Wandering Heart: Teach Me

Rev. Dr. Carter Lester Avatar

There are two things to quickly note about this passage in Matthew 18.  First, Peter is still there.  Last week, if you were here, we heard Peter rebuke Jesus in Matthew 16.  Far from getting kicked out for insubordination, Peter remains in Jesus’ inner circle.  Jesus is a patient and persistent teacher, prepared for his disciples to get things wrong.  And he is prepared for their questions.  Indeed, Jesus never rebukes a disciple for an honest question.  How else will we learn?  Honest and heartfelt questions of faith are how we grow.  “Teach me” is the implicit request in Peter’s question here.

Second, Jesus expects there will be conflict in the church after he is gone.  Jesus knows that the church is made up of people, and in the words of one commentator, “people – no matter how committed – are still people and stormy weather is always a possible forecast.”[1]  So it is that Jesus spends time here talking about how to handle conflict in the church – and the importance of forgiveness.

With that in mind, let us look more closely at Peter’s question here: “Lord, if a brother or sister sins against me, how many times do I have to forgive them?”  Forgiving once is hard enough, but what if they hurt us again and again?  Are we obliged to forgive over and over just because the offending person says, “I’m sorry?”

Peter magnanimously offers to forgive the offending church member as many as seven times.  Jesus tells him that his math is all wrong.  Not seven times, but seventy times seven or seventy-seven times – the Greek can be translated either way.  The number does not really matter because Jesus’ point is that we can’t keep count when it comes to forgiveness.

Then Jesus tells a parable about forgiveness, a story with two servants, two debts, and a foreign Gentile king.  The first servant’s debt is absurdly high: ten times what King Herod’s regime collected in a year.  His request for more time to pay the debt would have given Jesus’ audience reason to chuckle.  No extension would help because there was no way that this servant could hope to pay off that debt.  Then the king does what no king in that time would have ever done: he forgives the entire debt.  We can almost hear Jesus’ audience gasp at such an audacious step.

The first servant is barely out the door from visiting the king when he is approached by a second servant who owes him money.  This debt is far smaller than what he owed the king.  It is repayable, so that the request for more time to pay is entirely reasonable. But the first servant, who has just had his enormous debt entirely forgiven, wants every single penny from the second servant.  He will not even grant an extension. 

When the king is told of this servant’s mean-spiritedness, he gives the servant his just desserts, reinstating the debt and throwing him into jail.  Up to this point, the disciples and others listening to Jesus would have nodded their heads, enjoying this drama in the households of rich Gentiles, much as modern audiences enjoy watching the drama in “Succession.”

But then Jesus drops a punchline that makes sure that the disciples know this story is not just being told for their entertainment: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Whoa – do you mean if we do not forgive someone else, our sins are not forgiven by God?  What does God expect from us – is there no limit to what we are supposed to “take,” no limit to what we are called to forgive? 

First, it is important to note that forgiveness is not the same as ignoring, or excusing, the wrong done to us, or to the body of Christ.  When someone commits a crime against another person, whether the victim forgives them or not is irrelevant for whether they should be punished by the courts.  Too many priests and ministers in past years escaped accountability for sexual abuse because church insiders thought that the conflict should be smoothed over and the perpetrators quickly forgiven. 

This is why Jesus takes time to set out a step-by-step process for handling situations where someone has sinned against another or the church body.  While Jesus makes clear that the ultimate goal is reconciliation and restoration to the body, that does not mean that he skips over holding the perpetrator accountable.  As Douglas Hare observes, premature forgiveness trivializes the hurtful actions and does little to help the offender or heal a damaged relationship.[2]

To forgive is not to ignore the wrong or deny the pain caused when someone hurts us.  Instead, to forgive someone is to let go of the anger, hostility, and resentment we naturally feel when someone has wronged us.  I have shared with you before my favorite quote on forgiveness from Lewis Smedes: forgiveness is our “willingness to live with an uneven score.”   

We can forgive someone regardless of whether we reunite with that person.  In counseling, we may learn to forgive someone who hurt us in the past but is no longer alive.  After a divorce caused by adultery, the hurt wife may find the capacity to forgive her former husband – but that doesn’t mean that she will remarry him.  Forgiveness helps us let go of our anger and resentment so that we can move on with our lives.  Or as someone once put it to me, it means that the person who hurt us is “no longer living rent free in my head.”

Second, in trying to understand and obey Jesus’ words, it helps to recognize that forgiveness is not just hard; it is unnatural.  When someone hurts us, we want to fight back, whether with our fists, or our words, or the “silent treatment.”  Just take a moment to think of the worst things that someone has done to you.  Now picture yourself telling them “I forgive you.”  It is difficult to say those three short words – and mean it.

Because forgiveness is not natural, learning to do it is a lot like developing an ability to speak a foreign language.  Forgiveness is something that we must learn to do and practice doing.  And forgiveness does not just happen overnight.  Forgiveness takes time – sometimes years – and lot and lots of prayer.  Sometime that prayer may begin with the very basics – praying simply for the desire to forgive.  And sometimes, we think we have forgiven someone – only to find that when their names comes up, the knot of anger and resentment is still there.

