Monday, August 15, 2011

Keeping Score of Forgiveness

Genesis 50:15-21         
Matthew 18:21-35 

            Forgiveness is unnatural!  We are the center of our own universe. Everything and everyone revolves around us – right?  Be honest, now. None of us are minor characters in our autobiography.
            Oh, we aren’t always unforgiving.  We can fairly easily, forgive those that we like.  After all, most of the time we agree with them.  However, what about the people that we never got along with anyway?  Now they’ve done something that we just “can’t” forgive.  They don’t deserve it.  They were wrong and hurtful on purpose.  They aren’t ‘nice people’.
            Our Hebrew Bible reading is part of the continuing story of Joseph and his brothers.  Remember that the brothers, in their jealousy, plotted to kill Joseph then decided that they could sell him for a profit.  So they threw Joseph into a dry well and waited for foreign traders to come near.
            How many years do you think Joseph cursed his brothers for his enslavement?  To be betrayed in such a cruel way by his own flesh and blood must have been hard to bare. 
            Oh we know, and Joseph eventually came to understand, that God had a plan in place.  Still, there was a lot of pain and hurt to go through before the blessing became evident.  I wonder how many times the pain and hurt we are currently suffering is a blessing in the making?  I know that I can look back on some dark times in my life that became blessings.  I just wish that they had come with a tag that said, “This is a blessing in disguise!”
            Jesus says to forgive seventy-seven times!  Joseph had eleven brothers who betrayed him.  Along the way to the throne room in Egypt, there were others who betrayed him.  Seventy-seven times for each of them?  That’s a lot of forgiveness!
            In today’s gospel reading Peter came up to the Lord and asked, “How many times should I forgive someone who does something wrong to me?”  It is a great question considering that Jesus had just finished preaching about forgiving fellow believers when they had sinned against them. 
            Evidently, Peter had been listening and thinking about it.  And he had decided, okay, he was willing to forgive.   Great!  There! That would prove that he was a good follower of Jesus.  He could puff out his chest and pat himself on the back for being a good listener and a good follower!
            But, wait, what happens if the person he forgives continue to sin against him.  Hmmmm?  How long should he forgive? 
            So, he asks Jesus that important question, “How many times?”  Peter was feeling very forgiving so he offered to forgive seven times.  Certainly no man could be expected to forgive a rascal that kept sinning more than seven times.  You’d have to be a saint to forgive like that!  Peter probably thought that Jesus would be proud of him for being so forgiving.
            But then Jesus answered: “Not just seven times, but seventy-seven times!”
            Oh come on!  Seventy-seven times?  Well, that’s not realistic is it?  I mean, for one thing, how are we going to keep score?  We’d have to carry a notebook full of the people that we have to forgive.  That could take a fair size pad!  And then we would need to keep putting little check marks each time we forgive them!  We had better alphabetize the list or we will never be able to keep it straight!
            Do see what is happening here?  If we are keeping score (77 times or even 7 times), we have not really forgiven in our hearts.  This is getting harder – isn’t it?  We can forgive – until they do it again, or add something else to the list of wrongs and hurts that we carry.  I have a family member who is much like that.  She will forgive me – until the next time.  Then she brings up things that I did when I was four-years old!
            We need a guide book, or better yet a mentor to show us how to do it.  Oh yeah, the Bible is our guide book and Jesus is our mentor.  “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do,” He said as He was hanging on the cross.  Wow!  I am so glad that God forgives and forgets!  Scriptures say that He remembers our sins no more!  We need to strive to forgive like that.  We need to be unrealistic in our forgiving.  To forgive and forget is our goal.
            To get his point across, Jesus tells a story that illustrates the difference between true, godly forgiveness and what we commonly call forgiveness. 
            The king in his story has a legal issue with one of his officials.  When the official is caught dipping into the till, the king applies legal justice and requires that the man (and his family) be sold into slavery so that his debt could be satisfied.
            Jesus listeners would have been nodding their heads in understanding and agreement.  They understood this kind of justice.  They saw this type of justice all the time.
            Also it wasn’t odd that the official got down on his knees and began begging, “Have pity on me, and I will pay you every cent I owe!”  Of course he would.  Who wouldn’t repent when caught and facing punishment?
            But then something unexpected did happen!  The king felt sorry for him and let him go free.
            What?  The king had nothing to gain by forgiving him.  Sure the official claimed that he would pay the king back everything that he owed.  So what?  The king would be repaid by selling the official’s property, family and the official himself.  There was no gain for the king to release the man on promise or repayment.
            But then this truly odd turn is thrown into the story.  The king even told the official that he did not have to pay back the money.  This would have been truly shocking to his listeners as indeed it is to us in this day and age.  We understand the “what’s in it for me?” attitude but this complete forgiveness is difficult to follow.  This forgiveness had carried a cost to the king.  He was now out the money that he man had stolen. 
            I said earlier that forgiveness is unnatural.  The example of this type of forgiveness requires divine intervention.  I do not believe we can forgive to this level without God in our lives.  We have to be able to give it all to God and say, “not my will but thine, O Lord!”
            True forgiveness, the kind that causes a change of heart in the person forgiving, even if it causes no change in the heart of the forgiven, is what Jesus is was demanding of his followers. 
            Seventy-seven times, that is to say, we are to forgive to the point that we can not possible keep score anymore.  We are to apply god-like forgiveness, to forgive and forget.  To seek not justice but to apply mercy is the true goal.
            Give us strength O Lord.  Amen.

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