Matthew 18:21-35
Forgiveness

If I was asked to come up with a simple slogan to summarize the Christian faith for the outside community, I reckon four words would be all I needed, “Forgiveness is our business”.  What do you think?  Whether we’re talking about the forgiveness Jesus won for us on the cross or the forgiveness that we give each other, surely forgiveness is the concept that everything else pivots around?

When Peter asked Jesus how often he should forgive someone who sins against him, Jesus told him seventy-seven times (at least that’s how this translation describes it, others say seventy times seven) the figure itself isn’t as important as the concept is.  When someone sins against us we are to forgive them over and over again, even if they repeat the same sin over and over again.

Imagine if someone took this figure literally and kept a tally of how many times someone sinned against them.  You can see the notebook in the pocket, every time a minor misdemeanour occurs, out it comes, one more line on the tally sheet.  What would happen when the magic figure was reached, would they then remain un-forgiven?  That’s not really forgiveness is it?  Not if you’re keeping score, that’s almost like daring someone to do it again, just so that you can prove how sinful they are.

Do you think keeping a tally would make you feel better?  To me that’s more about focussing on the sins committed than the forgiveness that we seek.

What about if we look at this from the sinner’s perspective, after all we are all sinners aren’t we?  What does it feel like to know that you’ve sinned?  Do you feel good about it or do sins tend to eat away at you and weigh you down, a bit like the cookie jar analogy.  When you reach in and take hold of your sins, when you hold on to them firmly, you can’t get free, but when you let go, that’s when you break free, that’s when the weight is lifted and you’re able to get on with your life.  This is about accepting the forgiveness that Jesus gives us and letting go of our past sins, not hanging on to them and worrying about them.

In our Baptism we became a part of God’s family, as a result, we receive forgiveness for our sins from God the Father through his Son.  Because he has first forgiven us, he then calls us to pass this same forgiveness on to other people.

We see this demonstrated in the parable of the unmerciful servant, the king grants his servant a pardon for a VERY large debt, and sends him on his way.  Yet when the servant comes across someone who owes him FAR less he is unmerciful and demands that he get his money back even when the plea for mercy is identical to his own.  This man fails to replicate the mercy that was shown to him.

What happens next?  The gossips run and tell on him!  And then we’re not really surprised when the king’s response is to have the slave brought back and punished.  But hang on, there’s a bit of a twist at the end of the reading that is quite unexpected and is a bit difficult to grasp.  “So my heavenly Father will do to you if you do not forgive your brother and sister from your heart.”

We think its fair enough if the king punishes his slave for not practicing the mercy, or in other words, the forgiveness that the king had shown him, and yet we don’t think its fair if our father in heaven would do the same to us if we don’t forgive our brothers and sisters. After all there are some fairly difficult people out there that we can and do struggle to forgive for what they’ve done to us or what they’ve failed to do for us.

I was reading an article from Christianity Today this week by a lady who said she was struggling to come to terms, on the upcoming anniversary of the September 11 attacks, that she should forgive the terrorists involved.  She referred to it as a Jonah moment, just as Jonah didn’t want the people of Nineveh to be spared, she was feeling the same about these terrorists.

She said, “It didn’t take long for me to feel convicted about my disobedience. The implication was this: If I thought the 9/11 terrorists didn’t deserve God’s mercy, it meant I wanted them to be sent to hell. To be permanently, eternally separated from God. I shivered at the thought, remembering Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:14: “If you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
This lady wasn’t directly affected by the attacks, yet she was still struggling to forgive.  Imagine how the people who lost family in them would be feeling. Perhaps you know someone who was injured or killed in an accident, could you bring yourself to forgive the person who was at fault.  How would you do? 

I watched parts of a show on SBS the other night called “Murderball”, it followed the USA wheelchair rugby team and looked at some of the stories of the players.  One man had struggled to forgive the person responsible for him being in a wheelchair, even though it was purely accidental, but eventually toward the end of the documentary, he invited this man to watch him play at the Athens Paralympics.

The lady that was concerned about forgiving terrorists came to what I think was an important realisation and conclusion:
“There’s a saying, adapted from the writings of the 18th-century poet Alexander Pope, that “forgiveness is divine.” Perhaps it isn’t humanly possible to forgive a murderer, a rapist, a child molester, or the perpetrators of 9/11—at least, not without God’s help.”
We do need God’s help; we can’t do this all by ourselves.  In our first reading Joseph had to go by his Father’s instruction to forgive his brother’s.  He didn’t do it by himself; he used his Father’s will to guide him and was able to forgive.  We are in a similar situation.  When someone sins against us, we need to call on God for help, we need to remember the forgiveness he first gave us and offer to the other person God’s forgiveness through us.
It works the same when we need to be forgiven, we should simply call on the Lord to forgive us our sins, remembering always, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, as we forgive those who sin against us!
Maybe it’s time to stop and think, have you been keeping score, have you got your hand so firmly hanging onto your sins or someone else’s that you can’t get free, is there someone who needs to hear the words spoken from your lips, “your sins are forgiven?”.  Think about it prayerfully, if there is something that needs doing; ask for God’s help to do it.  If you don’t come up with anything or anyone, praise the Lord and thank him for his divine goodness and mercy that has brought you to this place.

Amen.