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Teach Us How to Find Forgiveness -- Matthew 18:15-22 (Rev. Marissa Danney, preaching; Second Sunday in Lent)

Artwork: Seventy-Seven Times by Lauren Wright Pittman

used with permission via A Sanctified Art LLC |

A few years ago I was gifted a little book with collected quotes about forgiveness.

A book that would have served this sermon well.

But, after a couple of years of sitting on the shelf,

In a sweep of Marie Kondo inspired de-cluttering

I decided that the book on forgiveness wasn’t sparking joy and I donated it.

I’m telling you this, I suppose with a tone of confession,

Because it makes me reflect on how, as lovely as it sounds,

Forgiveness can be a complicated topic that a part of me wants to avoid.

And yet, this is Lent.

Lent is a season in which we are invited to reflect on some of the more complicated aspects of our lives. It’s a good time to allow ourselves to take an inventory,

and see if we are where we want to be.

In this case, how are we doing with forgiveness?

We can use Peter as our model.

In this text, he approaches Jesus with openness,

ready to be taught about forgiveness.

As I engaged our text and read commentaries on this passage in Matthew, I found that while the subject is complicated, it is also a simple.

But more on the simple later. Let’s start with the complicated.

One of the most common phrases about forgiveness is “forgive and forget.”

But “forgive and forget” is not always appropriate.

To impose one form of forgiveness onto every situation in a general sweep can cause harm.

The Christian church has been guilty of this using this very passage.

Victims of domestic abuse have been coached by religious leaders to go back to the abuser and “keep forgiving them,”

never being supported or empowered to seek protection or safety.

“Forgive and forget” is one form of forgiveness, but its best applied to lower stake situations.

That makes forgiveness more complicated,

because it means that there are more than one way to do it,

And we have to figure out, or be open to being taught by God, like Peter, which form of forgiveness is right for each time and situation.

Here, at the beginning of our passage in Matthew, one approach to forgiveness is offered. You may have noticed that this reading is a little disjointed.

There’s a first section and a second section.

I would call the first section: a recommendation about forgiveness within community,

The second section I would call: Peter’s conversation with Jesus about how often to forgive.

Biblical scholars mostly agree that the section on forgiveness in community

is a redacted text

It was added in later by the author of Matthew, in the context of the early Christian community.

I think we can look at verses 15-20 as a recommendation for best practice being given for forgiveness in the Christian community

I don’t think we should look at it as the words or instruction of Jesus.

If you’re interested... The reason we think that these aren’t Jesus’ words

is because the word “ekklesia” which means “church” is repeated, and that’s not a word that we see Jesus using much in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

It’s not a part of his common language.

So, we need to look at this section a little differently.

If this is a best practice adopted by the Mattheaen early Christian community,

To handle the complicated and yet simple task of forgiveness in community,

Then what is unique about it?

First, rather than “forgive and forget,”

This practice invites the victim to do something very different.

It instructs the victim to hold their truth in front of the offender, repeatedly, in the hopes that responsibility will be taken and reconciliation can occur.

Wow. What a different approach than what we are typically guided towards in Christianity. We’re not to turn a blind eye to someone’s wrongdoing.

But nor are we to be immediately punitive and cast them out.

The second really unique thing about this approach

Is that its purpose is to reclaim the offender back into the community in health.

If the church is the body of Christ, with Christ as the head, Then this process isn’t about amputation of a sick part, But an attempt at healing.

Its about naming what is true,

And calling that person back in,

Giving the opportunity to find forgiveness and reconciliation,

If the offender can take responsibility for their wrong and repair the relationship.

What is unique is that this text implies

that every member of our community matters enough to work through the process of reconciliation,

the victim in holding the harm to the light, and calling the offender back in.

And it acknowledges that reconciliation is not always possible if the offender refuses to claim their offense.

Because the process of forgiveness can be complicated.

So that’s what the first portion of our scripture presents as a way to do forgiveness in community. There are other ways, too.

Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the story of a woman in his congregation who was a divorced, single mother. The would tell him, “Since my husband walked out on us, every month is a struggle to pay our bills. I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies while he is living it up with nis new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him?”

Rabbi Kushner told her, “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t: it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically. You’re not hurting him by holding onto that resentment, but you are hurting yourself.”

Sometimes we have to forgive at a distance, for our own well-being.

Another model of how to do forgiveness comes from

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa.

It was created to investigate gross human rights violations that were perpetrated during the period of the Apartheid regime from 1960 to 1994,

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission allowed both victims and offenders to share their story in the investigation.

Then the victim was empowered to decide if reconciliation was possible, and if so, what reparations needed to occur.

Forgiveness is complicated. It comes in many forms.

And that requires some work and prayer for us to consider what form is possible for us in our situations.

Forgiveness is complicated, but it is also simple.

In the latter part of our text, Peter asks, “Should we forgive 7 times?”

And Jesus says, “You should forgive 70 x 7 times.”

We can take Jesus’ words in a lot of ways.

I don’t think we should take it as specifically 490 times. [pause]

Some might say he was speaking to the process of forgiveness than a one-time act.

In order to forgive ultimately, perhaps we have to forgive in 70 x 7 moments along the way.

But one thing is simple about Jesus’ response to Peter:

We should forgive more than we think.

As Christians, as complicated as it is, we are simply called by Jesus to lean into forgiveness. We are called to be teachable about forgiveness, open to learning its many forms.

But here’s another thing that’s simple about forgiveness. When we can’t find forgiveness, God’s grace always can. In Jesus’ most mortal moment,

Hanging from the cross, he said,

“Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”

He may not, in that moment, have been able to find forgiveness within himself,

But he knew that God could.

God’s grace covers our inabilities.

God’s grace guides us, allowing forgiveness to be possible in different forms, like a miracle.

Forgiveness is complicated, but in faith, it is simple.

We can lean into forgiveness,

Opening ourselves to be taught about it,

Because with God’s grace, what is complicated is made simple.

Thanks be to God for the grace that makes forgiveness possible, in all of its many forms.


© 2024 Marissa Danney

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