Forgiveness: It’s Complicated

As Matthew chapter 18 moves along, the topic turns to forgiveness. We find Jesus laying out for his disciples a blueprint for what they are to do when they have a complaint against another person. Jesus instructs them first and foremost to go directly to the person with whom they have the issue. If the person does not listen, they are to try again, this time bringing someone along as a witness. If these first two attempts do not work, Jesus instructs the disciples to bring the issue in front of the whole church. Yikes!

It is after Jesus finishes explaining this process when we come to our scripture passage for this morning. In it, Peter asks a question that I have to assume was on the minds of all the disciples after Jesus’ description of how they are to confront a person with whom they have an issue. Peter asks, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Jesus, your blueprint for confronting someone with whom we have a complaint is all well and good, but what do we do if it doesn’t work? What do we do if they don’t listen? What about those people who sin against us and hurt us over and over and over again? How many times do we have to attempt to forgive in these kinds of situations? How many times do we have to forgive someone before we are off the hook?” Jesus responds by answering the question directly, and then sharing a parable.  Hear these words from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 18, and verses 21 through 35.

21 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?”

22 Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times.[a] 23 Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle accounts, they brought to him a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold.[b] 25 Because the servant didn’t have enough to pay it back, the master ordered that he should be sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, and that the proceeds should be used as payment. 26 But the servant fell down, kneeled before him, and said, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ 27 The master had compassion on that servant, released him, and forgave the loan.

28 “When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred coins.[c] He grabbed him around the throat and said, ‘Pay me back what you owe me.’

29 “Then his fellow servant fell down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ 30 But he refused. Instead, he threw him into prison until he paid back his debt.

31 “When his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply offended. They came and told their master all that happened. 32 His master called the first servant and said, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. 33 Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ 34 His master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners, until he had paid the whole debt.

35 “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

These are holy words.  Thanks be to God.

A few years ago, as I was preparing a sermon on this well-known scripture I came across the book, “How Can I Forgive You?” by Dr. Janis Abrahms Spring. I was captivated by the book description, ordered the book, and I could not put it down.

Dr. Abrahms Spring addresses what she describes as the widespread misunderstanding of forgiveness, the misconception that we have only two choices when someone hurts us – forgiving or not forgiving.  Abrahms Spring argues that forgiveness is much more nuanced than that, and she goes on to describe two unhelpful and two helpful approaches to forgiveness. In the sermon I preached on the passage, I highlighted Dr. Abrahms Spring’s book as a faithful way to think about Jesus’ famous response to Peter.

Last Fall, I was told that the topic of forgiveness came up as one of our church small groups was gathering and conversing. A member of that group recalled the sermon I preached based on Dr. Abrahms Spring’s book and contacted me to see if I could send along a copy.  I’ll let you in on a little secret, if you want to make a Pastor walk with an extra stride in his or her step, ask for a copy of a sermon you remember from a few years ago 🙂

After I sent along the sermon, this person shared it with the rest of the group and it was suggested I preach the sermon again. And so, with the knowledge that the topic of forgiveness is always on our hearts and minds in big or small ways, and with worship this Sunday on the brink of the new year when we often set out to attempt new and extraordinary things, this feels like a good Sunday to bring this one back.  Plus, I was told in my Educational Psychology course in college that we have to hear things at least seven times before we remember them, so you could theoretically get this sermon five more more times after today 🙂

I began that original sermon with two mindless forgiveness stories. The first was the time I left my wife Kelley at a rest stop on route 87 – accidentally!  She was running in to quickly use the bathroom and pick up a couple of sandwiches. Our daughter Sadie was sleeping in the car seat and we feared parking the car might wake her up, and so I dropped Kelley off and drove around the parking lot in circles. After a while I grew bored and made my way to an area of the parking lot from which I could not return without entering the onramp back to the highway.  I drove 9 miles to the first exit and 9 miles back, before I made my return to Kelley. I’ll never forget first getting on the highway and calling her phone only to hear it vibrate in the passenger’s seat next to me. Obviously, we made our way through it 🙂

The second story I shared was the time I accidentally confused butt paste with toothpaste as I began brushing our daughter Sadie’s teeth. Gratefully she was okay, and thankfully she has also forgiven me.

