September 14, 2014 | Pastor Sara Wolbrecht
Let It Go: Forgiveness as the Way of Life
Matthew 18:21-35 READ
Because this sure sounds like the gospel, right? Phew! This is the parable of the unmerciful servant and it comes as Jesus’ response to Peter’s question at the beginning of our text (about forgiveness) – How many times should I forgive someone? And you can picture Peter standing there with his clipboard and pen and his Excel spreadsheet with neat columns printed across. A list of names running down the left side, and each with seven boxes after their name, waiting to be crossed off. And I’m sure Peter is thinking – Seven, that’s generous, that’s more than giving someone a second chance. AND seven is such a holy number. Jesus is going to dig this.
Jesus’s well-known response to Peter is “Oh, Peter. Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Or another way to translate it is seventy times seven (490) times. Jesus is not saying, Peter you need a bigger spreadsheet and more columns. “Seventy times seven” is a typical bit of Jesus’ teasing. What he means is: don’t even think about it, just do it. Just forgive. Make forgiveness a way of life.
Now, before we get into the parable itself, …let’s talk about forgiveness. We could spend every Sunday talking about the complexities and challenges of forgiveness – for we are people who know the very real experience of being hurt by others. This morning, I hope to unpack some understanding for us, so that we can clarify at least to a greater degree what forgiveness is, what it is not, and why Jesus tells us it matters. And as we do this, we invite the Holy Spirit to speak to each of us about those places in our lives where we need to forgive. Alright?
First, it’s helpful to have a grasp on what sin actually is. That’s right, you’re here on the Sunday we talk about sin. Lucky you! But trust me, it’ll be good. There are many ways to talk about sin. The Greek word for sins, the root is pipto, which means “slips.” You can translate it as trespasses. I find it really helpful to think of sin as trespassing – that’s why we use that language of “forgive us our trespasses” in the Lord’s Prayer.
Sin is trespassing, slipping into the wrong territory. We are made to walk with God, that’s our sweet spot, where we are supposed to be. Headed down the road with our God. There are certain places we’re not supposed to go. The “No Trespassing” signs have been posted. When we veer off that path we’re on with God (slip), we are trespassing. We’re outside what God says is good, outside his intent for each of us. Paul describes it in Romans 3: “…we all sin and fall short of the glory of God.” We’re in the wrong place because we have fallen short of where we’re supposed to be.
These slips can be the big deal kinds of things where our stuff is broken, or when trust is broken, or where bodily or emotional harm has been done. But it also means the slips, the rolling of the eyes, the off-handed comment, the critical word spoken. It refers yes to the deep stuff but it also includes all of the thousands of ways we hurt each other in passing every day. The things that end up getting between people.
So, we make those slips, we are trespassers, yes? Trespassers who are forgiven and brought back home over and over again. But we also know that slips happen against us. We know too well how people hurt us, even and especially those people we love most. Which means we know all kinds of feelings – anger, grief, broken trust, fear for further hurt.
When we have been hurt, what do we naturally want? Payback. They owe us something because of the trespassing. Like when we see a sign posted that says “ No trespassing. Violators will be fined.” Those slips accrue a debt. We want them to pay for the damage they have caused... We may want them to feel what we feel, or feel bad about it, to understand the damage they have caused, and to make up for that damage in some way.
How do we forgive those debts after someone slips, after someone trespasses? Let’s talk about what forgiveness actually is. Maybe you know this – the word used in scripture for forgiveness means, to send away. To hurl or throw. Or, to put it in familiar, Disney-related terms that my 4-year-old daughter understands: forgiveness means to let it go. Let it go! To release. Someone has wronged us. So we carry it around. We hold on tightly to it. Our thoughts spin about it, our teeth grind in our sleep because we’re thinking of it. We grumble to those around us about it. To forgive is to let it go, release it. To say, “I am not going to carry this around anymore, I am sending it away.”
So forgiveness is to move beyond payback. To actually forgive someone means that we are the ones to say: I release you from your debt. You don’t owe me.
You may hear that and be thinking of someone in your life right now and think – Yeah, that pretty much sounds impossible to say. Let me offer some important clarity (and hope). It is critical for us to name what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness can often get confused with things that are not forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean what they did was ok. (When we forgive we aren’t saying what they did is ok). Forgiveness does not mean we condone behavior. And it is not giving permission to continue to trespass or cause harm. Forgiveness is not saying it’s ok. Forgiveness is letting it go, releasing it. …Also, we do not always “forgive and forget.” We can let it go, release the burden of carrying around the hurt we feel, and there are times when we must remember what has been done. To let it inform the ways in which we move forward, to guard ourselves in healthy ways with healthy boundaries.
