Matthew 18:21-35 Genesis 50:15-21
14th Sunday after Trinity
Today’s message is following on from last week’s word about reconciliation. It’s all to do with forgiveness, and that’s not an easy subject. We know all about it, I’m sure. And especially we know when others have wronged us. When my children were young, they would have disputes often enough. Their quarrels could reach high peaks, when either one or the other would come to me in an exasperated rage, claiming justice, or I simply had enough of their bickering, and told them to stop. The classic, ‘He started it!’ – ‘She was goading me!’ – ‘It’s all her fault!’ – ‘He hurt my arm!’: And another classic: ‘It’s not fair!’ I think it’s all too familiar a picture of the way siblings can behave. But make no mistake: adults can do the same and worse. And when the argument is so heated that there doesn’t seem a way back; when hurtful words turn into physical damage, then often something can literally break. What’s to be done? How do we turn the tide? How can it ever be ‘fair’?
Peter, in today’s Gospel thinks he’s worked it out: forgive, yes, but up to a point. Seven times should be enough, he suggests. Seven, after all, is a perfect number, and if one has been able to do it seven times, they should receive a medal for displaying such geniality and goodness. But it turns out that Peter has been too short-sighted when it comes to forgive someone else: Jesus’ reply is much wider in showing mercy: ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’ In other words: don’t count; don’t keep a score of wrongs, but forgive from the heart, each time the offender says ‘sorry’. Of course, forgiveness is never cheap. We know that sometimes an apology is offered insincerely: ‘Sorry if I have done/said those things.’ A ‘sorry’ that says ‘if’ is no real apology at all. It is in effect saying that ‘actually, I don’t think I did anything wrong, so the offense is in your imagination.’ And that is no apology. Also, it’s very difficult to forgive if there’s no apology at all. And still, it is important to forgive. Why? Well, here’s a few observations:
One of the most important things we can do for others is to forgive their wrongs. And it’s also the most difficult. We’re often so full of the pain and injustice that has been inflicted upon us that we even say, ‘I can forgive, but I cannot forget.’ Hmm. I wonder, if that’s the case, many a time when forgiveness has been professed, while deep down in the heart of the person saying the words, there is a lingering resentment at having to let go. Because forgiving means letting go. Letting go of the pain and refusing to let the power of the wrong continue to hurt any more. What many don’t see is that failing to forgive is giving power to the wrongdoer to continue to hurt, even long after the incident. It is in fact damaging yourself.
Somebody has said that whenever we point the finger at someone, three fingers are pointing back at ourselves. And that’s not clever. Forgiveness sets people free. Especially when it is freely offered, without restrictions. The illustrations of the story of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 50 and the parable that Jesus told about the king who forgives a huge debt but his servant does not forgive a fellow servant’s minor debt – all help us see the wideness of God’s mercy that we are called to reflect in the way we treat others. It’s often ‘not fair’, although, if you think about it: The Lord’s Prayer says,
Forgive us our sins/trespasses, as we forgive those who sin/trespass against us.
It is saying that we ask to be forgiven to the measure in which we ourselves forgive. And that means that if we forgive little, we are asking to be forgiven little. That can’t be what we want, can it? Nor is it what God set out to do when he sent his Son. We have received life – LIFE! – through what Jesus did for us. How much more, then, should we be prepared to forgive others. And be set free.
Let us pray:
Heavenly Father, help us to forgive, especially when we find it hard to let go, so that we too may be free and rejoice in the life that you give. Asking it in Jesus’ name. Amen.