Continuing on with our study of the stories Jesus told, we’re coming to a story that discusses a major cultural issue: forgiveness.
On the surface, we’re taught to forgive, however when we take a look at how our culture teaches us to live, we see a very different story.
Revenge sells. Vengeance sells a lot of movie tickets. Our culture, like every culture, longs for justice and for wrongs to be made right.
The problem is with forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer, we are directed to pray “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
But, what does it mean to forgive, and what does it mean to be forgiven?
In his book, “The Sunflower,” Simon Wiesenthal shares a moment in his life when forgiveness comes front and center.
Simon was a Jewish man who lived in World War II Germany. Corralled with other Jews, he was placed in a concentration camp and spent the long hours of each day in a dark place none of us can imagine. They witnessed starvation, anger, and were regularly de-humanized.
Simon tells the story of how he and a group of Jews were cleaning a medical station when a nurse called for Simon, and asked him if he was a Jew. He affirmed, and followed her to the room of a badly injured S.S. soldier. He was on the edge of death, and said he needed to get something off his chest, and find forgiveness before passing into death.
Karl went on to tell Simon about being sent to fight in Russia, and about coming, one day, to a village.
“In a large square we got out and looked around us. On the other side of the square there was a group of people under close guard . . . The word went through our group like wildfire: ‘They’re Jews’ . . . An order was given and we marched toward the huddled mass of Jews. There were a hundred and fifty of them or perhaps two hundred, including many children who stared at us with anxious eyes. A few were quietly crying. There were infants in their mothers’ arms, but hardly any young men; mostly women and graybeards.
. . A truck arrived with cans of petrol which we unloaded and took into a house . . . Then we began to drive the Jews into the house . . . Then another truck came up full of more Jews and they too were crammed into the house with the others. Then the door was locked and a machine gun was posted opposite . . . When we were told that everything was ready, we went back a few yards, and then received the command to remove safety pins from hand grenades and throw them through the windows of the house . . .
Behind the windows of the second floor, I saw a man with a small child in his arms. His clothes were alight. By his side stood a woman, doubtless the mother of the child. With his free hand the man covered the child’s eyes . . . then he jumped into the street. Seconds later the mother followed. Then from the other windows fell burning bodies . . . We shot . . . Oh God! I don’t know how many tried to jump out of the windows but that one family I shall never forget – least of all the child.”
The guard went on to say,
“. . In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and time again I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. Only I didn’t know whether there were any Jews left . . . I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace.”
What is kingdom forgiveness?
Forgiveness. When you or I are hurt, when someone takes something precious from us, when they use their words, or their actions, to harm us, how are we to respond?
When others owe us, or when others are in our debt, it’s so often difficult to distinguish hatred from hurt, isn’t it?
How are we to respond when someone asks for forgiveness? How are we to process our hurt and our pain?
Jesus tells us this story in Matthew 18:21-35…
The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.[a]
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold[b] was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins.[c] He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
What’s going on here?
We are reading about a ruler who decides to do an internal audit of his wealth and accounts. It’s during this internal audit that he discovers that one of his high level officials (a more accurate description of the man’s rank than servant) has been stealing money from him. He has stolen quite a bit of cash as well. 10,000 talents, to be exact.
Now, in Jesus time, 1 talent equals 6,000 denarius, and 1 denarius equals a day’s wage.
So, to do the math and convert to the modern dollar, the official stole (roughly) 1.5 billion dollars from the Ruler.
This is an amount he could never hope to pay back.
But the man is forgiven. Soon, though, we read that the newly forgiven official goes out and finds a man who owed him money…100 denarius to be exact…or, roughly 5,000 dollars today.
That is a significant difference. And, though the second conversation mirrored the first (the man pleaded for more time), the official ordered that he be thrown into debtors prison to work off the debt he owed.
When word made it’s way back to the Ruler, he became furious that a man he just forgave was now shaking down another man who owed him.
The ruler immediately rescinds his forgiveness, and has him thrown into jail where he will be tortured until he’s able to pay back the money he owes. (which, again is an amount he could never hope to repay.)
So what is Jesus trying to get at here?
How many times must I forgive?
This story is set off by a simple question asked by Peter; “how often should we forgive others?”
And, if we’re all to be really honest, we all would admit that this seems like a very valid question, doesn’t it?
After all, what do we do with someone who is a repeat offender and causes us repeated pain?
3 strikes and you’re out
In the time of Jesus, it was taught by the rabbi’s and teachers of the law that, should someone repeatedly commit a wrongful act against you, say lying, stealing…etc, the one whom the crime was committed against had a responsibility to forgive that person 3 times. After the 3rd act of forgiveness, they had no responsibility to ever forgive them again.
