Sunday the 17th of September
Matthew 18: 21-35
If there is one thing that is difficult to talk about within the Christian church it is the word ‘forgiveness’. When it comes to forgiving others, it is often deeply personal, and because the hurts we receive from others’ sin can affect us so deeply, it can be hard to speak about. We know that we should forgive; in fact, we know that Jesus tells us to, but that does not mean that it is easy to do.
In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew Chapter 18, Peter asks this question of Jesus: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Have you ever wondered why Peter asked this question of Jesus? It strikes me that Peter was asking Jesus here for a boundary line. So that, when someone sinned against him for the eighth time, he would be justified in not forgiving them. In Peter’s mind, and perhaps in ours too, there has to be a limit to how many times we should forgive someone who sins against us.
Jesus’ response to Peter, I suspect, does not give him, or us, a satisfactory answer to the question. The parable that Jesus gives, however, points to the real issue: the problem is not about numbers, it is not about how many times or how often we should forgive. The real issue is that there is never a time in our lives and in our relationships, where forgiveness is not required. This is the point. Forgiveness comes with being disciples of Jesus. It is a constant. It is not an option. It is not a choice. And this is what makes it so difficult because we want it to be a choice. I believe that this is at the heart of Peter’s question to Jesus.
When we talk about forgiveness it usually brings to mind those who we know who have hurt us and our reluctance to forgive them. It also can bring about questions like: what about those wrongs which are unforgivable? And there are many. Or perhaps it causes us to be unsure what to do with these situations. But the purpose of the parable of the unforgiving servant is not so much to get us to think about the sins of others, but rather to see that forgiveness begins with us. Jesus is challenging us to think again about the purpose of forgiveness, not in others’ lives, but in my life – to see when I need it, when I give it, when I hold back; to ask myself the hard questions.
God has forgiven us so much, he has poured out his grace on us through Jesus, in a way that is incomprehensible, by taking all our sins upon himself. How then are we going to respond to those who sin against us? This is a very difficult question to answer at times, but the point is that it is hard, almost impossible at times.
Forgiveness challenges us. We live in a society that likes to have its boundaries. It likes to have things in their right places, likes to know where the limits are. And too often we are like this in our relationships with each other as well. We like knowing how much we have to give and what we will get in return. In other words, we want to know what’s in it for me. And forgiveness can at times be no different. Why should I forgive this person? What’s in it for me? Often when we are hurt we may look for controls and limitations when it comes to forgiveness. And yet somewhere here, it seems to me anyway, there is a deep sense of irony. Because in most of life we want freedom, choice, autonomy to do as we please, we don’t always like having limitations. Yet why is it different when it comes to forgiveness?
By telling the parable of the unjust servant, Jesus makes the point to Peter, and to us, that firstly forgiveness starts with our relationship with our Heavenly Father. It starts with his forgiveness of us and what that means. As much as we place controls over when and where and why we forgive others, we first must recognise and receive our own forgiveness from the Lord.
In one of Martin Luther’s sermons on this reading, he applies it to the church. He said, “In this Christian church, he daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.” Notice what Luther was saying here. Our Lord forgives my sins, but also the sins of all believers. Luther goes on to challenge people in how they see themselves. Do we see ourselves as a Christian community of forgiven sinners?
In ourselves, we know that we are sinful people. Often our sins can even burden our consciences. We know all too well and have felt all too often the weight of our own unworthiness of forgiveness; many times I believe this is what keeps people away from the church. They are aware of their own sins and struggle to believe that God would forgive them. If this is true then how can we possibly declare it for others?
But this is why we need to hear and speak about it. As a Christian community, we are all called here to this place because we have the freedom that comes from being forgiven freely through Jesus. This is the Gospel, the good news. This is something that most Christians know, but I wonder if it is spoken about. The world around us has this image of Christians as being those who preach about morals and law and doing the right thing. Preaching about how sinful we all are and that we need to stop sinning against God. This is all true, but if we do this without the gospel it becomes a barrier.
In order for Peter to understand how misguided his question was he had to understand the gospel. In other words, Peter needed to identify himself as the unjust servant, the one who had been forgiven so much and got what he did not deserve, which was mercy and grace from his Heavenly Father. We too need to identify ourselves with him and think about how we will respond.
Over the years of being a counsellor and now a pastor, I have seen many times when forgiveness is extremely difficult for people. And many people feel very condemned by Jesus’ words: 35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” If forgiving someone is hard for you, I offer you the following encouragement.
Firstly, Jesus is the one who forgives, and he is the only one who forgives all sins. There are times when it is okay to say to him, “I can’t do this; I need you to help me forgive.” The reality is that there are times when our Lord has to help us, but in order for him to help, we have to have willing hearts. Forgiveness is about letting go, and sometimes we need to let go so the Lord can help us do as he commands.
Secondly, I encourage you to come to the Lord’s Table. It is here that he gives us himself. He gives us his body and his blood to strengthen us. When we come to the altar we don’t come to give, but we come to receive. In my pastoral visits where I take out my home communion set, I have often had the chance to speak of how in Holy Communion it’s not just our own sins that are healed, but we also receive healing from the effects of sin that others have caused us. This is the one place where Jesus promises to give us healing in body and soul. If you have trouble forgiving, rely on the one who forgives you to help you.
Forgiveness is something that is hard to talk about, but we need to encourage each other with. Because as Jesus’ disciples, forgiveness is not an optional extra, it is something that he commands us to do. I would encourage you all to see yourselves as belonging to this church community of forgiven sinners because that is what we all are. I also encourage you to extend this forgiveness that we have so greatly received from our Heavenly Father to each other.