Sunday, September 13, 2020
Do any of you like to make lists as much as I do? One of the things I love about being a pastor is that every day is different. I never know exactly what will happen in a day or what I’ll end up doing. A lot of “to-dos” come at me all of the time, so I make lists to remember what said I’d do, or what I need to get done. Grocery shopping, house projects, school lists for the kids, church, whatever needs to be done, I have a list for it. Honestly, what I like about making lists is checking things off. It is a wonderful feeling to look at a list where all of the “to-dos” are checked off.
For those of us who like checking things off our lists, it may be discouraging at first to realize that Jesus is saying forgiveness is not something you can do and then check off your list for the day. Peter seems to think so. He asks Jesus, “So, in keeping track of how many times I forgive someone, seven times is about enough, right?” The translation of Jesus’ answer could be “seventy-seven times,” or “seventy times seven times.” The point of Jesus’ answer is not to make a list for everyone you’re forgiving and when you hit seventy-seven or 490 times you stop. Jesus’ point is that you cannot think of forgiveness in terms of a checklist of to-dos. If you can think of a time where you were really hurt by someone, you know that forgiveness is often more of a process than a one-and-done reality. Healing and reconciliation take time and intentionality. Forgiveness is a process.
Therefore, Jesus goes on to tell a parable that illustrates his point that we need to stop keeping score, as Peter suggests, and start practicing forgiveness as a spiritual process that is healing for both the one trying to forgive and the one receiving forgiveness. The parable needs a little translation for us to fully understand what Jesus is saying. The slave owes the king ten thousand talents. That was about 60 million denarii, and one denarius is a day’s wage for a laborer. In other words, there is absolutely no way this person could possibly ever pay the king back in his lifetime. His debt is incalculable. The king’s forgiveness of this debt is incalculable. There is no way the slave can make it up to him. Yet, the slave turns around and asks for 100 denarii in debt to be repaid to him from a fellow slave. That’s 100 days’ worth of work. It’s not impossible for the man to repay, and he promises to do so. But how quickly this first slave has forgotten the vastness of the forgiveness he just received! He can’t find it within himself to stop counting the debts, the hurts, the injustices done to him and to seek revenge. He’s addicted to keeping score.
Forgiveness is a process, not a to-do to check off the list. If you think you can forgive that easily, you probably haven’t really tried to forgive. And too often, like the ungrateful slave, we forget how much God has already forgiven us when we deal impatiently and grudgingly with others. You know, I love hearing stories about forgiveness. There are so many good ones. There is even a website called The Forgiveness Project if you want to check out some inspirational stories of people overcoming amazing odds to forgive and heal at www.theforgivenessproject.com. There is the story of the Emanuel Nine five years ago who were shot by a white supremacist who attended their Bible study at their church in Charleston – immediately following the incident church members spoke about trying to forgive. In 2006, six children were shot in an Amish school in Pennsylvania and the community extended forgiveness to the shooter’s family, who had turned the gun on himself. And one of the most inspiring stories of forgiveness I just read this week on Working Preacher is about author Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch Christian woman who was imprisoned in a concentration camp for her resistance work against the Nazis. She writes about a prison guard who later converted to Christianity and asked for her forgiveness. She said her whole body physically reacted against forgiving this man. She prayed to God to help her respond to this man whom she hated so viscerally, even though he was claiming to have changed. She described in that moment feeling a current run down her arm as she extended it to shake his hand with a healing warmth, being able to say, “I forgive, you brother! With all my heart!” (From The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom. Quoted at https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5454).
What’s remarkable about all of the powerful stories of forgiveness I can think of, between countries and groups of people AND individuals, is that these are people of faith who talk not about their own ability to forgive, but about the power of God’s forgiveness working through them. Forgiveness isn’t a “to-do” to check off a list partly because it is very, very difficult to do at all on our own. We need God’s help and strength to work through the process of forgiveness. By remembering that God first has forgiven us with a generosity and a mercy even more vast than that king for his slave in Jesus’ parable, then we are able to move forward to strive to be generous and merciful with others.
For people who are on the fence about whether God exists, I would point to these powerful stories of forgiveness. Only God, a power outside ourselves who can be more gracious than any human being, can work forgiveness in what seems unforgivable situations. By telling our stories of how we’ve experienced forgiveness, we are witnesses to our faith in Christ. By our extending forgiveness even when it is incredibly hard, we are witnesses to Christ’s forgiveness of us. And by receiving forgiveness from others, we point others to Christ. There comes a time when we put the lists down and open ourselves up to God’s love, which cannot be contained, measured, or counted. And thanks be to God, through Christ’s death and resurrection we know that we all count to God. Amen.