As we read Peter’s question, we see that he asks about how often he should forgive his brother, and he offers up the number 7. Chances are, he’s feeling extremely holy and generous with the number he offered.
Jesus, however, comes back and says that a person should forgive another up to 70 x 7 times.
Or as one writer puts it, if you think it’s about the final number (490), you’re missing the whole point.
So what is the point? What does kingdom forgiveness look like?
We are forgiven more than we deserve
As Christians, we know that our inclusion in the body of Christ, and the forgiveness handed to us is beyond any sort of repayment; or payment for that matter.
We are all guilty of crimes we cannot fathom, and are broken beyond any sort of humanly repair.
The Bible tells us that our whitest clothes are stained with a deep red.
Our attempts at goodness are, as Paul describes them, a pile of human feces.
We all, every day of our lives, do things wrong. We behave differently than we should, and we live far below what’s expected. Yet we are forgive.
Always, and permanently forgiven. The Bible says that as far as the east is from the west. That’s as far as our Heavenly father has thrown our wrongs and sins.
1.5 billion dollars worth. That and more is what we’re forgiven.
When others wrong us, when t hey bad mouth us, break our heart, or talk about our moms, it doesn’t matter how much damage is done. It is not worse than what we’ve done ourselves.
Holding on to bitterness destroys only us
To hold onto forgiveness, we know that the anger, malice, resentment and a whole mix of destructive feelings are found only in us. These feelings of control and our need to hold the sins of others is not a burden anyone but you and I carry. Maybe we feels as though we’re punishing others, but we’re only hurting ourselves.
On a practical level, the Mayo Clinic put out an article on forgiveness where they described the health benefits of a person willing to forgive. They included:
- Healthier relationships
- Greater spiritual and psychological well-being
- Less anxiety, stress and hostility
- Lower blood pressure
- Fewer symptoms of depression
- Lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse
A few weeks ago, we talked about the fact that we are not a collection of separate entities: spirit, flesh, and mind. Rather, all parts of us, the spiritual and the physical are intrinsically tied together. The action of one has an effect on the other.
When someone chooses to not forgive, it’s not just a spiritual issue…it becomes a physical issue. This is an issue that can lead to spiritual AND physical sickness and eventual death.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting
Often times the crimes against us are heinous. Because of these actions we are deeply wounded people, and to meet or speak to the person who inflicted that wound would do us more harm than good.
Perhaps we have spent hours in therapy working through these dark moments in our lives, and we’re still not in a place of stability.
And the question is asked: How can you ask me to forgive the one who did this?
I can ask because forgiveness is not asking you to forget what they did, or condone what you did. It’s asking you to release control of them.
Having spoken to a group of people in Nazi Germany, Corrie Ten Boom- a former concentration camp resident- was confronted by a Nazi officer who served at the same camp, at the same time of Corries service. She tells the story this way…
“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.’
“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”
Our forgiveness has eternal repercussions
Finally, it’s important to remember that if we want to live as part of God’s Kingdom, if we want to call ourselves followers of Christ, it’s important to know that our un-forgiveness for others will mean God will not forgive us.
After all, if we’re unable to forgive the debt someone owes us, and if we’re unable to let others remove their heads from the chopping block, then why would God allow us to do the same?
How can we crave justice in one area of our life, but expect forgiveness in another?
How can we plead for our life and still demand death for another?
This is one of the main points Jesus is pointing to in this story. We, as humans, so often want the easy route in life. We want the forgiveness of God. We want his acceptance, but we have such a difficult time releasing the pain and anger we feel towards others.
But the Kingdom life, and the Kingdom we’re invited to be part of, is a Kingdom that frees us from all that binds us. It frees us from addictions, and frees us from legalism. It also frees us from bitterness and resentment. It frees us from needing to always be equal and even. It frees us from needing to always keep people in check.
Jesus reminds us
We can’t have it both ways.
And there is a reason Jesus uses such strong language for the way the Official is dealt with at the end of the story. He is handed to the jailers to be tortured the rest of his life.
This isn’t in a commentary, and I am speaking from my own opinions here, but I believe that when God hands the official over to the jailer to be tortured, he’s giving a metaphore to the fact that, if we refuse to forgive others, God will hand us over to ourselves, where we will live a life filled with torture, pain and bitterness…never to be free again.
As we come to a close this morning, I want you to watch this video about a woman faced with the choice to forgive…
The question remains: who do you need to forgive?