September 11, 2011 – 13th Sunday after Pentecost

by The Rev. Darrell Huddleston

Gen. 50:15-21; Ps. 103:1-13; Rom. 14:1-12; Mt. 18: 21-35

Two little boys had a brother who was a bully.  He was always beating on them.  One day coming home from Sunday School they were discussing the morning lesson which had been about forgiving seventy times seven.  They were earnestly striving to apply this to their older brother.  Finally, one suggested:  “We’ll keep a notebook, and write down every time we forgive him.”  “Yeh,” said the younger of the two, “and when it reaches 490 he had better watch out.”

The ancient rabbis said three pardons were adequate.  Peter went them four better and said seven.  His response was most likely said as repudiation of the 7-fold curse in Genesis.  So Peter’s answer seems quite generous especially when we find no mention in the text of any repentance by the offender.  But, neither the rabbis nor Peter had their math correct, and neither did the two little boys, because when we are counting then we really haven’t understood what Jesus meant.

John Killinger in his book The Greatest Teachings of Jesus tells of the Jivaro tribe in Ecuador who when putting their children to bed at night whisper in their ears the names of those whom they must hate.   Feuds, thus, are never allowed to die. / How many times have you heard someone say, or heard yourself saying, “I will never forgive them for what they did?”  Each night whispering the names of those who must be hated and even passing those names on to your children.  How often do we hear about divorced spouses continually poisoning the minds of their children against the other parent?  Warping the life of another human being in order to retaliate, using their own children as weapons in a war of unforgiving hate.

These lessons are apropos to this day…this day when we recall the hijacked airplane attacks by terrorist that happened 10 years ago.  There are many who feel that forgiving what they did is tantamount to treason. // As one reflects on the Genesis story of the forgiveness that occurred between Joseph and his brothers it is instructive.  Joseph could just as easily have decided to severely punish them for the way they treated him.   But he didn’t.  He forgave them.

Are we called to do likewise with terrorists?  I doubt they care at all whether we forgive them or not.  It most likely doesn’t matter to most of them.  What should matter to us is what happens to our spiritual health if we don’t forgive.  What matters is whether our unforgiving attitude causes us to blame all of Islam because of the terrorist activity of a few.  Failing to forgive could mean that our mindset keeps us from supporting the majority of Muslims who do not favor the Islamist terrorists. //  Forgiving does not mean one forgets what they did, we do not, nor does it mean that one becomes passive and stops working for justice in the world.

“Forgive and Forget” does not work.  If you try that way you’ll just feel guilty for your inability to do it.  “Forgive and Remember” though, can work for in the remembering we may learn from the past.

I think of the difference that resulted when Nelson Mandela, after years of imprisonment at the hands of white apartheid rulers in South Africa, chose to forgive but not forget and started the Trust and Reconciliation process which resulted in the peaceful transition of power in South Africa as opposed to the route Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe chose.  Mugabe also suffered years of imprisonment at the hands of white apartheid rulers, yet he can not forgive and the result has been punishment of his enemies, instability, conflict and violence that reigns to this day in that country.  A country that when we lived there was “the bread basket of Africa” and today is, as bishop Tutu refers to it, “a basket case.”

 

Forgiveness is not a simple act.  It is not done easily.  It cannot be trivialized.  Wrongs done to a person can leave serious emotional wounds and scars.  It often takes time, even years, to reach the point of forgiveness but at some point it needs to happen.  We have to relinquish our ‘right’ not to forgive.  Preferring to keep the anger alive will eat away at our very soul.  Anger, resentment, bitterness and hurt becomes a prison, and it is a prison that will hold us as tightly bound as any with bars.  I appreciate the way others far more insightful than I am talk about this reality:

“Resentment is arthritis of the spirit” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine

“The inability to forgive feels like drinking rat poison, and then waiting around for the rat to die.” (Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies)

It is a giant step to relinquish one’s right to be angry for being hurt and forgiving too easily and quickly may be a sign of not being willing to work through the painful process of healing that moves to real forgiveness.

The problem is that ‘letting go’ is so much more difficult than ‘hanging on.’  But the former means life and the other means death, for the longer we keep ourselves alienated, unforgiving, the more we die emotionally and spiritually.

It is impossible to simply ‘will’ ourselves to forgive another person.  We need help from others who are skilled in assisting us achieve that.  And, since we all do those things we ought not to do, we each need to be forgiven.  We need to know that God has forgiven us, and as a forgiven person we can move to forgiving others.

 

Forgiveness is an extravagant decision and act.  In Jesus’ parable about the king and his servant, the amount the king forgave his servant was 10,000 talents.  That amount was equal to the entire annual tax paid by Syria, Phoenicia, Judea and Samaria to the Roman government…an amount that was finally considered by Caesar to be so onerous that he later reduced it.  So, is Jesus being ridiculous with this story?  No.  He is making a very BIG point about God’s generosity.

Unfortunately, the servant doesn’t get the message and instead has another servant jailed for refusing to repay a debt to him of only 100 denarii.  That was no small amount either as it was fifteen days wages of an ordinary laborer.  But, in comparison it was nothing to what the king forgave him.  Thus, when the king learned of this he had the man given over to be tortured.

A rather pointed parable by Jesus.  It is misleading to understand it as an allegory where we are to substitute King, or Lord in some translations, for God.  Many New Testament scholars argue that is exactly what Matthew did to this parable, but they warn us against following that route.  It is a parable where Jesus is making the point about the need for forgiveness because we have been forgiven.  Shakespeare got it right:

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

that in the course of justice, none of us

should see salvation:  We do pray for mercy;

and that same prayer doth teach us all to render

the deeds of mercy.

(Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Sc. 1)

We can get it right.  Part of our problem is that I don’t think we really believe that forgiveness works.  But has anything else worked?  Has anger, revenge or reprisal worked?  Jesus reminds us that those who have been forgiven more tend to love more.  And, as he bluntly taught and is quoted earlier in Matthew’s gospel:

If you forgive others their trespasses your heavenly father will forgive

you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive

your trespasses.  (6:14-15)

If we can’t forgive neither will we be able to receive forgiveness.  This is the comment on which this parable is based.  Thus, the act of forgiveness on our part also brings God’s pardon into our own lives, or St. Francis put it, “it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.”

The ancient rabbis, St. Peter and the two little boys had their math wrong.  70 x 7 = Infinity, according to the way God does math.  70 x 7 is heavenly arithmetic…it is math done with the heart and not the head.  It is the only kind of math that will save us from ourselves…from whispering to ourselves and to our friends and families the names of those we hate and will not forgive.

 

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