Word of the Week

Beginning With Forgiveness

Back to the Basics Series: Beginning with Forgiveness

Matthew 18:21-35

Though we all seem to talk good talk these days about honesty, authenticity, and the
like, but I believe rarely any of us say what we actually think—at least aloud. This is particularly true when it comes to the practice of prayer. When we pray, we think we have to sound a certain way, using all of the right church approved words or we believe that God won’t like us very much. When I begin to think like this, often it is a good tool for me to pull out one of my favorite books—a collection of letters written by children to God. Here are some of my favorite ones:

Dear God,
Thank you for my baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy.

Dear God,
If we come back as something in another life, please don't let me be Jennifer Horton, because I hate her.

Dear God,
Maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each other so much if they had their own rooms. It works with my brother.

Dear God,
I bet it is very hard for you to love all the people in the world. There are only four people in our family and I can never do it.

And in the sentiment of Nan’s letter to God, I can imagine, almost all of you feel similarly, whether these people who are hard to love are in your household, in your larger extended family, at your workplace or live on your street. Putting nice church talk aside, we ALL have someone in our lives who we wish was no there—those who have caused us unbearable pain, those who have taken from us what is not theirs, and those who we say un-choice words about behind their back. (This is where I need to see nodding heads so that I know you are with me).

And, though our gospel lesson for this morning opens up with a seemingly ridiculous
question from the disciple Peter: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” We have to admit that we are right there with him. For the most practical among us, it is not a crazy question after all. We would ask it too.

As much as many of us want to do the right thing and say we are a forgiving people, when it comes right down to the act of it, we all have our limits.

We have our limits with our child who asks us for money and then wastes it all forgetting to feed our grandchildren.

We have our limits with our sibling who promises to show up at important life events and simply forgets to even call to say that they aren’t coming.

We have our limits with our spouse who staggers home late after drinking too much,
promising that tomorrow they’ll give up the bottle, just as they did the night before.

We have our limits with our bosses who pile on us extra work, promising we’ll get a promotion if we finish it fast, only to give the promotion again to someone else. We have our limits. Forgiveness is more than just saying the words.

We too want to ask Jesus, how many times do we have to forgive? Give us a number of times, Jesus, because if you do, we can try with all of our might to do what pleases you IF we have that magic number in the back of our minds of when enough will be enough.

To such a question, Jesus answers with what appears at the surface to be an equally ridiculous reply. Look with me at verse 22. “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

What Jesus? You have to be kidding? I am going to die if I have to forgive, you know who, seventy-seven times. That is simply IMPOSSIBLE.

And to this impossible answer, Jesus tells a story, in teaching mode as always; he takes us to a scene called what the kingdom of heaven is like. There was a king who found he had a slave who owed him money. Lots of money that this slave did not have to pay back the king—the amount owed was 10,000 talents. If we translate this amount to modern terms, such an amount of talents would be 150,000 years worth of income. It would be as if a penniless recent immigrant was summed into Bill Gates’ office and
demanded to pay 5% of Mr. Gates’ net worth as punishment for sneaking into the country illegally. Impossible right? So the compassionate king in this case says to the slave who owes him money, “Your debts are forgiven.”

The twist of the story comes, because this slave who has been given hugest most amazing gift of his life, is not found out rejoicing in a spirit of thanksgiving for his good fortune, but instead, he uses the new-found “power” of freedom he has to terrorize his fellow slave. This fellow slave is said to have owed him money—a 100 denariis—which amounts to around 100 days of wages for the average worker. Sure, not a small debt, but like a grain of sand in comparison to the debt that was forgiven by the king of the first slave.

As the story concludes, the king finds out about the ungrateful slaves’ actions and lectures and punishes him for his lack of forgiveness. We reach the need of the parable and the lesson seems to be clearly stated with words that echo back to the words of the Lord’s Prayer that we all said together a few moments ago. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Or simply stated, forgive as the Lord forgave

Such a teaching really itches at us doesn’t it because it simply destroys the notions that we usually cling too about personal relationship with God or the idea that if we are right with God, how we are with others simply doesn’t matter that much.

It also itches at us because it is one of the moments when Jesus seems to be as straightforward as he possibly can be. Now is not the time for complex thinking, digging in the text to find a loophole of interpretation or even finding some veiled meaning. No, simply forgiveness is essential to the life of faith. There is no ifs, and, or but to get around it. If we are going to follow Jesus, then we are all going to have to learn about forgiving those who disappoint us the most.

I think a lot of us are scared of forgiveness because of the lingering ill effects of the hurt that has been caused us by those who have hurt us. We hold on to pain of what has been done or not done because we somehow think that this gives us back the power that has been taken from us. We fear that if we forgive, it is our way of saying what was done to us was ok. We fear more being taken from us in the act of forgiveness than the damage that has already been done.

But, in thinking about it like this, I feel we have forgiveness all wrong. Forgiveness is not about saying what wrong has been done was not just that: wrong. It is not about ignoring the damage that has been done. Forgiveness is not about pretending nothing was broken as if we’ve all turned into Pollyannas magically. Forgiveness IS however, a call to ensure the future is not the past. Forgiveness is about the hope that the present can be different. Forgiveness is about the bondage of hate, evil and discord being broken that would seek to destroy us if we refuse the healing of this practice in our life.

One of my favorite forgiveness heroes of all times is Corrie Ten Boom. I grew up reading over and over again her story in her memoir, Hiding Place which recounted her Christian journey of hiding Jews in her home during World War II in Holland. Along with her sister Betsy and father, Corrie was sent to a concentration camp yet was the only one who survived.

After being released and trying to make sense of her life, she knew she would need to forgive those who beat, tortured and even killed the two people whom she loved in her life the most. Her message of hope and survival gave Corrie many opportunities to travel and tell her story. In an Guideposts article, she recounts the following experience while at one of these speaking engagements:

“It was in a church in Munich that I saw him—a balding, heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear. It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.

“And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!

[Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent.]

“Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’

“And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course—how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?

“But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.

“‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there.’ No, he did not remember me.

“‘But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out—’will you forgive me?’

“And I stood there—I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

“It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

“For I had to do it—I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. ‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses,’ Jesus says, ‘neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’

“I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.

“And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’

“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

“‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’

“For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then”[i]

On this day, this important day in our history as citizens of America, when all the news and secular events of this day, speak of wars that have been fought in the name of ills done, statements of solitary with those who are trying retributive justice, I have to cling to Jesus’ words of forgiveness—there can be no end to our paths of forgiveness no matter what act of terror is done to us a nation, no matter what act of evil is done to us personally, no matter what happens. No matter what.

For just as Corrie Ten Boom experienced—we’d all say she had every right not to forgive the solider who lorded over her in the concentration camp—but yet she knew that this was what she must do. Not to say that what was done to her was ok, but to forgive so to be a part of the new and hopeful future that God could build out of the broken pieces of her life and this guards life too.

Sure, it’s scary and vulnerable. Sure, it’s not normal and goes against every self-protecting fiber we have in our bodies not to have a forgiveness quota just as Peter asked for. Sure, even if we forgive we still can’t control things. For, we might not ever have a restorative relationship with the person who has wronged us the most as they continue to make poor choices for their lives.

But, in forgiveness, in the miracle of it all, we find God. We find God’s love for us as we are given a new place to stand on even as all has been lost around us. In forgiveness, we find peace for ourselves.

So, who do you need to forgive today? Let’s get to it.


“I’m Still Learning to Forgive” Guideposts Magazine. Guideposts
Associates, Inc., Carmel, New York, 1972.