DECIDING TO FORGIVE
Matthew 18: 21-35
This week we continue our journey through Matthew’s gospel with a text that is informed by last week’s Bible passage. Last Sunday we read about Jesus’ suggested method for negotiations with one another when people disagree. Barbara E. Reid sums up that story like this:
The parable is preceded by an outline of the steps that should be taken in a situation in which one member of the community sins against another. Highlighted are the hard work and persistence that are necessary for achieving reconciliation. [Parables for Preachers, Year A, The Liturgical Press, 2001, p.132.]
The first step, you may recall, was a willingness to talk directly to the other party. A willingness to forgive was also needed. Then if that step didn’t work, the process got more involved with people trying to gain a good conclusion. The last verse said, “If those don’t work, let the person be as a Gentile or a Tax Collector to you.” And so we pick up our story today. Most people in Jesus’ day, and likely in our day, think that means “treat the other person as an outcast.” After all, that’s often what we do. But ironically, today we learn that Jesus suggests, in a manner of speaking, that people start the negotiation process over again! We recall what Jesus did with tax collectors: One we know of—Matthew—he called to be a disciple! Matthew began to learn from and eat with Jesus. Another tax collector we know of—Zacchaeus—became Jesus’ host at his own dinner table! And in the case of Gentiles, they were much more welcoming to Jesus’ ideas and teachings than his own people were! “Treat them like tax collectors or Gentiles.” Is that a call to shun, or a call to break bread with the one with whom you disagree? Jesus also said: “Those who do not feel like they are sick need no physicians, but the sick do….I do not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9: 12-13) “Jesus: friend of sinners.” I remember reading that for communion liturgies, and I remember singing it as a choral anthem. And today we hear what our Lord says about forgiveness.
People through the ages have wanted to quantify “how much is enough?” So immediately after his advice about dealing with others, Peter asks him: “So how many times, when neighbors sin against me, do I have to forgive them: seven times?” Seven was a number indicating completeness to a Jew and later to Christians. Seven is the number of days it took to create the world and it is a holy number in Revelation. It’s a symbolic number. But Jesus’ answer is not a numeric number: “seventy times seven” as in 490 times; it is a symbolic number that says “limitless.” Jesus, who knew the heart of his Heavenly Father, also knew the countless times that the world had already been forgiven by God. As a hymn we will sing today says: “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy.” But we are left to wonder if God’s forgiveness is actually limitless, or do God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness have limits? A key to Godly living includes forgiving those who have hurt or betrayed you instead of not forgiving them and holding a grudge. Those who forgive give the world an amazing glimpse into the nature of God. Like the Father in the Luke 15 passage who ran to meet his youngest son, and who went all the way into the field to talk with his pouting older son, God shows amazing patience, and God forgives: seventy times seven times.
Here are some real-life examples of extraordinary forgiveness:
Gary Leon Ridgway is better known as the infamous Green River Killer. In 2003, he confessed to the murders of 48 women. In 2011, Ridgway was convicted of the murder of Rebecca Marrero, bringing the victim count up to 49. By his own confession, he may have murdered as many as 60 women. His crimes were clearly heinous and many in number.
At Ridgway’s 2003 sentencing, the families of the victims, had the opportunity to speak out and address him directly. Understandably, many were angry and lashed out at Ridgway for the unimaginable grief he had put them through. They cursed him; some hope he would be tortured; some hoped he’d burn in Hell. As Ridgway listened to the family members express their grief and anger he was stone faced; his expression never changed. At last one person came up and said something unexpected .It was Robert Rule, the father of teenage victim Linda Jane Rule. He stood before the man who murdered his daughter and said: “Mr. Ridgway . . . there are people here that hate you. I’m not one of them. You’ve made it difficult to live up to what I believe, and that is what God says to do, and that’s to forgive. You are forgiven, sir.” Only those words brought Ridgway to tears; the killer of so many, and the one who had been understandably verbally pummeled. You can Google the case and see the videotaped exchanges I just described.
