A Sunday School teacher had just concluded her lesson and wanted to make sure she had made her point. She said, “Can anyone tell me what you must do before you can obtain forgiveness of sin?” There was a short pause and then, from the back of the room, a small boy spoke up. “Sin,” he said.
Bits & Pieces, May, 1991
Forgiveness. A word loaded with meaning and controversy. Last week we talked about confronting a brother or sister who has sinned against us. Jesus expressed the high value he placed on unity in the Body of Christ. And now he talks to his disciples about forgiveness.
This weekend, as I was preparing for this sermon, I had an argument with someone close to me. I found myself dredging up problems from the past, remembering all the ways that person had disappointed me. Then, as I was going through boxes in the basement, rehearsing my anger, I thought to myself, “How am I going to preach a sermon on forgiveness when I am so angry myself?”
There’s the problem, isn’t it? We not only don’t forget when someone offends us, we always remember, even when the offense has long past.
First some groundwork. You might argue that there is no necessity to forgive without repentance. That is, until he or she apologizes and asks for it, I don’t need to forgive. While several biblical passages might support this view, Paul commanded, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (Ephesians 4:31).
The author of Hebrews taught likewise: “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Hebrews 12:14,15).
Although we could technically withhold forgiveness from others, when we hold such things in our hearts and minds, we begin to build walls, not only between ourselves and others, but between ourselves and God. Bitterness and anger begin to crowd out the fruit of the Spirit and our attitudes then leech out to others in our group or community, causing disunity and strife.
Forgiving others releases us from the power their actions have over us. Have you ever noticed that anger long held tends to hold you tightly in its grip? Forgiveness releases us from the cords that keep us bound to anger and pain.
Often in the gospels Jesus proclaims hard words. Words that sting. Words that cause us to cringe. This is one of those passages. Yet, if we are to live Christian lives, if we are to be Christ-like, it is imperative that we take the words of the gospel to heart. Even the hard ones.
We all know the old saying: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Our culture demands that we “wise up” when we are wronged. We may be able to forgive once, but don’t let them do it again, or else.
The religious teachers of Jesus’ day taught that a truly spiritual person would forgive at least three times. Seven times? Peter asked, thinking he was very spiritual.
Have you ever noticed that our greatest achievements seem to pale in the light of God’s great deeds? Our best is always quite a bit short of God’s “standard”?
Is there a limit to forgiveness? Is there a limit to the number of times I must forgive? Jesus says seventy-seven times. Whichever your Bible says, the point is not the number or the quotient, but rather the concept.
God created the world and rested on the seventh day. In Revelation we read of seven stars, seven church, seven spirits, seven seals and on and on. Seven is the number of completeness. Therefore, to forgive seventy-seven times is to forgive until forgiveness is complete, or until you are complete.
How many times should one forgive? Jesus told his disciples a parable to answer the question.
With the current mortgage and debt crises, most of us know someone whose loan has been “called in.” The company wants their money now. The king was the same. He asked his servant for payment, a cool $30 million. This was an insurmountable debt, even for the wealthy. He couldn’t pay.
There were no bankruptcy courts, no negotiations, no payment plans. When the servant couldn’t pay, the king ordered the man and his family to prison. They would work to pay the debt; however, it would take 150,000 years. They would never be able to satisfy the debt.
In this hopeless situation, the servant begged for mercy, for grace, perhaps for a payment plan. In a stroke of mercy, the king canceled the entire debt, an estimated $30 million in our currency. Who would have believed such a thing? The servant left the king’s presence a free man, free from prison and free from debt. Unfortunately, the servant was free from something else, as well: compassion and love.
Lacking the ability to recognize how much he had been forgiven, the servant went to another servant who owed him 100 denarii, or about $60. Choking the second servant, he demanded immediate repayment. The second servant begged for mercy; however, he was to receive none. The grace given to the first servant stayed with him and was not passed on. The second servant and his family were thrown into jail until they could repay their debt.
We tend to identify ourselves with the second servant, especially when we feel we have been wronged. Yet, in this parable Jesus emphasized our inability or refusal to forgive others, identifying us with the first servant, the unforgiving servant
Did the first servant truly recognize the enormity of the gift he had received? Obviously not. If he had truly realized how much he was forgiven, he would have passed on the same grace to his fellow servant.
Few of us have been forgiven of so great a financial debt. But we who know Christ have been forgiven of a debt even greater, that of sin against God. You have probably heard the chorus,
“He paid a debt He did not owe.
I owed a debt I could not pay.
I needed someone to wash my sins away.
And now I sing a brand new song: Amazing Grace.
Christ Jesus paid the debt that I could never pay.”
Do we recognize how much we have been forgiven? Do we truly understand the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice for each of us? He left his home in glory and entered this world, to grow as we grew, to walk as we walk, to skin his knees, to face temptation, and to die a horrible death on the cross to pay our debts and open the doors of salvation for us.
If we have received so great a gift, should we not, then, pass it on to those around us?
God has given us grace and mercy, inviting us to be His children through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. But we fail to pass that grace on or to show mercy to others in our lives.
In this time of nation vs. nation, culture vs. culture, family vs. family, and dare I say, doctrine vs. doctrine, we find ourselves building alliances and separating from others. The grace we have received we reserve for those we like, for those who are like us. But Christ calls us beyond our hurts and pains, beyond our doctrines and traditions, beyond our arguments and history to a place where we can pass on the mercy that God has shown to us.
Friends, today is the day to show forgiveness, to lay down the bitterness and anger that plagues our lives. Whether from a church split, a family argument, a neighbor or some other conflict, we are called to forgive those who have trespassed, who have sinned against us.
May God bless you richly!