Devotional: Forgiveness is Messy
Growing up, throughout grade school and high school I did not experience nor witness much bullying. There was the odd, sometimes dangerous times but overall I flew under the radar. That was until my second year of University when my very own roommates- who believed very differently then I did- began to terrorize myself and the other Christian in our house. It came to an absolute crashing climax when we returned from Easter break to discover anti-Christian vandalism all over our doors. Before moving out of that house one of the bullying roommates said, “Why are you running away? I thought you people were supposed to be forgiving” and I couldn’t believe that he had turned a truth about my faith into a vile accusation. If you thought last week’s passage was awkward, today’s passage is messy and challenging. I didn’t know how I was going to start the message but as I read and re-read this passage that comment kept coming up, “I thought you people were supposed to be forgiving.”
The passage today completes what we read and studied last week and includes not only instruction but a parable. Jesus has spent a lot of time talking about how the Christian community should act. Earlier in this discourse Jesus stressed the that the family of God is the most important thing in the world and that we should do everything in our power to nourish and strengthen the bonds of our love for one another. So, as Peter, and likely the other disciples, listens to Jesus’ words Peter needs to clarify what exactly is required of him. There’s a part of me that thinks Peter thought he was being remarkable in his willingness to forgive someone seven times, that is a lot. Yet, Jesus then responds that one should be forgiven not seven but seventy-seven times. For all the verbal abuse, for all the stress and manipulation, for all the pettiness and passive aggressive actions that my roommates did, forgiveness seemed to elude me and for a long time I struggled with it. Trust me, forgiveness still seems to elude me when I’m hurt or upset. I think must of us struggle with forgiveness because it is messy. If I am burned once- ok, it could have been an honest mistake. If I am burned twice, then I begin to keep a mental record- Jesus says nothing about keeping track of misdeeds. However, Jesus does help redefine a common misconception about forgiveness as he follows up his answer with a parable that can perhaps help us understand what forgiveness means or rather how it is manifested. Forgiveness is a two way street.
Jesus definitely implies that our forgiveness should be limitless, there is no denying that. This is clear when the parable states that the servant owes his king ten thousand talents. To put that in perspective one talent was worth about 6,000 denarii and a labourer was paid one denarius a day so, by my limited calculations that means that the labourer owed 60,000,000 days or 193,000 years worth of work in order to pay off this debt. The point is that this labourer owes so much that the debt would be on his family for generations. Yet, out of pity the master not only changes his mind about selling the family into slavery but forgives the debt. That is until he realizes that the servant is unwilling to live forgiveness with regards to his own debtors.
The parable takes a turn when the forgiven labourer does not respond in kind to the master’s compassion. When the labourer asks for a hundred denarii that is owed him, a small amount compared to the debt he owed the king, and the slave is unable to repay- instead of forgiving the debt he throws the slave in jail. The forgiven labourer proves to be unforgiving and this is where Jesus helps us understand forgiveness. The point of the parable is, that those who have genuinely received forgiveness also genuinely forgive others. While it seems like the labourers entreaty to his king was genuine it turns out to be a ruse. He understood nothing about mercy. To be forgiving we must also truly understand what it is to be forgiven.
I returned to David Turner’s commentary on Matthew, you might remember last week when he essentially gave us a talking to about using the line, “when 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” Well Dr. Turner helped me understand the meaning in this parable. He writes, “The incompatibility of the two situations [between the forgiving master and the unforgiving servant] could not be clearer, the resulting teaching is that those who have been forgiven by God can and must forgive their fellow humans. To be forgiven is to be empowered to forgive. No matter how offensively one has been treated by a fellow human, there is no comparison to the heinous rebellion of wicked humans against a holy and loving God. Anyone who has truly experienced the compassion of the heavenly Father should have little problem showing genuine compassion to a fellow human.” Dr. Turner really has a way of making me squirm with uncomfortable truths when it comes to understanding the Gospel of Matthew. But maybe that’s why we struggle with forgiveness- we still don’t feel like we genuinely deserve the forgiveness that God has freely given us through Christ on the cross.
Sometimes in our assurance of pardons or declarations of forgiveness you will notice that I include the words “forgive yourself”. Now, this was not something I heard growing up in the church nor is it something that I said in previous ministries. However, it was while listening to a friend preach and say those words that I realized that forgiveness is not just between two parties but can often include one’s own being. I had never been given permission to acknowledge that I needed to forgive myself and if forgiveness of self is hard it can only be just as hard to forgive others. And then we must remember that God’s forgiveness is pure unadulterated grace.
Our inter-personal relationships are hard and there are definitely times when we need to walk away or move out for our own well being- but that has nothing to do with forgiveness. Forgiveness can still take place. Last week I touched upon how in this dialogue Jesus is spending a lot of time defining what the relationships amongst the Christian community should look like. The difference between the master in the parable and God is that God has already forgiven us. There is no earning of forgiveness or grovelling at God’s feet asking for patience. Just think of this for a moment- we have already been forgiven by the one to whom we owe our very life and breath because that someone wants to remain in relationship with us- always. And then think of this, if God commands us to forgive each other seventy-seven times, just think how much more God will forgive us- over and over. Amen