Perhaps you feel that “I don’t have it in me to forgive.”  That may be true.  But as Michael Lindvall has written, “in me” is not the only place to look.  “God has opened many a clenched fist.,[3]

Third, in trying to understand and obey Jesus’ words here, it helps to see how God’s forgiveness and our forgiveness are related.  The first servant has an incalculable debt forgiven, but he will not forgive the servant under him for a much smaller debt.  The gift he receives has absolutely no impact on him as a person.  His financial position is changed, but he is not changed.  He receives grace but he does not give grace.

John Wesley was trying to intercede with Governor George Oglethorpe on behalf of a servant who had gotten into the governor’s wine and drunk the contents of several bottles.  The governor said, “Sir, I never forgive.”  Wesley replied, “Then I hope you never offend.”[4]

The fact is, of course, that we have offended God.  Not just once.  Not just seven times.  Not just seventy times seven times.  And yet, God continues to forgive us in Jesus Christ.  If we have received grace so lavishly, how can we be miserly in offering it to others? 

Forgiveness is intended by God to flow through us to others.  When we withhold forgiveness of others, we often will find it much more difficult to receive grace, to trust that our sins are really forgiven by God.  It is not that God punishes us tit-for-tat.  It is that our refusal to forgive can be like a dam that stops up the flow of grace so that we can’t easily receive grace any more.  When we nurse anger and resentment, rather than letting go, we can effectively block the receptacles in our souls to God’s love and grace.

Forgiveness is a two-way street.  That does not mean that we should treat Jesus’ commandment to forgive as a new law.  Or, that we can earn or lose God’s grace based on whether we forgive the one who has hurt us.  Jesus’ warning at the end of this passage is to give his disciples a sense of urgency about the need to share the grace that they have received for others’ sake – and for our sake.

Forgiving others is hard.  The only thing that is harder on us is not forgiving others.  As the novelist and spiritual writer, Anne Lamott put it in her characteristically colorful language, “not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”[5] 

Forgiveness is necessary for our healing, for the healing of families, for the healing of communities of faith and for the healing of the world.  Bishop Desmond Tutu fought the brutality of apartheid for most of his life.  He took the blows of racism for decades.  He then served as the leader of his country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which provided amnesty for perpetrators, but only if they acknowledged their responsibility for atrocities.  The work was controversial because many people wanted punishment and revenge.  And yet, to the astonishment of most of the world, the end of apartheid did not usher in a period of retaliatory bloodbath, as has happened in so much of a world when the rule of an oppressive regime is ended.

Bishop Tutu summed up why the work of the Commission was so important with six simple words: “There is no future without forgiveness.”  What he said about his country, could be said for any country, including ours.  What Jesus is doing here is painting a picture of the kingdom of heaven, a realm where unlike this world, there is forgiveness and grace rather than score-keeping and endless retaliation.  This is what we are praying for when we pray each week that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Forgiveness on that scale is advanced calculus, C.S. Lewis once noted when he wrote about forgiveness and the Gestapo shortly after World War II.  But as he also pointed out, we don’t begin our math studies with advanced calculus; we begin with simple addition and subtraction.  So perhaps we too can tackle the math of forgiveness here and now by adding at least a little forgiveness and subtracting at least a little defensiveness or desire to strike back. 

Jim Lowry writes about a woman he saw on a plane on a short flight, the woman in seat 18E, a woman whose name he did not know, but whose name he came to believe was surely “Grace.” he writes.

Lowry was sitting in his seat, 19E.  Grace had taken her seat 3 rows ahead.  Suddenly a little girl flashed by and then a voice could be heard by the whole plane: “JESSICA, COME BACK HERE RIGHT NOW.  I’VE HAD IT WITH YOU.”  Then Jessica’s mom had words for the woman in 16E: “LADY, YOU’RE IN MY SEAT.  LET ME SEE YOUR TICKET LADY.  THIS SAYS 18E – ARE YOU BLIND?”

“Oh, I am so sorry” said Grace.  “It must be my bifocals.”  There was stunned silence, Lowry reports, as Grace esettled herself in her seat and Jessica’s mom settled in 16E and strapped Jessica in the seat beside her, saying, “I don’t want a peep out of you, young lady.”

When the plane was airborne and the seat belt sign had been turned off, Jessica’s head popped up over the back of her seat.  She was looking back toward Grace, while she clutched her Teddy bear and sucked her thumb.  Pretty soon, Grace waved at Jessica with one of her fingers.  Jessica took her thumb out of her mouth and waved back.  Grace made a sign of drying her own tears; Jessica dried her tears.  Grace made the signs of patty-cake, patty-cake – no words just the signs.  And Jessica put down her Teddy and made the signs back.  So it went until it the plane was nearing the airport and the seat belt sign went back on.

“On the ground in Asheville, a funny thing happened,” Lowry recalls.  “It was like something had happened to clean the air all around seat 18E…The people all around seat 18E were nice to each other.  We helped each other retrieve carry-on luggage.  We stood back to let each other in the aisle.  We talked to each other in friendly tones.  In the terminal I saw Grace and Jessica’s mom talking to each other.  They were smiling.”[6]

Grace and forgiveness – they make a difference.  Pass it on.

[1] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 209.

[2] Douglas R.A. Hare, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 218.

[3] Mchael A. Lindvall, A Geography of God (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 108.

[4] John T. Carroll and James R. Carroll, Preaching the Hard Sayings of Jesus (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), 93.

[5] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999), 134.

[6] Retold by Lindvall, 109.