Forgiving Is Hard (Do It Anyway)

Lessons: Matthew 18:21-35

As many of you know, my father died two weeks ago. I’m deeply grateful for your prayers and warm condolences; I feel very supported. When you ask me how I am, and I say I’m okay, it’s the truth, because it is okay to be grieving; we need to grieve when we lose someone we love. As people do at times like this, my sister and brother and I have been sharing stories, both the stories about my dad and the stories he told. One of our favorite stories about my dad’s rather colorful family was the one about his great uncle Kirk. Kirk was his nickname; his full name was Lykircas Delancey DeMasters, and that is not the strangest name in father’s family tree. The family legend is that Uncle Kirk died of injuries sustained when he was run over by a wagon pulled by a team of horses somewhere near Tulare, California. The story, or legend, or myth, was that he easily could have moved out of the way to avoid this eventually fatal accident, but he didn’t. When someone asked him why, Kirk said, “I was there first.”

My family definitely has its share of stubbornness, and more than its share of people who need to be right, and so this story has served as a cautionary tale. Being right isn’t always what matters most.

I tell this story because it reminds me of forgiveness, although the connection may not be obvious – yet. The sermon title this morning tells us a couple of obvious things about forgiveness. Forgiving is hard. I’m not talking about those times when you feel generous and laugh off a minor slight. Forgiving is hard when you’ve been hurt seriously, cut to the heart, and when the person refuses to take responsibility, let alone apologize; “those episodes that continue to wound each time you remember them …. Those are things that are so incredibly hard to forgive.”[1]

The sermon title also tells us something else we already know, which is that we’re supposed to forgive. Forgiveness is central to the Christian faith. Over and over, Jesus said to forgive each other the way God forgives us. We pray it every Sunday in the Lord’s Prayer. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

This morning’s passage in Matthew points to things that maybe aren’t so obvious about forgiveness. Peter thinks he’s beginning to get a handle on just who this Jesus is when he asks him, “So how many times should I forgive someone who has wronged me? Seven times?” He thinks he’s on track here because the tradition at the time said that you should forgive someone three times and that’s plenty – the ancient equivalent of the three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule. But after watching Jesus pull in people from the margins, and hearing him speak about saving the lost, Peter’s thinking Jesus would go beyond tradition and forgive as many as seven times. Jesus surprises Peter, saying we should forgive each other seventy times. In some translations, seventy times seven. In case you don’t have your calculator handy, that’s four hundred ninety times.

Now, if we really started keeping a tally, I bet most of us know people who’ve already exceeded our limit. But that’s exactly the opposite of what Jesus means. What Jesus means is, “Don’t keep track.” Jesus wants Peter to stop counting altogether, because forgiveness, like love, is relational rather than legal. It cannot be counted. Had Peter asked Jesus how many times he should love his neighbor, we’d see the problem immediately. Love can’t be quantified or counted. But he asks about forgiveness and we miss it because we tend to think, “You screw up, and you’re either forgiven or you’re punished.” But forgiveness, as an expression of love, ultimately, is not about regulating behavior. It’s about maintaining and nurturing our relationships.

This conversation between Peter and Jesus occurs in the middle of a larger conversation about relationship in community. We looked at it last Sunday. It included confronting people with their wrongdoing, and even cutting off relationship with people who refuse to change their behavior. So Jesus knows that to keep community and relationships healthy, sometimes you call people on the carpet; sometimes you say, “It doesn’t work for me to be around you.” Jesus is not saying anybody should put up with bad behavior.

Desmond Tutu describes forgiveness this way: “Because we are human, some of our interactions will go wrong, and then we will hurt or be hurt or both. … It is unavoidable. Forgiveness is the way we set those interactions right. It is the way we mend tears in the social fabric. It is the way we stop our human community from unraveling. … Forgiveness is nothing less than how we bring peace to ourselves and our world.”[2]

So, what might not be so obvious is that even though forgiving is hard, we cannot maintain and nurture relationships without forgiveness. Not relationships between spouses, in a family, in a community, nationally or internationally. No forgiveness means no relationship.

Then Jesus tells a parable. A king is settling debts with his servants, one of whom owes a massive debt. A single talent was about 130 pounds of silver, the equivalent of about fifteen years of a laborer’s wages. This means that this man owed the king about 150,000 years of labor. In other words, he would never, ever be able to pay it back. The king decrees that the debtor and his family will be sold in order to satisfy the debt. At least he’ll get a bit of his money back that way. The debtor begs for more time, more patience, although everyone knows he could never come up with all the money. Instead of more time, he receives a surprise: a wholesale remission of his debts.

