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Forgiveness


Forgiveness really, really matters.


And forgiveness is really, really hard.


There’s a tension here. That’s the territory that Jesus explores in our gospel reading. He tells his disciples a story about a king and his slaves. The parable starts out well enough. It begins with forgiveness. The human king in this story is moved with compassion when the slave who owes him an astronomical sum pleads for mercy. The king forgives the debt. So far so good. The kingdom of heaven may be compared with a human king who settles accounts with forgiveness. Forgiveness matters. We have a God whose posture towards us is one of compassion, mercy and forgiveness.


But then the story unravels. The one who is forgiven refuses to forgive the slave who owes him money. Fellow slaves become distressed. They blow the whistle on him; the king becomes enraged and the story descends into darkness. When forgiveness is refused, the world of the parable falls apart.


Forgiveness really, really matters. Without it, our world falls apart.


How are we to respond to a God who forgives us? What is forgiveness? Is it a get out of jail free card or is it a game-changer?


The tragedy in the parable is that the slave who is forgiven, who is given a fresh start, he treats forgiveness as a get out of jail free card rather than a game-changer. His response to being forgiven is to use it as an advantage in the same old game of life. He’s been given the opportunity to enter into a new way of life, but for some tragic reason, he’s not able to seize it. And that’s where the story unravels.


Peter knows that forgiveness matters, he’s been paying attention. So asks a question. Maybe he’s trying to clarify. Maybe he’s showing off. “Jesus, if another sins against me, should I forgive as many as seven times?” Seven is a big number. Seven get out of jail free cards should keep you out of jail for an entire game of Monopoly. But Jesus responds to Peter, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Or in other words, if you’re trying to count, you’ve missed the point.


Peter sees forgiveness as a transaction. Something rules based, something you can count. Like a get out of jail free card in a game of Monopoly. But Jesus understands that forgiveness is not a transaction, it’s a game-changer. We’re not playing Monopoly anymore, we’re moving to a whole new level. Forgiveness is not a transaction that we can count. Forgiveness is a way of being. Forgiveness is a way of life. Forgiveness is who we are, or perhaps who we hope to become. People who are forgiven and who forgive.


It's a game changer. Or more accurately, it’s life changing. It’s how we become the people that God created us to be. We are in relationship with God because God has forgiven us, and we can only really be in relationship with each other if we forgive each other, often, without counting, as many times as it takes.


Forgiveness matters because it is essential to good relationships. Forgiveness matters because it is essential to building loving communities. Forgiveness matters because it frees us from heavy burdens that we carry. But even more than these, forgiveness matters because it is a matter of identity. This is who we were created to be. “Be merciful,” Jesus tells us, “just as your Father in heaven is merciful.”


When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, one of the petitions he gives them is the one we say together every Sunday, in the Lord’s Prayer:


Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.


If you’re thinking of forgiveness as a transaction, this line can pose a problem for us. Is it an if-then statement? Are we really saying that we want God to forgive our sins in the same way that we forgive the sins of one another. I don’t think so, because we’re not always good at forgiveness.


But I don’t hear this as an if-then statement. I hear this more as a prayer about who we want to become. About wanting, about praying to grow into our identity as children of God. Our prayer is that we might become people who forgive in the way that we have been forgiven by God. This is who we want to be. This is the way of life that we seek as followers of Jesus.


We are people who were created to be in relationship, in relationship with God and with each other. We are in relationship with God because God has forgiven us, and we can only truly be in relationship with each other if we forgive each other. That’s why forgiveness really, really matters. It’s who we are, as individuals and as a community. It’s the way of life that God wants for God’s people.


But there are times when forgiveness is really, really hard.


Why is it so hard? At some level, we know from experience why forgiveness is hard, because we’ve been there, but let me try to articulate a few reasons why forgiveness is is something that challenges us.


One reason forgiveness is hard is because it sits in a tension with justice and accountability. You remember last week that we were talking about how this 18th chapter of the gospel of Matthew is all about building community? Forgiveness is essential to building community. But accountability and just relationships are also important. And forgiveness sits in tension with justice and accountability. How are we we navigate this tension? It’s not easy. Community building is hard work. So is forgiveness.


When we forgive, we have to let go of something. Sometimes that means that both we and the one we forgive are released from a burden that we’ve been carrying, and that can be wonderful and freeing. But often forgiveness involves letting go of something that’s hard to let go of, something that we really want, or that we depend on, or that we think we really need.


Forgiveness may mean letting go of knowing that I was right and you were wrong. It may mean letting go of the hope that the past can be changed, or justified. It may mean letting go of a power that we have over another person. It may mean letting go of a resentment that has been deeply embedded, or a righteous anger. It may mean letting go of our yearning for justice and accountability. Letting go of some things is really hard.


Sometimes forgiveness is hard because we have been deeply wounded by what someone has done to us. There are times when forgiveness is unimaginable because of the need to protect ourselves, to avoid re-opening wounds that have not yet healed. When harm has been done, it can make us feel unsafe. Many victims have to do the hard work of reestablishing the boundaries they need to feel safe again. The prospect of forgiveness can make us feel like we have to give up those boundaries. Forgiveness can make us vulnerable. Sometimes that’s a good thing. But not always. There are times when we are not yet ready to forgive or when we don’t feel safe enough to forgive. I think that it’s instructive that Jesus embeds his principle teaching on forgiveness not in a commandment but in a prayer. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. We may not be ready to forgive today. But we can this day pray that God will heal our wounds and move us to a place where forgiveness becomes possible and the hold that the past has upon us can be released.


Sometimes forgiveness is hard because the whole situation is a mess. I might have been harmed, but the one who sinned against me thinks he did nothing wrong. Maybe it was partly my fault. Or maybe I’m being gaslit. It’s hard to deal with a mess, especially when you’re hurting. It’s hard to forgive when there’s no remorse, when there’s no acknowledgement of the harm that’s been done.


Sometimes forgiveness is hard because we think it means reconciliation (it doesn’t) and we’re not ready for that.


Sometimes forgiveness is hard because of our natural human tendency to think that people should get what they deserve.


For all these reasons and more, forgiveness can be really difficult. In the parable that Jesus tells, the human king is so enraged by the first slave’s hypocrisy and his harsh treatment of the second slave that the king himself is overcome with anger, and hands the first slave over to be tortured. When forgiveness leaves the story, the whole world of the parable falls apart.


Forgiveness is hard. But forgiveness is also beautiful, freeing and life-giving. It is one of Jesus’ most important teachings, both by word and by example. Forgiveness, grace, compassion, mercy. These are not simply transactions. This is God’s posture towards us and this is the way of life, the way of being that we were created for, that we are called to as followers of Jesus.


Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.


Be merciful, as your Father in heaven is merciful.


Amen.


Homily Yr A P 25 September 17 2023. Trinity

Readings: Exodus 14.19-31; Ps 114; Romans 14.1-12; Matthew 18.21-35

Image by Craig Sunter

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