Forgiveness is non-negotiable to God, and that’s our hope for ourselves. It’s also our challenge as we grow into Christ in our lives.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 24, year A
Texts: Matthew 18:21-35; Genesis 50:15-21
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Forgiveness is never about the math.
Forgiveness can’t be calculated or negotiated, measured or limited, written up in codicils. There are no loopholes. Forgiveness is all or nothing.
That’s what Jesus says.
We’re always negotiating forgiveness, framing it, setting boundaries. This parable shakes that all up and frightens us to the core. Just as the Lord’s Prayer makes us wince. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”? We have to pray that? Forgive from the heart as you have been forgiven, or you have no part in God? That’s what this parable says?
Virtually every conversation among Christians about forgiveness immediately moves to negotiation and compromise, rules and boundaries, seeking any options other than Jesus’ clarity.
Because Jesus is perfectly clear here: forgiven people forgive. Period.
We can negotiate all we want. We just won’t be talking about forgiveness then.
There’s no negotiating with Jesus about how often to forgive.
Peter seems reasonable. Seven times forgiving someone who repeatedly hurts you? Maybe James keeps making fun of him for that “Rocky” nickname. How many times does he have to forgive that nonsense? Who but a saint would forgive seven times?
No, seventy-seven times, Jesus says. And this isn’t a negotiation. But it is an insight into human nature. If you start counting to that kind of number, you’ll keep forgetting your forgiveness count.
So, unlimited forgiveness. No loopholes or opt-outs. No matter how often someone hurts us, if we are following Christ, if we are Christ, God asks us to forgive them.
There’s no negotiating with Jesus about forgiving but not forgetting.
Somehow this ridiculous phrase always comes up with us. But where does it ever say in Scripture that we’re asked to forget as well as forgive? The only one in the Scriptures who forgives and forgets is God. So we can’t dodge forgiving using this excuse.
This is another place for Jesus’ seventy-seven times. Every time we remember someone has hurt us, every time we see their face, we’re hurt all over again. We forgive, but then we think of it again. We forgive, but remember that we still hurt.
So, Jesus says, forgive it again. And again. And again. Seventy-seven times. As long as it takes for the hurt to be lost to you, unimportant, nothing. No keeping score or nursing past wrongs. If we are following Christ, if we are Christ, God asks us to forgive every time we remember the hurt.
There’s no negotiating with Jesus about commanding others to forgive.
The Church has long hurt people with this. People in power smugly tell someone who is abused that they have to forgive. People with no grasp of the pain involved glibly tell someone they’re sinful if they don’t forgive who hurt them. All in the name of Christ.
Listen: Jesus doesn’t permit this. Look at his story. Forgiveness is between the king and his slave, no one else. The king needs to deal with this man’s inability to forgive.
It’s not our place to tell others they have to forgive. As Joseph says, we’re not in the place of God. Forgiveness is God’s call, and only God can draw any of us into a new heart able to forgive. If we are following Christ, if we are Christ, we don’t get to tell others how to forgive. Only God does.
There’s no negotiating with Jesus on a proper order for forgiveness to happen.
We love this tactic. We’d be glad to forgive, if and when the other repents. If and when the other apologizes. If and when we think they’re sincere. There’s an order to this. First, they repent. Then they ask forgiveness. Then, and only then, we forgive.
But that’s not Jesus’ command. Jesus says, “Forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Period. We’re never told to wait for them to do something. Jesus says, “love one another as I have loved you.” Period. Jesus never gives preconditions for our self-giving love.
If we are following Christ, if we are Christ, God commands us to forgive, regardless of what the other one does.
And in fact, our whole life now and forever depends on this. Because the Triune God in Christ has utterly destroyed our neat little forgiveness plan, and saved our lives.
The cross overturns it all.
At the cross, the Son of God, carrying our lives in his body and filled with the life of the Triune God, forgives the entire cosmos. Without anyone asking or doing anything.
At the cross, God says, “first, I forgive you. First, I love you.” Jesus didn’t look out from the cross and say, “before I die for you all, have you all repented? Are you all sincerely sorry?”
This is God’s pattern of forgiveness, the 10,000 talent forgiveness of the parable: God loves us beyond comprehension and dies to prove that love. Dies to break our hearts. Dies to forgive and heal us.
Then, risen from the dead, the Son of God does what the Son of God always does: invites people to follow that love and repent, invites people to love, invites people to become Christ themselves.
If we follow Christ, if we are Christ, this is our pattern. Forgive first, because God does. Love first, because God does. If the other repents, asks forgiveness, tries to do better, or doesn’t, it doesn’t matter. The healing act that saves us is God flipping our negotiation on its head and forgiving us into life. The healing act that will save the world is when we do the same.
This is God’s truth that changes us forever.
This is what Christ wants us to see at the cross. That once we grasp the astonishing love of God for us, how beloved we are, how God forgives before we even figure out our mess, once that actually touches us, it will be impossible for us to act like this person in the story.
Our hearts of stone are thus replaced with hearts of love, just as we prayed at the start of this liturgy. We’ll have no interest in doing forgiveness math, negotiating limits or boundaries. Instead, we’ll find such joy in offering forgiveness that we’ll understand why it’s God’s way, too. It’s how relationships are healed, life between people is restored, and hope is brought into reality.
Replace our hearts, O God, with hearts of love, that we might become Christ’s forgiving love to others, and find our true joy.
In the name of Jesus. Amen