FORGIVENESS IS NOT A FEELING
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
September 17, 2017; 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Genesis 50:15-21; 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, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Think back to when you were a student, in school. (I know that, for some of you, that could be something a stretch, but try anyway.)
Remember when your teacher announced that a quiz would be coming up soon — say, the next day? There was always someone in the class who was bound to ask the question, in one form or another. The question is this: “What’s going to be on the quiz?”
I know, for a fact, that’s a question that drives teachers batty. What’s the point of having a quiz, if the teacher’s going to answer that question ahead of time? Savvy teachers have grown skilled at dodging it.
That’s the question Peter’s asking, in Matthew 18:21 — “What’s going to be on the test?” He doesn’t ask it in so many words, but the outcome’s pretty much as you’d expect: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?”
Peter doesn’t stop there. He throws out an actual number, a trial balloon: “As many as seven times?”
He probably went through a silent calculation in order to arrive at that number. “Let’s see, what number should I throw out there? One’s certainly not enough — much as I’d like it to be. The Master will never buy that. Probably not two, nor five, either. Too low. If I say ten, he may actually say yes — and that’s entirely too many.
Seven’s a pretty good number. Seven, it is.”
As it turns out, it’s not such a good number. Not only is it a little low. It’s way-off-the-scales low.
The Lord says, in response, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
If I’d read you the passage in the King James Version, you’d see the difference is even more pronounced. Not seventy-seven, in the King James, but seventy times seven. (If you’re into math, you know that comes to 490.) Either way — 77 or 490, take your choice — that’s a whole lotta forgivin’.
Jesus doesn’t mean it literally, of course. He’s not saying that, on the 78th time (or the 491st) you get a free pass. In the ancient world, seven was seen as a perfect number: so what the Lord’s really saying to Peter is, “There’s no limit to the number of times I expect you to forgive.”
Which leads Peter to think to himself, “There’s no way I’m ever gonna pass that quiz!”
In that respect, Peter’s not so unlike you or me. In our heart of hearts, we’re all scorekeepers: “How many acts of forgiveness do I owe you, Lord? When do I stop owing you?”
Forgiveness becomes, in that sense, a sort of business deal. A negotiation, based on a mathematical formula.
But there’s no formula. Jesus says numbers are not our friend in the forgiveness game. The correct answer on his quiz is not multiple-choice. It’s an essay question!
And it’s hard. Very hard.
Here’s something else about forgiveness that’s hard.
We have a mistaken tendency to understand forgiveness as an emotion, a feeling. There’s a part of us that doesn’t want to forgive until we feel good and ready: until the flames of anger have died down.
There’s no evidence in the Bible, though, that forgiveness is any way a feeling. The Dutch Christian writer Corrie ten Boom captures this perfectly in this one-liner: “Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.”
Corrie ought to know. She was one of the champion forgivers of all time.
Born in Holland, she and her entire family were arrested by the Nazis during World War 2 and sent to concentration camps. Their offense? Sheltering Jewish refugees. Corrie watched her sister Betsie get sick and die in the Ravensbruck camp — then, fifteen days later, she was unexpectedly released. She later learned it was a fluke, a clerical error — or, maybe, divine intervention? A week after her release, all the other inmates in her age group were sent to the gas chamber.
Corrie had many painful memories, especially of the inhuman ways the guards treated her and the other inmates. But she was a devoted Christian, and tried to put those dreadful days behind her. But forgiveness still came hard.
Years later, Corrie had written a bestselling book about her wartime experiences. One day, she was speaking at a church service, teaching about the overwhelming grace of God. After the service, she saw an old man approaching her. Many years had passed, but she knew him immediately. He was one of the concentration camp guards — a man who’d been especially cruel to all the inmates.
“How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein,” he said — a big smile on his face. “To think that, as you say, he has washed my sins away!”
The man put out his hand to shake hers, and Corrie froze. She found it hard to return the gesture. Rage boiled up inside her. Silently — desperately — Corrie said a prayer: “Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness.”
Immediately, through a power not her own, Corrie watched as her hand went up and she extended it: to shake the hand of this man who had caused her and her sister such misery. Later, she wrote these words about what happened next:
“From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When he tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.” [The Hiding Place (Bantam, 1977), 238.]
Martin Luther King, Jr. Knew this. He was also a champion forgiver. In a sermon, “Loving Your Enemies,” he put it this way:
“Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning. It is the lifting of a burden or the canceling of a debt.” [“Loving Your Enemies,” 1957, http://www.skeptictank.org/files/socialis/mlk.htm ]
In order to get to that point: the point of turning it over to God — of allowing the Lord to do through us the thing we could never do on our own — we have to learn to detach the act of forgiveness from our own feelings. We must learn to forgive, as Corrie reminds us, “regardless of the temperature of our heart.”
But it’s far from easy. So often there are residual feelings of anger we can’t deny. Trying to deny our anger, to pretend it doesn’t exist, is pointless. Our goal — remembering that forgiveness is an act of the will — is to direct our forgiveness not around the anger, but through it. There’s no point in denying to ourselves that the negative feelings exist. Nor is there any point in giving those negative feelings permission to master us: to allow our feelings to triumph over our will.
