I want say a huge ‘thank you’ to Nicholas for inviting me to speak here this morning. Nick and I became close friends in the Falklands where I was the Headteacher of the secondary school and he was the Priest in Charge of the Cathedral, we were both from very different church backgrounds but had commonality in our love of the Lord. So it is a real pleasure to be here this morning with his new congregation.
The two passages this morning teach us about the depths of forgiveness firstly after many years in exile and secondly the danger of un-reciprocated forgiveness. I am going to concentrate on the New Testament passage from Matthew.
Some time ago I read a psychologist who said that Christians, he felt, were very much like porcupines on a cold winter’s night. The cold drives them to huddle together to keep warm, but as soon as they get close to one another they start jabbing each other with their spines and that forces them to move apart; thus they are forever coming together and moving apart in a kind of slow dance.
At some point, every one of us has been hurt, sometimes quite deeply. Maybe somebody here today is hurting. The question is, will you be able to forgive and let go, to move forward with your life? Forgiveness is a choice. You don’t have to forgive, but when you don’t, you put yourself in bondage to your offender and you adversely affect your closeness to God.
In Genesis 4 there is a brief account of a descendant of Cain the first murderer who was named Lamech he killed a man for wounding him and then said that he would seek revenge 77 times over against anyone who hurts him. That became known as the Law of Lamech. It’s the idea that if anyone inflicts pain on me I will make them pay again and again and again.
But that is not how God wants it to be.
In the Luke 17 Jesus says, “Even if a person wrongs you seven times a day and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, you must forgive.” Luke 17:4
But what happens in the account we have of Jesus and his disciples this morning:
Today Jesus tells a story to demonstrate our very best motivation to forgive. He has been teaching the disciples about how to hold each other accountable in Christian love. Then Peter asks a question about the minimum number of times one must forgive. Peter probably thinks he is being magnanimous in offering to forgive someone seven times, since most rabbis taught that three times were sufficient. But Jesus replies, “Not seven times, but 77!” (Or “70 times 7;” we’re unsure exactly how to interpret the Greek.) Jesus is not attempting to quantify forgiveness, but to say it’s uncountable. Then he tells the story that we have read this morning to illustrate why. I want to focus on three truths from the story that speak to our need to forgive. First,
The debt others owe us is large.
Let’s not trivialize this. The servant was owed 100 silver coins, or in the Greek, 100 denarii. A denarius was about one day’s wage. So someone owed this fellow just over three months’ of work! That is more than pocket change! And it illustrates that we’re not talking about trivial matters here, like when someone jumps in front of us in line for the elevator, or somebody passes by without saying hello. We’re talking about bigger debts here. Maybe somebody assassinated our character. Maybe someone betrayed us or cheated on us or attacked us.
In his book, Lee: The Last Years, Charles Bracelen Flood reports that after the Civil War, Robert E. Lee visited a Kentucky lady who took him to the remains of a grand old tree in front of her house. There she bitterly cried that its limbs and trunk had been destroyed by Federal Artillery fire. She looked to Lee for a word condemning the North or at least sympathizing with her loss. After a brief silence, Lee said, “Cut it down, my dear Madam, and forget it.” It is better to forgive the injustices of the past than to allow them to remain and let bitterness take root and poison the rest of our life.”
It would be nice if forgiveness was as easy as cutting down an old tree in the back garden wouldn’t it… if you have lived at all you have experienced injustices that defy your best efforts at mercy and forgiveness.
So we have a question, what is forgiveness? Forgiveness is a decision, an act of the will. This is how it works… to forgive, you begin to let go of the desire for vengeance.
But in a more serious vein, some hurts are far more serious and painful, so we desire revenge. Forgiveness means giving that up because God is judge; we’re not. It means we don’t try to get even because that never works.
I was very moved recently with the court case of Amber Guygen.
The brother of Botham Jean, who was shot and killed in his apartment by former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, publicly forgave her and asked to hug her in court.
In an emotional scene during the impact statements made in court, Brandt Jean said he forgave Guyger, if she is “truly sorry,” saying, “I know if you go to God and ask Him, He will forgive you.”
Following the impact statements, Judge Kemp gave Guyger a Bible that she kept with her at the courthouse and used every day. Kemp opened the Bible and told Guyger: “This is your job for the next month. Right here. John 3:16.” Kemp also embraced Guyger after she first spoke with and embraced Botham’s family.
Bothams brother twice asked Judge Tammy Kemp if he could give Guyger a hug. With permission from the judge, Brant and Guyger embraced for a long time as she cried on his shoulder.
