to step into their narrative and let them marinate in our minds and mess with our perception of how things should be.
Parables often make little sense, are puzzling, or feel unfair.
There is not just one “true” lesson from them, but rather multilayered insights
that come to us as we wrestle with them.
One way we can enter into a parable is to imagine ourselves as one of the characters.
I used to assume that I was supposed to picture myself as the forgiving king, who would magnanimously let the offender off the hook.
But I know that I’m not able to let go of my hurt so easily, and my failure to do so becomes another guilt I carry.
But what if I identify with the servant who responded to the inconceivable gift of the grace by holding on to a petty grudge?
God knows that while I’m a good person, I hold some attitudes I’m not proud of, and I’ve done things that are not worthy of someone as blessed as I am.
If it’s the first servant I identify with, then I find that my first job isn’t to instantly forgive incalculable debts as the king did.
By myself, that feels impossible.
But I can begin by simply taking in the unbelievable forgiveness and grace that I’ve experienced.
As I take that in, I become able to take the next step in the process of trying, as best I can, to live out of that grace I myself experienced.
Here’s the thing: the failure of the first servant wasn’t as simple as not forgiving someone indebted to him.
His failure was that he was untouched by the utterly unexpected, unearned, beyond-his-wildest-dreams moment of grace he’d been given.
Because of that, he remained devoid of any sense of gratitude.
His whole life had changed, but he didn’t even notice.
That I get.
And I also get that because of what the king does, forgiveness is possible.
Hard for us, but possible, and to the extent we can forgive we break the relentless tit-for-tat cycle of resentment, blame, and violence of our world.
In fact, the sad ending of this parable is just a reminder of what happens when we don’t forgive: we continue to be imprisoned by unresolved anger, resentment and pain.
Forgiveness is not forgetting what happened.
Forgiveness is not glossing over the injury done to use.
Forgiveness is not necessarily removing consequences.
Forgiveness is not something we do for someone else, it is what we do to free ourselves.
Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.
Desmond Tutu is no naïve idealist.
He grew up and lived under one of the harshest regimes in history,
and he was part of the truth and reconciliation commission that brought unimaginable healing to his country.
He wrote, “Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what happened seriously and not minimizing it; drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence.
“It involves trying to understand the perpetrators and so have empathy, to try to stand in their shoes and appreciate the sort of pressures and influences that might have conditioned them. … By forgiveness, we are saying here is a chance to make a new beginning.”
We may think that our anger gives us character and passion … but mostly it entrenches the hurt, refusing to allow us to heal.
Telling our story of hurt or violation is a necessary step toward healing.
It is important and part of our taking back control of our life.
But when we rehash these stories without progress toward healing it’s just like picking at the wound and exposing it to further infection.
Gaping wounds are vulnerable, but scars are another matter.
Scars make a person rather interesting.
Scars are wounds that no longer fester because they’ve been healed.
Beyond that, we are encouraged by hearing how people have journeyed well, healed and grown.
Our wounds only heal because we entered the process of giving up old stories and resentments.
“Forgiveness is setting a prisoner free, only to discover that the prisoner is me,” explained Lewis Smedes
Mary Johnson-Roy spent over a decade in the grip of her hatred for Oshea Israel.
You and I probably would be, too, because 16-year-old Oshea gunned-down her only son, twenty-year-old son Laramium Byrd.
That was back in 1993 in one of those senseless shootings in inner-city Minneapolis.
Mary says, “ I was full of hatred,”
“(Oshea) was just a kid but I didn’t care. I wanted him to have life in prison, never ever to get out.”
Oshea was sentenced to 25 years in prison, but his incarceration did little to relieve Mary’s anger; she might as well have been behind bars herself.
Mary says that she eventually realized holding on to hate for him was keeping her from healing herself.
She says that her intensity of hate was like cancer.
So, Mary decided to visit Oshea in prison.
And then she went again, and again.
In the meantime, she formed a foundation called From Death to Life, whose mission is to bring reconciliation between families of victims and their attackers.
Only with that reconciliation can they break the cycle of violence in their city and encourage healing for grieving family members.
By the time Oshea was released in 2010, he and Mary had become like mother and son.
They spend a lot of time together, and the two of them do public speaking and organize community events to promote From Death to Life.
That level of forgiveness may be impossible for a human alone to do.
So, one last point.
I said we know that forgiveness is possible because the king forgave the massive debt of the servant.
Understanding the king in the parable being God, then I can lean on His ability to forgive to get me through my seemingly impossible process of forgiving.
I, alone, can only go so far along the journey of releasing resentment and anger.
But praying for a partnership with Christ to help me forgive as he forgives me makes the impossible become possible.