You and I are forever taking our heart’s temperature — consulting our feelings before we make up our minds about how we’re going to act. Jesus’ message to us is to stop it: just forgive! The pathway, for us, is learning to lead not from the emotions, but from the will.
The experience of forgiveness — conceived in that way — may not look a whole lot like the ideal image of it we carry around in our heads. We like to imagine a scene rather like the one we heard about in our first lesson this morning, the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers — joyous, tearful reconciliation!
Once, the Jacobson brothers had sold him into slavery and lied to their dad about what they’d done. They broke the old man’s heart by telling him a wild animal had killed his favorite son. Now, years later, Joseph has risen to become Pharaoh’s right-hand man. He has power — and, some would add, every right — to perpetrate a terrible revenge upon them. But Joseph does just the opposite. He forgives: fully, completely and without condition. That’s when the tears come, and the loving embraces. (Cue the music, Hollywood: it’s time for the credits.)
Very often, though, forgiveness doesn’t rise to that romantic ideal. Life’s a good bit messier than you see in the movies. Sometimes there just aren’t the warm embraces, the cleansing tears.
Carrie Newcomer is a Christian folksinger from the Quaker tradition. Not long ago I ran across something she wrote — not a song lyric, but an article — about that ways forgiveness happens, in the real world:
“Sometimes if happens quickly and easily, a breath of release and done. Sometimes it happens only after holding on, holding back and finally sidling up to the thing, eyeing it sideways, then knocking on the door…and still running away and hiding in the bushes for awhile then knocking again. Sometimes it happens every day…because some things, the very hardest things, have to be forgiven every time you think about it, because forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is about choosing to let go of what keeps us stuck, and walking forward with a sense of lightness and rightness of spirit.” [From the Carrie Newcomer Facebook page.]
Forgiving another person, you see, is not only for their benefit. It’s for ours as well. As difficult as it is to do — and as many times as you and I may have to attempt it, before we get it right — letting go of that persistent sense of woundedness is the heart of it. Sometimes we cling to that feeling of woundedness for dear life, as though it’s the most important thing in the world: which, of course, it’s not.
Failing to forgive, says Nadia Bolz-Weber, is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies. Rarely does the act of forgiveness work out in the idealized way we imagine. Yet, unless we pursue forgiveness not as a knee-jerk emotional response, but as a spiritual practice, the poison of bitterness will continue to slowly leach into our lives.
Frederic Luskin is co-founder of Stanford University’s “Forgiveness Project.” He and his team of researchers have long made it their business to study forgiveness — especially the effect it has on the person doing the forgiving.
Forgiveness, Luskin says, is good medicine. It “reduces anger, hurt, depression and stress and leads to greater feelings of optimism, hope, compassion and self-confidence.” The simple and beautiful truth, recognized by psychologists and theologians alike, is that forgiveness frees us — us, the ones offering forgiveness — as much, or even more so, than the neighbors we’re forgiving.
Jesus follows up his advice to Peter with a parable. It’s one of his most broadly comic tales: the story of person who’s behaving very badly indeed.
The man’s a slave, but not a slave of the sort you probably imagine. He’s no farmworker, no laborer. He’s a financial manager, the superintendent of his master’s estate.
Somehow, he’s gotten himself into debt: and what a debt it is! He owes his master ten thousand silver talents.
It’s a vast fortune: a sum of money so large, he could never in his wildest dreams earn enough to repay it. But in the parable, the master cheerfully forgives his servant’s debt.
And what does the man do, then? Why, he goes out and starts shaking down all the other slaves who owe him much smaller amounts. Those other slaves beg and grovel just as much as he did before his master, but the man is unmoved. Jesus colorfully describes how he grabs one of his debtors by the throat and shakes him, saying “Pay me what you owe!”
Word about this man’s loan-sharking ways gets back to his master: who’s furious. He’s not so kindly this time. His punishment of his ungenerous servant is immediate and harsh.
What the servant in the story fails to do is to pass on the forgiveness he himself has just received — which is why this parable, if we truly think about it, is a real wake-up call for us.
There’s a familiar line in the Lord’s Prayer that applies to just this sort of situation: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Did you ever realize, though, that there are times when that line can function not as a blessing, but as a curse — a curse we perpetrate upon ourselves?
Think of it. If we pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” and we ourselves have failed to offer forgiveness to others in some very significant ways, we’re inviting our Lord to be less than diligent in offering forgiveness to us.
You and I are very much like that unforgiving servant in one significant respect: we ourselves have already been forgiven by a generous and merciful God. Our debt of sin — before it was forgiven by the power of Christ — was so vast we could never have dealt with it on our own. But our every-merciful God wipes the slate clean: and, along with that good news, comes the realization that we, too, have the power — and, indeed, the obligation — to forgive.
It’s a gratitude thing. We have been forgiven, freely and fully. How can we not, then, forgive our neighbors?
Let us pray.
Lord, it’s not easy to forgive. We know that.
Time and again, we have looked upon people who have wronged us —
even after they have come to us, repentant —
and have failed to offer them the healing love they crave.
Make us, Lord, your ministers:
your instruments of justice, mercy, reconciliation and peace. Amen.
Copyright © 2017 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.