Forgiveness does not mean that the other person is free from facing consequences of their actions. They may actually owe a payment of some kind. Or there may be legal action that happens. Forgiveness does not mean the person is off the hook from facing consequences. We’re not holding the grudge over them.
Also, forgiveness is different than reconciliation. Reconciliation is when we are back to living life together, relationship is restored. Reconciliation can absolutely come on the other side of forgiveness. But there are also times when relationship cannot be restored to what it once was. Hey, I think I’ve forgiven my friend, my dad, but our relationship is still complicated, does that mean that I haven’t forgiven him? Not necessarily. Relationships are complicated, especially with family. (Can I get an amen?). We may not ever be fully reconciled with someone whether that is our own choice or theirs. We may have to sort out a livable way to move forward with them. And the litmus test for forgiveness is to keep coming back to that question: am I holding on to this? Do I need to let something go and stop hoping for payback?
Forgiveness is not about all those issues associated with sorting out life with them. Though those things are important. Jesus addresses some of that in the Scripture passage right before our gospel text, which Pastor Mike preached on last week. Jesus describes how to deal with conflict. As Jesus’ followers we do not run away from conflict, right? In the New Testament, so much is said about how we navigate sin and relationships and honoring one another and reconciliation and working out our differences. Beautiful, vital stuff. We hope to live that way, faithfully. But that is different than forgiveness, it is important for us to remember that distinction.
So there we have it – sin, what forgiveness is and what it is not. So why does all this matter? Why do we need to be people who forgive? …Because as Jesus points out to us by using this parable, to not forgive someone is torture.
Jesus sets it up this way with this parable…The kingdom of heaven is like this… He’s saying God’s way of being in the world is like this king who has mercy and forgives a debt. Not just any debt – ten thousand talents is like a million dollars – really it is an unpayable amount of money for this slave. But this is who God is! Jesus tells us. God forgives the unpayable debt. This way of mercy and forgiveness is the way of God. And then when the slave is unmerciful and does not forgive a debt owed to him (a debt of about $10 – very small) and is tortured for his lack of mercy, we hear these haunting words: “This is how my Father in heaven will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Dun Dun Dun!
This text is troubling because it sounds like God will inflict torture on us if we’re not merciful and forgive others. Right? Are you a little concerned by this text? …But maybe this is less about God inflicting something on us, and it is actually about what it means when we try to keep score with our own clipboard, when we try to keep track of the debts owed to us, when we won’t let something go. Jesus is saying – the Kingdom of God releases debts, it is a place of mercy and forgiveness. Come and live there. But if we choose not to – and it is our choice – then it will be like torture. For who? The one who will not forgive. Which is a bit counterintuitive. Sometimes we don’t forgive and we hold onto something thinking that we can make them suffer more – but we are the ones who suffer.
And it is torture. In saying, I won’t forgive you, we actually become the ones who are trespassing. We’ve moved out and away from walking with God in that merciful kingdom of heaven. We are not where we are supposed to be, and so we become the ones who suffer.
Jesus’ parable resonates with me – because I know there are times when I struggle to forgive. And I see it play out as I grumble about that person, about my pain and anger, and what they should be doing to make it right. …I’m sure you’ve never done this. And my experience of unforgiveness is that it absolutely is torture!
Unforgiveness is an awful thing to try to live with. We carry the hurt of unforgiveness in our bodies. We can’t sleep, we’re stressed out, we’re cranky all the time. Sometimes it’s a low-grade gnawing at us, and other times it is all-consuming. That’s why Jesus speaks this parable – for in it we hear invitation. The beautiful reality we live in is that God always invites us to let it go, to literally repent and turn around from that place of unforgiveness and come back to that place we’re supposed to be in. And like the prodigal son we are always welcomed back home with much rejoicing – our Father even runs out to meet us, to welcome us home, debt forgiven.
So – in all of this, I wonder what God has said to you in these relfections on forgiveness. And by way of responding, it seems appropriate for us to close this time in prayer. I invite you to take a deep breath, maybe close your eyes, and open yourself up to God as we pray:
Loving God, we know what it feels like to be hurt by others. We know the big and small slips that happen in our lives. And today we choose to be people who release the debts of others. We choose to be people who do not hold tightly or keep score of the ways in which we have been wronged. But instead today, as your forgiven people we choose to be forgiving people. We silently name before you the people or situations that we have been stewing over and holding onto tightly, and in naming them we release them to you. Thank you that we don’t have to hold them anymore. Thank you that we don’t have to be tortured by unforgiveness. Thank you for your Spirit that enables us to do the hard work of forgiving and releasing the debts of others. Thank you that when we wake tomorrow if we find that we’re holding those debts again that your mercy is sufficient to help us let it go again and again until the work of forgiveness is done. Help us to continue to be your tender, empowered, merciful people as we live this day and every day. We pray in the name of Jesus – who has made all of this possible. Amen.