Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord, Jesus Christ (1 Colossians 1:3).
Listen to this short three-sentence phrase: “I forgive you.” Although this simple phrase consists of three short words, it is nevertheless very powerful. Generally speaking, forgiving those who have wronged us can provide a level of personal freedom, peace, and well-being. I would think that most folks would agree with that. However, forgiving—whether asking for forgiveness or forgiving someone—is not necessarily a simple task that is easy to do. Between the two, asking for forgiveness or forgiving someone, it is the action of granting forgiveness to someone that can be more difficult. Think about this: when was the last time you actually said “I forgive you” directly to someone who wronged you? And when I mean directly, I am referring to a face-to-face conversation where there is eye-to-eye contact. I can’t speak for everyone, obviously, because everyone deals with conflict in different ways. However, I would not be surprised if most of us can’t remember the last time the phrase “I forgive you” was directly said to someone. I know I can’t remember. Granted, it’s probably a good guess that what happens most of the time is that someone apologizes for wronging another person with the customary “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.” Then the person at the receiving end of the apology will usually just acknowledge it but will not respond with the phrase “I forgive you,” even though that—namely forgiveness—is what is relayed. But then, even though a person acknowledges an apology, is forgiveness really being given or is there still some resentment or hurt still lingering?
And then there are situations that are more difficult and sensitive. We all probably have experienced situations at one point or another throughout our lives in which someone wrongs us and the person committing the offence does not appear to be sorry in the least bit. Forgiving that person becomes difficult because we often think that those who have hurt us should apologize or should express remorse as well as ask for our forgiveness. These more difficult and sensitive situations are the ones that truly pose a challenge to all of us and often prevents us from being forgiving. We nonetheless should always be forgiving whether or not the offender asks for forgiveness.
Being a forgiving person is what is covered in today’s Gospel lesson. However, what often poses as a major obstacle in forgiving is the actual act of forgiving someone, especially to forgive a person from the heart as Jesus instructed in verse 35. Forgiving someone, especially if the issue at hand is sensitive, can be a daunting task as well as easier said than done. Out of curiosity, I went online early this week to see if there were any self-help books available about forgiveness. I was not surprised to find a few books—not many, but only a handful about forgiveness. However, one book stuck out because the author claimed to have come up with a 21-Day Forgiveness Plan that will teach a person how to forgive everyone for everything thereby allowing a person to be liberated from wounds of the past. Wow! Isn’t that exciting! The way the description of the plan is presented gives the impression that forgiveness is easy-peasy! But wait, there’s more! This 21-Day Forgiveness Plan will also allow a person to embrace the “new power of forgiveness.” This really caught my attention: the “new power of forgiveness.” Once I read that in the book description, I have to admit that I chuckled a little but also found the claim that forgiveness is some type of new power to help folks with their conflicts to be more of a sales gimmick. The power of forgiveness, in fact, is not new! The power of forgiveness as noted in today’s Gospel passage from Matthew has been around for almost 2,000 years. The passage, and especially the Parable of the Unforgiving Slave seen in verses 23 to 35, is about God’s extraordinary capacity to forgive. In verses 21 and 22, just before Jesus relays the parable to his disciples, Peter asks if a person should forgive someone, not once, but 7 times, to which Jesus replies that one should forgive 77 times! Can you imagine forgiving someone so many times? In the beginning of my sermon I made note of how difficult it can be for a person to forgive someone just once—try forgiving that person 7 or 77 times! If one really thinks about it, these numbers noted in verses 21 and 22 are absurd. Yes, it sounds like the number of times to forgive is being emphasized, but is it really? What is actually being noted in verses 21 and 22 is the quality of forgiveness and not quantity. Jesus and his disciples all were Jewish. In rabbinical tradition, a Jew was to forgive someone up to 3 times. So, when Peter questioned Jesus about forgiveness, he doubled the number and then added one to reach the number 7—which was considered the number of perfection. So, one could look at Peter really asking about the quality of how to forgive a person. Jesus’ response of 77 times can be viewed as pushing the quality of forgiveness even further. One could view Jesus’ response as indicating that a person should continue to attempt reconciliation through forgiveness, even if it means repeated attempts until reconciliation is finally achieved. By doing this, we are being as forgiving as God. Forgiveness is a matter of mercy. God is merciful and gracious. God is willing to keep on forgiving us over and over again—not just 7 or 77 times, but for all time. And Jesus also emphasizes that forgiveness should be from the heart as noted in verse 35.
To reiterate his emphasis on the quality of forgiveness, Jesus uses the Parable of the Unforgiving Slave in which God is represented by the king who forgives the debt of a slave. The king serves as an example for us to follow so that we, too, should be willing to forgive those who do us wrong and to have the extraordinary capacity to do so despite how difficult the task of forgiving can be. However, in the parable, the slave who had been relieved of his debt by the king fails to show the same grace and mercy toward a fellow-slave who owed him money. The bottom line of the parable is that we should be as forgiving as the king was to the slave and not as the slave was to his fellow slave. In other words, we should be as forgiving as God.
Jesus teaches that God’s forgiveness surpasses what we deserve. Jesus places high value on forgiveness, especially among his followers, which today includes all of us. Given the forgiveness God has shown us, we, too, should be just as forgiving to those who wrong us. This is found in the Lord’s prayer when we plead to God for forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Hence, the Good News of today’s gospel is that forgiveness lies at the heart of our faith in God and our love for one another. The forgiveness that we receive from God through his son, Jesus Christ, teaches us that not only does God forgive us for our sins but also that God’s forgiveness knows no end. Forgiveness is a gift of grace—a reflection of God’s love. Forgiveness is neither optional nor contingent, but that we, in turn, should also be forgiving—to show mercy just as God did to the unworthy slave. Amen.