In 2011 Patricia Machin lost her husband when he set out to buy the morning paper. Gerrard Machin was doing what he always did, but this time would not return home. Patricia sensed something was wrong and went to look for him. She was greeted by the sight of an ambulance and blood on the ground. Her husband had been struck down by a driver.
The driver, Brian Williamson, was extremely distressed over having hit Gerrard Machin. Patricia Machin, remarkably, felt no anger toward the driver. She knew that the horrible accident had not been intentional, and she harbored no ill will toward Williamson, shown through the sincerity of her forgiveness in a letter she wrote to him that was used in his defense. In that letter she wrote, “However bad it was for me, I realize it was 1,000 times worse for you.”
So we have had two kinds of amazing forgiveness, one for a seemingly remorseless serial killer, and one for a man who hit a woman’s husband by accident. Do you have people you have not forgiven? Are they people you know personally, or are they public figures? Psychologist have told me that incredible daily energy is expended when a person decides to withhold forgiveness from someone who has sinned against him or her. One time I decided not to forgive someone for four years, because I believed he betrayed me. In hindsight I can tell you it affected my human relationships and it clogged my prayer life. Jesus taught his followers to pray to God like this: “And forgive us our debts (sins, or trespasses) as we forgive our debtors (those who sin against us; those who trespass against us.)” Jesus tells us to pray for the exact same amount of forgiveness from God that we are willing to offer others! When I read that (perhaps for the five-thousandth time over my life) in the midst of my marathon of unforgiveness, I had an “aha” from Heaven: God was doing exactly what I had prayed for him to do; God was withholding holy forgiveness from me until I offered the same forgiveness to my neighbor, who I had nicknamed “my enemy.” Streams of mercy poured over me from Heaven when I let go of the grudge and forgave. It did not mean what was done did not hurt: it did. What it did mean was that I decided to not spend all my daily power withholding forgiveness. You know how if you pick up a twenty-pound weight in your hand, you can hold it pretty well for awhile: Could you do it for a minute? 2 minutes? 15 minutes? An hour? What about a day; or a week; or four years?? It’s tiring! God had better plans for me and God has better plans for you. I think that’s at the heart of Jesus’ magnanimous reply today: Forgive; forgive; and then repeat.
Today’s world is exceptionally polarized, and forgiveness is most often addressed when a celebrity or politician caught breaking the law, asks to be forgiven. I get jaded over that, and I’d imagine you do to. Back in the 50s I was just a young boy, but from that time and earlier the United States seemed to be a more praying nation, one that asked for Godly grace to change our admitted flaws. And then in the 1960s, the counterculture and the Vietnam War caused people to begin not trusting their leaders. Later in the 70s came Watergate, and soon our Presidents became not just fodder on late night television, but fodder on the main streets and suburbs of America. From Presidents Johnson to Nixon, Ford to Carter, Reagan to Bush, Clinton to Bush, and now to President Obama, I believe fewer in our nation have been praying for our presidents than our nation did in 1950 and before. And if we believe in prayer, and we believe in the forgiveness of sins, perhaps it is time to pray and to pray differently! We’ve just learned about the power of forgiveness not only to change the climate of our world, but also to change the countenance of our souls. How might our world change if more people did what Jesus did and followed what Jesus taught? How could we change the world if we truly prayed for this president and every president, and this and every governor, instead hearing cutting comments about them from comics on television, or hurling ugly emails through cyberspace? How might our nation change? We have seen what retaliation, unforgiveness, and vengeance looks like not only in the Middle East, but even in cities across America. Vigilantism rises up now and then, and it has risen recently. Can Jesus’ followers keep from moving in lock step behind those whose agenda is destruction or pain or death, and instead do what Jesus set out to do: make the kingdoms of this world become more like the kingdom of God; and of Jesus Christ? There must be great power in forgiveness; for it was forgiveness that Jesus offered to all were broken or in need; all except those who believed they were right in their rigid human stances. Jesus embraced and offered hope and forgiveness to others in their brokenness.
Go and do likewise.
Jeffrey A. Sumner September 14, 2014