2023 09 17: Unlimited Mercy

Posted on 18 Sep 2023

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Whether you consider yourself a faithful follower, or merely a curious seeker, you know that a fundamental quality of the Christian faith is the capacity to forgive.   Beginning with the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught his followers that they should resist the ways of the world and forgive. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” In the words of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught his followers to pray, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.  Yes, we know that forgiveness should be a part of the life of every Christian faith believe, and in principle, it sounds wonderful. But in practice, it is virtually impossible to master.  Perhaps, that’s why we find so many humorous sayings to avoid the need to forgive.

For instance, “If you can’t forgive and forget, pick one” or it’s variation, “Yes, I plan to forgive and forget.  I will forgive how stupid I was and forget you.  The British playwright Oscar Wilde wrote, “Always forgive your enemies.  Nothing annoys them so much.”  To which the American comedian Milton Berle added, “A good wife always forgives her husband, when she’s wrong.”

Even our pets seem to recognize the human struggle to forgive.  A man went to a pet store where he bought a parrot and brought it home.  Unfortunately, the parrot started insulting him and it got really nasty, so the man picked up the parrot and tossed him into the freezer to teach him a lesson. He heard the bird squawking for a few minutes, but then all of a sudden the parrot was quiet. The man opened the freezer door, the parrot walked out, looked up at him, and said, “I apologize for offending you, and I humbly ask your forgiveness.”  The man said, “Well, thank you. I forgive you.”  A moment later, the parrot said, “By the way, if you don’t mind my asking, what did the chicken do?”

This morning, I would like us to meditate on this most challenging, yet life affirming quality of the Christian faith, Jesus’ invitation and command to forgive those who have sinned.

Throughout New Testament, Jesus finds occasions to offer moral and ethical lessons to the crowds who followed him.  Today’s teaching moment began when Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” and he told them that they should all become like children.  Then he continued with words about avoiding temptation and the parable of the lost sheep. Finally, Jesus spoke about what to do if another member of the church sinned against them.  Jesus fully understood that if you live life in a community of faith, as in the human family, people are going to hurt you.  So he offered a script of sorts for what to do when they do sin: first, go and talk to them privately. If that doesn’t work, bring a witness or two, so they can corroborate what’s happening.  And if that still doesn’t work, then, well, maybe that person shouldn’t be a part of the community anymore. In that case, Jesus said, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Of course, we all know how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors: he welcomed them and went out of his way to eat with them and showed them grace.

This was an important lesson for the disciples, for the very next moment, Jesus told them that their assignment in the world would be to forgive sin and to teach others to follow their example, “Truly, I tell you,” he said, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth with be loosed in heaven.”  It is the same task that you and I have been given.  But it seems as if there is no greater challenge and stumbling block for Christians in this world today than to forgive. We just do not feel qualified or sufficiently inspired to do this work.

Let me underscore that forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting or pretending something didn’t hurt.  Nor does forgiveness mean that you don’t still get angry about what has happened. Forgiveness doesn’t minimize that what happened to you wasn’t terrible or evil. Forgiveness doesn’t mean people should not be held accountable for criminal actions. Forgiveness doesn’t allow people to use you as a doormat and walk all over you. This is what forgiveness does mean.  Forgiveness means that you refuse to spend your time and energy plotting, scheming, and punishing yourself and others to make things even. It means that you are making a conscious effort not to let those who have hurt you in the past to drag you down again.

So why does Jesus want us to forgive?  Believe it or not, it isn’t simply about your neighbor and their need to be forgiven. No, Jesus teaches us that it is actually in your own best interest to do so.  Forgiveness and true happiness go hand-in-hand, and make it possible for relationships to be restored and to be maintained.  It is not easy, but forgiveness is life affirming and life giving.  The late President of South Africa Nelson Mandela captured this understanding of forgiveness in his biography after 27 years in prison, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

And so Peter came to Jesus asking the age old question; “How many times shall I forgive my brother? How many times is enough?”  Mind you, Peter didn’t wait for an answer. He already had one. He said, “Seven times?” He knew what the Rabbis taught. You had to forgive a man three times and then you could retaliate.  But Jesus answered Peter quickly, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  In some translations that is 70 times 7.  Peter couldn’t believe it.  Did Jesus truly mean that forgiveness was to be unlimited?

Jesus then told the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.  A servant owed his master,  the equivalent of the $10 million dollars.  It was a debt impossible for either the man or his family to pay. It would take 100’s of years to pay back the debt.  Surprisingly, when the servant pleaded with the king to have patience, the king was moved and stunningly forgave the debt, and allowed the servant to go free. Moments later that very same servant, who had experienced such a grand gesture of grace and mercy, came upon a fellow servant who owed him the sum of just a single day’s wages.  He grabbed him by the neck and demanded he pay his debt.  When he begged him to have mercy, the first servant threw him into prison.  Needless to say, the other servants were shocked, and they reported this act of disrespect and pettiness to the king.  Though the servant had once been freed from his debt, he suddenly discovered that the master had changed his sentence, and he was now imprisoned and tortured.

Now, you might be wondering how could the Unforgiving Servant be so heartless?  Was he truly so evil and misguided?  After all the master must have once seen some noble character, some skill and acumen, within him that he would entrust him with such a great some of capital. No doubt, for most people, the parable teaches them that it is important to forgive others as they have been forgiven. But frankly, I am not sure the Unforgiving Servant ever truly felt the mercy of being forgiven, and so he had no reserve to share. The master’s abundant grace should have changed him. Instead, the Unforgiving Servant acted as if he had tricked his master one last time. Maybe, that is actually the warning for us in Jesus’ parable.  If we have no capacity to forgive, and find ourselves tallying the number of times we have forgiven another, then perhaps, we do not feel ourselves forgiven. So where do we find the strength and capacity to forgive- especially if we can’t find it within ourselves?

My friends, you must begin by walking that well-worn path to the place beneath the cross of Calvary.  Only a handful of Jesus’ followers heard his voice that long, Good Friday afternoon. They watched as he was crucified and suffered on the cross. They saw Jesus’ lips begin to tremble.  Suddenly, the crowd was silent. They were trying to hear what he was mumbling.  “Is he cursing us?” shouted the High Priest.  “Is he begging for mercy?” laughed one of the Roman soldiers.  “Maybe he is calling on his heavenly Father to send down lightning bolts from heaven to strike us all dead,” sneered one of the Pharisees.  But they were all mistaken.  For Jesus was neither cursing, begging nor threatening.  What he was saying was, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

As God’s forgiven people, you and I have been called to forgive sin, to reconcile ourselves with one another, and to restore human relationships.  It is a task that is truly God like and holy, and for this purpose we have been placed into this world. You may not be perfect or perfectly suited for the task, but God knows that you can make a difference.  For “Truly, I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth with be loosed in heaven.”    Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus.  Amen.