Follow Me: Biblical Practices for Faithful Living
Sharing Christ’s Love Worship Series
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
September 17, 2023
According to scholars, the rabbinical code, the code of the Jewish rabbis, stated that you must forgive someone at least three times. Forgive at least three times and then that person may be “canceled” from your life. Forgive three times, then treat that person with hostility, if you wish.
Peter, trying to be magnanimous, said to the Lord, “If a brother or sister sins against me, how many times must I forgive? As many as seven times?”
Hear the Word of God from Matthew 18:21-35
Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’
Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents (something like millions of dollars in today’s world) was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”
And out of pity for him, the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-servants who owed him a hundred denarii (less than ten thousand dollars today); and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.”
Then his fellow-servant fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.
Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-servant, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God
When Jesus told the parable, he was talking about people like you and me. We are all so far in debt with God that there is no way that we can pay what we owe. In terms of our relationship with God, we are hopeless cases – all of us. In the words of John Calvin, we are totally depraved, fully undeserving of the grace of God. Everything which we touch is tainted by sin; and “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (I John 1:8)
The good news is that there is a remedy to sin: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
The remedy to what troubles the world, to what subverts the peace among the nations, to what troubles our marriages, our friendships, and our institutions is the forgiveness of God made known in Jesus Christ.
As one historian said, “Hardly anything could happen now (in the history of the world) that could have a more comprehensive and decisive significance for the solution of the (world’s troubles) than God’s unique sacrifice fulfilled” in Jesus Christ.
(Walter Luthi, The Lord’s Prayer, p.52)
The only thing in history which has been more pervasive and more powerful than human sin has been the power of God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
As human beings, our lives depend on forgiveness. Our spiritual and physical and emotional health depends on receiving forgiveness from God and on our willingness to extend forgiveness to others.
When we receive forgiveness and learn to pass along the genuine, loving forgiveness of God, we participate in the healing of the world. We begin to break the cycles of anger and retribution. We begin to discover what is needed for the survival of our souls. And we discover once again that the world needs forgiveness for the survival of the human race.
Forgiveness is a big deal.
Human life can be harsh and unfair.
Human beings do terrible things to one another, seemingly unforgivable things to one another. The world will never forget the horrors of the Holocaust or the brutal de-humanization of slavery.
Stream any of the popular crime series and you will witness awful acts of violence, corruption, and abuse of power. For those who know intimately the personal damage of mistreatment, abuse, or neglect, even though healing may come, the scars remain. Human life is not altogether safe. Human beings deeply hurt one another all the time, and forgiveness can be exceedingly difficult, especially when someone has hurt someone that you deeply love.
Even when the physical or emotional wounds happened decades ago, the pain can still be present, fresh in one’s memories, fresh in one’s heart and soul.
Lack of forgiveness is at the heart of the world’s ongoing armed conflicts.
Lack of forgiveness is at the heart of many a business partnership turned sour.
Lack of forgiveness is at the heart of many a troubled marriage or broken family.
Lack of forgiveness is at the heart of many a broken friendship.
Forgiveness is not easy, but it is necessary.
When I was a teenager, I went looking for something on the floor of my mother’s pantry. Her pantry was a narrow closet with deep shelves. I was pulling things out of the deep floor of the pantry when I saw something in the back corner that I did not recognize. What I discovered in the back corner of the panty was an old sack of potatoes. Have you ever seen or smelled an old sack of potatoes? It was terrible. Some forty plus years later, I still remember the sight and smell of that old sack. I immediately dumped it into the kitchen trash can, which I then immediately tied up and took outside to the garbage bin. That old sack had to go, and fast.
When a person holds onto old hurts and grudges, when a person holds onto the desire for revenge and retribution, they might as well be carrying around an old sack of potatoes. And if you carry around an old, stinky, gross sack of potatoes everywhere you go, eventually no one else will want to spend any time with you. Forgiveness is not all about what has happened in the past.
Forgiveness is about what kind of future you will live, what kind of life you hope to build going forward.
Truth be told, forgiveness may be an unnatural act for human beings. We are much more inclined to vengeance and retribution. We would much rather make another person pay who has wronged us than to release them of their debt.
Do you harbor any resentments in your life?
Do you need to consider forgiving a parent or an adult child perhaps, or a former spouse?
Is there any lack of reconciliation between you and a family member, or between you and a co-worker or an old friend? There may not be any lack of forgiveness in your life, but I would guess that someone close to you is struggling with a lack of forgiveness. Sometimes, as many have come to admit, the person whom we have had the hardest time forgiving is ourselves.
If we want to live with freedom, the freedom to love, the freedom to follow the paths of Jesus, the freedom to become the person God intends for us to become, then we would do well to examine unforgiving feelings.
We would do well to take a hard look at unreconciled relationships. We would do well to remember that we have been released from a tremendous burden of sin, and then, by God’s grace, to release another person of their sin against us. It does not matter whether or not that other person cares. It does not matter whether or not they will be receptive to our efforts.
Not forgiving another or not forgiving ourselves can bar the door of our heart against God. If we have closed the door of our heart to our neighbor or to a family member, if we have closed the door of our heart against some group of people, then we have at least partially closed the door of our heart to God.
Forgiveness does not mean that we forget.
Forgiveness does it mean that there are no consequences for sin.
What forgiveness does is to break the logjam of wrongful deeds and allow the grace of Jesus Christ to flow again. Ultimately, forgiveness is an act of self-preservation. When we forgive, it may or may not have any impact on that other person, but it certainly will improve our lives.
A survivor of sexual abuse once claimed: “Forgiveness is not a line you cross – it is a road you take.” For those who have been deeply wronged, forgiveness stays with you. Like grief, forgiveness can become a part of who you are. Forgiveness is seldom a “one time, check the box, done”.
That other person does not have to be present for us to forgive. The other person does not have to be remorseful. Socio-pathic personalities do harm intentionally, and even enjoy it. We find our way to forgiveness even when we do not want to do so.
We find our way to forgiveness even when that is the last thing that we may want to do. When we refuse to forgive, that other person still holds some measure of power over us. When we hold onto grudges and resentments, that other person still holds sway over our lives and emotions. Forgiveness is NOT about forgetting, but it is about letting go, about turning our hearts away from the desire for revenge or retribution, and turning and opening fully our hearts to God.
Costly forgiveness is at the very heart of the teachings of Jesus Christ. The cross, which is all about God’s forgiveness, stands forever as the central symbol of the Christian faith.
Every week, when we gather, we confess our sin, and we receive forgiveness from God, so that we may be ready to forgive our neighbor. And every week, we continue to pray: “Lord, forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” so that we remember that unless we exhale forgiveness, we will not fully be able to inhale God’s grace.
Jesus Christ died on the cross to overcome our sin, to release us from all our debts, to cleanse us, to create in us a clean heart, to renew a right spirit within us.
On the cross, Jesus cried out: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And so may we, with grateful and hopeful hearts, cry out to God for God’s forgiveness of others, and for our ability to forgive as we have been forgiven.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church