I started that sermon with these stories to point out that some things are easier to forgive than others.  The situations I shared contained no malicious intent on my part, and very importantly, neither Kelley nor Sadie assumed there to be malicious intent either, and so eventually we moved on. These are stories we now laugh about, stories I can share in a sermon.

But what about those stories that aren’t funny? What about those times when we deeply hurt another person, or another person hurts us? What about those times when we are left to grapple with how or whether to forgive or reconcile with an offender? Those are much more complex situations. As we are all well aware, these are the times when forgiveness is really hard.

I have a hunch that, in the Bible story, when Peter asks Jesus how many times one should forgive, Peter is thinking about these really hard kinds of forgiveness situations. And so, when Peter throws the number seven out there as a possible number of times one should forgive, “How often should I forgive, Jesus, seven times?” I imagine Peter thought of this as a rather generous suggestion. After all, forgiving someone even seven times for something deeply hurtful seems like a lot, doesn’t it? Peter must have been surprised, then, when Jesus responds by saying, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

Seventy-seven times! Can we even imagine forgiving someone seventy-seven times for the same transgression?

This is where we turn to Dr. Abrahms Spring’s book and the four approaches to forgiveness she mentions, once again, two that are unhelpful and two that are helpful. We’ll consider these approaches through four scenarios.

Scenario 1:  Colby and Dave, both in high school, are good friends. One day, Dave told Colby a that his dad struggled with alcoholism and made Colby promise he wouldn’t tell a soul, and Colby assured Dave that he wouldn’t. A few weeks later, Colby’s mom called Dave’s mom and said, “I know that your husband struggles with alcohol and I just wanted you to know I’m here for you.” It was a nice gesture, but Dave’s mom was very angry, and in the midst of her anger, she told Dave that he has no respect for his father. Dave spent the entire evening crying in his room. The next day, Dave mentioned to Colby that his mom had called. Colby apologized, but in response Dave said, “It wasn’t a big deal at all.”

This is what Dr. Abrahms Spring’s calls Cheap forgiveness. Cheap forgiveness occurs when the victim offers forgiveness too easily. Cheap Forgiveness is unhelpful because it creates an illusion that everything is resolved when indeed nothing has been resolved. With cheap forgiveness, there is a failure to fully appreciate the harm that was done, and the perceived closeness in the relationship is not real. If we don’t go through the valley, it is hard to get to the mountaintop.

Scenario 2:  Rachel and Samantha had been car-pooling to work for months. But one morning, Rachel had a lot on her mind and simply forgot to pick Samantha up. Samantha was not only late to work, but she missed an important meeting. It was an honest mistake, but Samantha can’t get over it and will not forgive Rachel.

This approach to forgiveness is what Dr. Abrahms Spring’s simply calls Not Forgiving. Not Forgiving cuts us off from any dialogue with the offender and any positive resolution of the conflict. Not forgiving is unhelpful because it removes any possibility for God to work in the midst of our relationships with others.

Scenario 3:  John thought he had met the love of his life. From the first time they set eyes on each other, Kate and John had a real connection. Those first days turned into months and years, and the conversations about getting married and spending their lives together grew more and more serious. But one day, John was looking something up on Kate’s phone when a flirtatious text message came in from another man. After a little more digging, John found out that Kate was seeing someone. When John confronted Kate, she admitted it, and without much remorse, told him it was over. They painfully went their separate ways. Every single day since has been a struggle for John.