In order to offer another person the gift of grace and forgiveness you have to see them as you see yourself… fellow human beings who are flawed and fallen people who desperately need the mercy and grace of God and their fellowmen.
But we are not always up to the task… and while we are all receptive to mercy and grace being extended to us we are sometimes reluctant to extending mercy and grace to others. And it is that reluctance that Jesus speaks to in the parable of the Unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35.
We continue with the simple truth that:
2. God’s kingdom is grounded in his grace
The Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process one of his debtors owed him a vast amount of money. He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold along with his wife and children and everything he owned to pay the debt. But the man fell down and begged him, ‘Please be patient with me and I will pay it all.’ Then the master was filled with pity, and he released him and forgave his debt.” Matthew 18:23-26
In Jesus’ stories, the characters often represent God and people; that’s the case here. In this story the king represents God, and we’re represented by the servant who owes 10,000 talents. A talent was a measure of wealth. Most historians believe that during Jesus’ lifetime the entire wealth of the Roman Empire was somewhere between four to five thousand talents. In other words, this is an enormous, unthinkable number; it’s like our national debt.
Jesus’ point is that because of our sin, we all owe God an unpayable moral and spiritual debt. Under the law, the rule was “We owe” therefore “We pay.” God loves us so much, and because he knows there’s no way we could ever get out of our moral and spiritual dilemma on our own, he canceled our debt when Jesus died on the cross. That’s why the cross always has been and always will be at the heart of Christianity. It’s the ultimate expression that God’s kingdom is always grounded in his gracious forgiveness.
The logic of grace and forgiveness is that since God’s kingdom is founded on it; it empowers those of us who claim to be part of Christ’s kingdom to forgive those who are in debt to us. Forgiven people forgive because they’ve experienced the gracious forgiveness of God.
However, that’s not the way it always works. Sometimes forgiveness never flows. Jesus spotlights the problem in the rest of the story.
3. When we fail to extend forgiveness to others we do not experience God’s mercy and forgiveness ourselves
“When the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand pounds. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. His fellow servant begged for more time to repay but the creditor wouldn’t wait and had the debtor arrested and put in prison until the debt could be repaid in full.
When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset and went to the king and told him what had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you? Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.
The servant had received pure grace, and he owed his life, his freedom, his family, his possessions, and everything he had to the grace of the master. But the servant goes out and finds a man who owes him a debt of roughly £10,000; Unlike the king, the servant thinks, “I’m not going to make the same mistake as the silly old king. I’m not going to take the hit on this! This man who owes me is going pay what he owes!”
Jesus ends with this statement in verse 35: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
In other words, when we cannot or will not forgive another person it is an indication that we have never experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness ourselves. When we finally own the enormity of our own guilt and the enormity of God’s mercy and forgiveness we can and must then extend that same mercy and grace to others.
Bishop John Rucyahana, a Tutsi Rwandan, found Christ while growing up as an exile from his native Rwanda. I like the way he describes His conversion: “I did not accept Jesus. Jesus graciously met me and accepted me.” This is a man who understands how we come empty-handed to Christ.
In spite of his faith, Bishop John, a Tutsi Rwandan, had reason to hate. The Hutus in Rwanda brutally raped and killed his own niece, Madu, during the genocide of the early 1990’s.
He escaped the genocide and was in the United States in 1994 when he felt God’s call to return to Rwanda. He wanted to avoid the conflict (and his hatred) by doing ministry in Uganda instead of Rwanda. But he obeyed God’s call to face the darkness and returned to his homeland. Upon returning to Rwanda, he found sun-bleached bones littering the streets and open graves fouling the air.
Bishop John worked with others to establish Prison Fellowship Rwanda. He also helped start the Umuvumu Project, which has brought together tens of thousands of perpetrators and victims of the genocide, offering offenders the opportunity to confess their crimes and victims the chance to forgive.
In a large open area of a Rwandan prison, Anglican Bishop John Rucyahana spoke to a crowd of killers responsible for the 1994 genocide. “Close your eyes,” he instructed them. “Go back in your mind to 1994. What did you see?” he asked. “What did you smell? What did you hear?”
Many in the crowd began to weep. He told the men to see their victims’ faces. The sobs grew louder. “Now,” said Bishop John, “that which made you cry, that you must confess.”
It’s amazing enough that Bishop John would speak to the Hutu perpetrators of the genocide. It’s even more amazing when you consider what they did to his family members. It is even more amazing to think that he is seeking to find way to offer the offenders forgiveness and reconciliation.
This morning my prayer is that we who have all recieved God’s mercy and grace may sow it as well… having experienced it we now extend it to those who need our mercy and forgiveness.