The newly released servant, however, learns nothing from the king’s example of compassion. One of his fellow servants owes him a hundred denarii – worth about a hundred days of labor – no small debt, but minor in comparison to his own that was just forgiven. The first servant demands full payment right now and when he doesn’t get it, he ignores the pleas of the second servant and has him thrown in jail. Once the king hears this, he revokes his mercy. The parable closes ominously, as the unforgiving servant is handed over for punishment until he pays, and Jesus warns that we, too, must forgive others or face the consequences.

What are the consequences? The king had changed the system. Instead of strict accounting and cruel punishment for failure, he introduces unimaginable forgiveness and amnesty for debts. Because it’s offered to one servant, it opens up the possibility for everyone – it’s an entirely new framework. But the servant reverts to business as usual with his own debtors. He halts the spread of mercy in its tracks. He chooses, instead, the old, merciless accounting system, and he suffers the consequences of that system. He doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get that a system of infinite grace and forgiveness only works if it works for everybody. The king had said, in effect, let mercy be the thread that holds the kingdom together. The servant said no; no, I refuse mercy. And refusing mercy is it’s own punishment. Choosing the system of cruel accounting, of keeping score, is its own punishment.

So another couple of less obvious lessons about forgiveness: Forgiveness opens up possibilities; it means things can change. But – refusing mercy is it’s own punishment. This is why my father’s great uncle Kirk reminds me of forgiveness. Refusing to forgive is like refusing to get out of the road in oncoming traffic. That need to be the one who is right, to be the one someone else wronged, is the same impulse behind the refusal to forgive. And likewise, refusing to forgive doesn’t injure the person who wronged us in the first place. It injures us. I suspect each of us has at one time or another experienced the punishment of refusing to forgive. Someone has said, “Holding a grudge doesn’t make you strong; it makes you bitter. Forgiving doesn’t make you weak; it sets you free.” Another maxim I like is, “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” The refusal to forgive hurts us.

You have a flyer in your bulletins that explains that the World Council of Churches has declared this week the World Week of Peace in Palestine and Israel. Congregations and people of faith are encouraged to bear a common witness, lifting up prayers for peace and justice for Israelis and Palestinians. Half a century has passed since the six-day war when Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. Despite stalled peace processes and the suffering caused by the occupation, people in the region still hope for a better future. On the World Council of Churches website, twelve people with different backgrounds share their own hopes for justice and peace in the Holy Land. One of them is Tarek Al-Zoughbi, a youth coordinator at a Palestinian conflict transformation center. He writes, “We must stand up as one and continue to strive for one goal: peace born out of justice. To reach that goal we must be more understanding, accepting the past and the change that comes with that. … We must strive for restorative justice – not punitive justice. In order to create the pathways for change, we must accept our flaws, work to forgive our transgressions and nurture the change we wish to see. … There are many possible futures. The sad one is continued suffering, mitigation and degradation. The future we hope and strive for is walls being torn down, strangers becoming neighbors and friends, and geographical restrictions and infringements on human rights and environments being abolished. … I see a future where Palestine and Israel live side by side, both protected and secure. Both leading fruitful futures and being examples of the world. … There is hope.”[3]

Al-Zoughbi lifts up forgiveness because the future for which he hopes is not possible without it. With forgiveness, all sorts of things are possible.

But here’s the thing, and I think this is something we do know about forgiveness: It just doesn’t work to tell someone to forgive. As Desmond Tutu says, no one should ever tell anyone they must forgive, that it’s time to forgive, why don’t you just forgive and move on. Forgiveness, like love, can’t be commanded or forced. It has to be chosen. This is true whether we’re talking about Israel-Palestine or people on the other side of an issue or our own families.

So what do we do? Maybe our first job is to accept it. To accept forgiveness. That’s hard enough, right? We are forgiven. Can we just bask in the unbelievable forgiveness, acceptance, and grace that are offered us? After all, even our inability to forgive is forgiven. And then, as best we can, to live out of that grace. The failure of the first servant isn’t just that he won’t forgive, but that he’s just experienced an utterly unexpected, completely beyond-his-wildest-dreams, life-changing moment of grace and seems absolutely untouched by it. His whole life changed, his whole life could have gone a different direction, and he didn’t even notice.[4]

Maybe our challenge today is to notice. To be touched by it. To recognize that forgiveness is not primarily God’s expectation but rather God’s gift. Perhaps if we sink into that mercy and grace, we might find ourselves more able to turn in mercy and grace toward others. As with the king and the servant, the very possibility of forgiveness – whether God’s or ours – creates possibility: things do not always have to be the way they are.

We are forgiven. We can forgive. Things do not always have to be the way they are. May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2017 all rights reserved.

[1] David Lose, “Forgiveness and Possibility,” September 13, 2017,

[2] Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), p. 4.


[4] Lose, ibid.

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