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Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost September 14, 2014

Every morning, I pray for three people. I have resentments against them because of some harm they have done to me. I pray that they might be blessed with all the good things I want God to bless me with. I read somewhere that this was a good way to forgive people and to let go. I know that forgiveness brings me closer to God, and I want that closeness more than anything, so I keep praying. Maybe I will stop one day and see how it feels – whether I have already forgiven. I hope so.

Last week, I almost hit a woman and her dog walking behind my driveway as I pulled out. I could read from her lips that she was not at all happy with me and of course she was scared as well. I drove to the end of the street then turned around, went back and said I was sorry. She sounded like she was glad to receive an apology, and she certainly deserved one.

Once Evan hit a car when he was learning to drive and I did not leave a note because I thought we had not caused any damage – and truthfully, I did not want to be blamed for the other damage already on the car. It was only when I got home that I saw paint on my bumper. I could not seek forgiveness, and I felt incredibly guilty. But thankfully I knew God had forgiven me, and I was able to let that go. I have left notes ever since.

Forgiveness is a way of life for Jesus. He talked about it in regard to discipline in the church. Reconciliation and restoration are at the heart of community life. But to really be a part of a forgiving community, we have to know something about forgiveness, both giving and receiving it.

Forgiveness is hard. When someone hurts us, our natural instinct is to want to get them back, to retaliate. Road rage behaviors are a good example of this ethic. We cut in front of people who have passed us or we at least yell and scream at them in the safety of our cars. If someone criticizes us unfairly at work, we want to do the same to them. As odd as it may seem, nursing a grudge or indulging in self-pity is an attitude some of us practice almost happily, thinking it is only fair, only just.

Forgiveness is not about numbers; it is about relationships (David Lose). Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive – as many as seven? Three was the rabbinical number, so Peter thought he was being generous. But Jesus says no, we should forgive 77 times or 7 times 70 times, depending on the translation. This number is a really big number and Peter can’t imagine it, but Jesus uses it to say you can’t keep count. No one could remember that many hurts in that great a detail. No one could keep a ledger that says this person hurt me this way, and that person hurt me that way and I now no longer have to forgive.

Forgiveness is a way of cleaning the past out of your mind and leaving you open for the future. Holding onto a resentment, someone once said, is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. They may be blithely going about their business, and yet they are taking up space in your head. Take up too much space in your head with hurts done you, and you become isolated, because you can’t look outward and reach out to your neighbors as God intends us to do. You can’t look to the future because you are so busy in the past with your counting. Studies have shown that forgiveness is good for your emotional and physical well-being (Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn).

Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Some hurts are great – abuse, exploitation, infidelity and others. Forgiveness is not about an abused wife continually going back to her husband, though many do because they blame themselves. Forgiveness is not about an oppressed people not taking any action against their oppressors. Forgiveness is about accepting then letting go of what sinners against you have done and going on with your life, regardless of what action you take to keep yourself healthy or win your freedom.

To forgive we also need to know the reason to forgive, and that reason is God. In Jesus’ parable, the first slave owes an incalculable amount to the king. Ten thousand talents would be 150,000 years wages. It is hard to believe that the slave has racked up that much debt, and even harder to believe that he begs the king for more time until he can pay it back. The simple truth is that he cannot, not ever. The number is shocking, and what the king does is even more shocking. He forgives the debt. Just wipes it out, though it is a great deal of money, even for him. He is generous and merciful to the servant. In just the same way, God is generous to us. We could never repay God for the sins we have committed, as individuals and as part of inherently sinful societal structures, so God sent Jesus to be a sacrifice for our sins. Jesus’ death and resurrection wiped out our debt. Our response should be endless gratitude.

But the parable doesn’t end here. The slave doesn’t say a word of thanks and immediately goes out and accosts a fellow slave who owes him money. He takes him by the throat and throws him in jail until he can pay the debt, which of course he can’t because he is in jail. The slave has not really taken the benefits of the king’s merciful forgiveness into his heart. He does not realize how blessed he has been, though it is hard to think how he cannot. It is clear his perspective has not changed, and the king takes back his forgiveness and turns him over to be tortured until he can pay the debt.

This sentence is uncomfortable because it seems as though there are limits to God’s mercy. Does this mean we should forgive or else, or do we go with God forgives as many times as we need. Perhaps the king is letting the man pay the consequences of his actions, which are to be isolated from the community until he learns to forgive (David Lose). In the Lord’s Prayer, we say “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”, which seems to set conditions on God’s mercy as well. Perhaps the best thing to say is that God forgives endlessly, but there is personal responsibility for sin and its consequences and sometimes we do not see ourselves as forgiven and live a life of either grudge counting or fear of damnation.

In our daily lives there are opportunities to forgive and to be forgiven. All of us are sinners and all of us have received God’s incalculable mercy in Jesus Christ. You know when you have been hurt. The rule Jesus gave us last week is to go to the offender and try to get them to repent. But circumstances often preclude that option – the person is your boss, you know the person well enough to know they would not respond to that action, the person is dead. In addition to the prayer I mentioned above, you might write down everything that person has done to you and share it with someone else, then throw the letter away. That helps us let go of our hurt if we are committed to God’s relational community of forgiveness.

Accepting forgiveness is a whole other story. Sometimes, we just are not able to accept God’s love and mercy. We think we are unworthy. Holding on to guilt is just as bad as holding onto resentment. It leaves us mired in the past and filled with self-loathing instead of loathing for others. It is hard to forgive our neighbor unless we can forgive ourselves. We have to remember that we are all children of God and God loves and forgives us equally. It is important to accept the forgiveness of a neighbor whom we have wronged so that we may be healed.

Forgiveness is a way of life in the Christian community. This week, I invite you to think about someone you have a grudge against. I invite you to pray for this person and to realize that we are all sinners. If you can go to the person who has harmed you and seek repentance from the offender, so much the better, but we do not need the other person to apologize for us to forgive. Likewise, we do not need the other person to accept our apology to be forgiven. I invite you to practice forgiving and accepting forgiveness. It will free us from the past, bring us closer to God and open us to future blessings.

AMEN.

     - Rev. Ann Barker 

Works Cited:
David J. Lose, “In the Meantime, Pentecost 14A,” “Forgiveness and Freedom, blog post, September 7, 2014
Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn, Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 63
David J. Lose, Ibid.