Expecting Forgiveness

In forgiveness, there is freedom. In our lesson this morning from the gospel of Matthew, we get to listen in on three different conversations around the topic of forgiveness. First, Jesus offers up a kind of “how to” primer on dealing with conflict.

On the heels of hearing that advice, Peter and Jesus trade numbers on forgiveness: three? Seven? Seventy-seven? 490?

Jesus then finishes off our lesson with a parable in which a servant is forgiven an extraordinary debt only to lord a small debt over a fellow servant’s head. The master is swift in punishment for the man’s hypocrisy; as will God be, Jesus says, for our own hypocritical approach to forgiveness.

At first glance, it’s not clear whether the three stories are related or not. They all touch on forgiveness, but in no single coherent form. And maybe that’s the point here. There may not be a “one size fits all” approach to forgiveness. What Jesus makes abundantly clear, though, is that forgiveness is not optional for those who want to follow him. Forgiveness, it turns out, is expected.

But what is forgiveness? It’s one of those words where we know exactly what it means until it comes time to define it. Does forgiveness mean that we live as though the wrong in question never happened? Is it something meant to be ignored briefly but stored up for a later date when we can throw it back in their face? Is forgiveness a generous gift of the powerful, or is it an unwelcome imposition on the weak? In our culture, we often lump “forgive” with “forget” – but should we?

This morning, I want to touch on forgiveness from three different sides, using the three separate lessons in our Matthew reading:

  1. Forgiveness has accountability
  2. Forgiveness is abundant
  3. Forgiveness starts and ends with God

Let’s start with accountability. In the first part of our reading, Jesus outlines this beautiful process for dealing with conflict. The first step, he says, is to deal with it directly. If someone wrongs you, you try to work it out with them first. If they recognize their fault, the relationship is restored and all is well.

If they don’t, you move onto step two: bringing witnesses. The hope, of course, is that these third parties will be able to achieve the restoration that didn’t happen in the first step. And though it’s unstated, there is also the possibility that these witnesses will hear the story and recognize that you, in fact, are the one who should be held accountable; in which case, the obligation to repent is yours.

And if step two fails, there’s a step three: bringing it to the church, involving the wider community. Much like in the second step, the hope is that they will be able to bring restoration and that the relationship is healed.

Of course, there is the possibility that step three will fail. If so, Jesus says, the church ought to treat the one who has done wrong like a Gentile or a tax collector. At first glance, it sounds like that means they’re kicked out; and yet, if we know the story of the early church well, it included both Gentiles and tax collectors. And so, though they have failed to admit their wrong, they are not beyond the hope of redemption.

Notice what happens throughout, though: the wrong in question is not ignored. There is no proverbial “elephant in the room.” Instead, it seems like it’s the only topic to be discussed. Forgiving does not mean forgetting that we have been hurt. Forgiving means doing what we can to heal the wounds; which means that forgiveness recognizes our vulnerability, our brokenness, our imperfection. The injury may heal; but depending on how deep the cut, there will always be a scar.

Forgiveness knows that there should be accountability.

Second, forgiveness is abundant; and extravagantly so.

After Jesus outlines his conflict resolution strategy, Peter steps up to offer his take, as he often does. He knows that the prevailing religious wisdom of the day regarding forgiveness is that the generous soul has three servings in supply. And so Peter, ever the show off, pushes it up to seven. Others may only have three; but Peter has extra in reserve and is willing to share.

Until Jesus blows Peter out of the water: seven isn’t even close. It’s more like seventy times seven. Jesus tells Peter that those who follow him have to forgive almost 500 wrongs before the supply runs out. Some of you may want to take this on as a spiritual discipline. You can keep a running tally of how many times various people have wronged you; and when one of those people hits 490, you can safely say, “I’m done.” Of course, that may be the most dangerous diary you could ever possibly keep!

The point, rather, is that forgiveness is meant to be abundant. No matter how gracious we think we are, we can never truly be gracious enough.

And that leads to the third point: forgiveness starts and ends with God.

We know this. Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we affirm this fact: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Our ability to forgive others is intimately connected to the fact that God forgives us.

The word “forgiveness” in Greek gives us some picture of this. Forgiveness means to send away, to dismiss, to pass over, to leave behind. If God, therefore, is willing to send our sins away, then we are called to do the same with those who sin against us.

The parable Jesus tells lays it out in stark detail. We have the master, representing God in this allegory, willing to forgive one servant a massive debt: somewhere on the order fifteen years worth of wages. That same servant, just having received incredible financial release, holds a fellow servant to a much smaller debt, worth about 100 days of labor. And because of his hypocrisy, the servant is punished.

The meaning is crystal clear: God forgives us. How in the world can we not turn around and forgive?

You heard the news, no doubt, last Sunday, ISIS released a video of the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians. The men had gone to Libya looking for work to support their rural families back home. They were captured and killed for what ISIS called “carrying the illusion of the cross.” Egyptians tattoo small crosses on their wrists, carrying the mark of Christ with them wherever they go. And this led to their death.

My personal feelings upon hearing the news were a mixture of deep heartbreak and fiery anger. When I heard the next morning that the Egyptian government had retaliated by launching airstrikes on ISIS in Libya, I was pleased: Egypt’s Christians live as a struggling minority, and here was proof that the government of Egypt would not let this brutal treatment of its citizens go unpunished.

And then, I read this statement by Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Church:

“While it may seem illogical or incomprehensible, we…pray for those who have carried out these horrific crimes, that the value of God’s creation and human life may become more evident to them…”

I was cut to the quick…but that soon passed. After all, I thought, this is a bishop, a religious professional, a modern-day Peter. He is supposed to say things like that. And while that might be the correct theological answer, nation-states have different values, purposes, and reasoning. I soon settled back into my own comfort, world gentle de-rocked.

And then, I came across an interview with the brother of two of the victims. Bashir Kamel, speaking with an Arabic Christian program, began by thanking ISIS – thanking ISIS – for not editing out the men’s declaration of belief in Christ, something that has strengthened his family in their loss. He went on to say that such suffering “only makes us stronger in our faith because the Bible told us to love our enemies and bless those who curse us.”

It sure does…

When asked about forgiveness, Bashir related what is mother said: “she would ask her son’s killer to enter her house and ask God to open his eyes.”

The word studies, the nuances, the numbers and supply of forgiveness all pale in comparison with what it means to be living witnesses of that grace. Thank God for Bashir, for the Coptic Church, for the church on the margins, because it is there that we can find the truest, noblest, most merciful and holy version of faith there is.

Friends, we are expected to forgive; because we expect to be forgiven. This is the character of God we know in Christ, a character that we should strive to exhibit to the world. This does not mean that forgiveness is easy; quite the opposite. Forgiveness bears the scars of wounds that are deep, but healed.

More than anything else, forgiveness means freedom: freedom from what we have done, freedom from what others have done to us, freedom from keeping score. And that, my friends, is a gift we can count on.