How often have we heard the advice, “Forgive and forget?” And in Christianity, we are often taught to “just forgive.” But sometimes this is simply impossible or unhealthy or both. In cases such as these, Dr. Spring lifts up the helpful option of Acceptance. Acceptance is not reconciling with the offender or even making peace with him or her. Acceptance is reconciling with ourselves, making peace with ourselves. Acceptance is forgiving someone from a distance, but without expecting to enter back into relationship with that person in the same way or even in any way at all. Acceptance, Dr. Spring says, “Is a gutsy, life-affirming response to violation when the person who hurt us is unavailable or unrepentant.” Acceptance asks nothing of anyone but the person who was hurt.

Unlike the unhelpful approaches of Cheap Forgiveness and Not Forgiving, Acceptance is based on a personal decision to prayerfully take control of our own pain, make sense of our pain, and carve out a relationship with the offender that works for us. Acceptance is the understanding that in the final analysis, the critical issue is not whether the offender gets his or her due but whether we free ourselves from your emotional dependence on the offender and move beyond the transgression.

Scenario 4:  When Gary was 5, his parents divorced. At first, Gary saw his father frequently, but over time their visits became less and less. And then, his father married a woman who had kids of her own, and Gary would go years without seeing his father. Eventually, they lost contact with one another.

When Gary became a father himself, he thought more and more about his own childhood and the hurt he had around his father being absent from his life. Eventually, Gary made up his mind to contact his father and talk about it. Casual conversations began over email and, once enough trust was built up, Gary asked if they could meet up. When they did, Gary was honest and said, “Dad, why weren’t you there for me? I was hurt that you weren’t there for me.”

His father agreed. He said, “I know I wasn’t there for you and it was all my fault. I should have been. I have thought about this every day since I left and I want to make it up to you by being a part of your life now, in the ways that you want me to be.” Gary had to let his father back in slowly, giving his father the opportunity to regain his trust. And overtime, and with continued conversation, the trust was regained. Gary will tell you that his father is the best grandfather he has ever seen.

Dr. Abrahms Spring’s calls this Genuine Forgiveness. Unlike Cheap Forgiveness, Not Forgiving, or Acceptance, Genuine Forgiveness requires the heartfelt participation of two people. You see, if Gary’s father did not respond with an apology, or if he said he wanted to change things but didn’t, Gary would have had to resort to Acceptance. But here, and with Genuine Forgiveness in general, both parties address the question, “What am I willing to give in order to create a climate in which forgiveness is possible?” “Forgiveness is accomplished when the victimized person no longer has to hold the
wrongdoer responsible for the injustice; the wrongdoer holds himself or herself responsible.”

After Jesus responds to Peter with the number seventy-seven, he begins telling a parable. There is a king who has a servant who took 10,000 bags of gold, which is a ginormous amount of wealth. After the servant begs for forgiveness, the king offers it. But later, when someone steals a much lesser amount from that same servant who was offered forgiveness, the servant refused to forgive. The parable concludes with the King sending the servant who he originally forgave to prison.

This parable teaches us that when it comes to our relationship with others, and the forgiveness we offer, we must remember that we are also in need of forgiveness. If we cannot humble ourselves and see that we are in need of forgiveness, then it is going to be mighty hard to forgive others. This is why we pray each week in our Lord’s Prayer first for God to forgive our trespasses or sins, before we pray that we might forgive those who trespassed or sinned against us.

When it comes to the specific question from Peter and Jesus’ response, there is some debate among biblical scholars as to whether the Greek in this text should translate to seventy seven times, or seven times seventy times. This would actually mean that Jesus told Peter to forgive 490 times!

Here’s the thing, it doesn’t matter. Jesus is simply using hyperbole to make the point. Jesus knows, if we are tallying how many times we forgive, waiting for the 78th time or the 491st time to say, “Aha, I don’t have to forgive anymore,” then we are missing the message.

Jesus’ Math doesn’t add up to an exact number, Jesus’ math is a matter of the heart. The point Jesus makes in his response to Peter and in his telling of the parable is that we are always to work on forgiving…not always reconciling but always forgiving…forgiving ourselves, forgiving others. Thankfully God takes the lead and always forgives us first.



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