Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Matthew 18: 21-35)
Two sisters are sitting in the corner of the kitchen. They’ve been asked to stay there until they cool down a bit. Arms crossed, faces sullen, bottom lips protruding. They are not happy. Neither is their father. He stands in front of them, wondering when his daughters are going to end the bickering and fighting that’s taken up most of their day.
He pulls up a chair and sits in front of them. He chooses his words carefully. “Okay, let’s try this again. I want to know what happened, and I want to know why.” It seems like a reasonable enough request; a thoughtful, civilized conversation.
It is not what he gets. The youngest pipes up first. “She hit me! For no reason at all!”
“Hey,” her older sister counters, “I wouldn’t have hit you if you hadn’t pulled my hair!”
“I didn’t pull your hair! You’re making that up! You’re the one who called me names in front of my friends!”
“I can’t help it if you’re a loser! I wish you’d stop hanging around me all the time!”
“You’re a big jerk!”
“Well, you’re a pain in the neck!”
Their father raises his hand for them to stop. “Okay, I see that’s not going to work. So let’s try something different. I want you to forgive each other.”
“Forgive her?!? You’ve got to be kidding!”
“Yeah, you can’t be serious!”
“Well, I am,” their father says. “I want you to tell each other that you’re sorry, and then I want you to accept that apology. And then I want you to forget this and move on. Do that, and we’re going to have a great time at the party this afternoon. Don’t, and, well, it’s going to be a long afternoon hanging out in your rooms alone.”
He waits. And waits some more. He looks for a sign of progress – nothing. Neither of his daughters take the first step. And when their father thinks about it later, he realizes that he asked his two girls to do a hard, hard thing; something that does not come naturally to most humans. He was asking them to forgive.
Why is it so hard to forgive, do you think? Cause it’s not just kids who struggle with it. We all do. Why is it so hard? Is it pride? Selfishness? A sense that forgiveness means defeat? Whatever it is, forgiveness does not come easy, no matter how many times we’re faced with it. A good friend goes behind our back and undermines us. Hurtful words are said to a spouse in an argument. We place our trust in someone, only to have that trust and ourselves taken advantage of. We are dealt with unjustly and wrongly. You take an average week – seven days in your walk of life – and chances are you’ll find yourself in a handful of situations where some level of forgiveness is at stake.
And the thing is, Jesus knew this would be hard; because, like us, he was human himself. Perhaps that’s why he talked about it a good bit, such as our passage today.
Peter comes to Jesus, we are told, and asks him a question that, frankly, only Peter would. And in answering, Jesus instructs Peter to forgive someone not just seven times – which Peter thought was pretty generous – but seventy-seven times. Or is it seventy times seven? We’re not sure. The Greek can be read either way. Which is to say, the exact number is not the important thing.
From there Jesus launches into a parable, which suggests he feels further explanation is needed. A king forgives the debt of one of his servants, a debt which amounts to 10,000 talents. It’s worth mentioning here that a single talent equaled more than fifteen years of a typical laborer’s wage. Which means the king is forgiving a debt that amounts to an annual salary over 150,000 years! And you thought your mortgage was high!
But like Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question earlier, the actual amount is not important. These are ridiculous numbers – I mean, who would actually bother counting up 77 or 490 acts of forgiveness? And who could possibly hold someone accountable for a debt over 150 millennia? The point Jesus makes here is this: there is no way one can measure forgiveness. It is not something that can be quantified.
Our acts of forgiveness should happen like this, Jesus says. They should be indiscriminate and without conditions. They should not have limits placed on them. And here’s a key point – Jesus calls us to open our hearts and minds to see the bigger picture of forgiveness. Because forgiveness is not just about something that happens between us and someone else. It also has a great deal to do with what very well may be the hardest kind of forgiving. A kind of forgiving that we often overlook or just don’t pay enough attention to. The hardest kind of forgiving, when you get right down to it, is not forgiving others. It’s forgiving ourselves.
Would you agree? Not that forgiving others is an easy thing, but forgiving ourselves – well, that’s complicated, is it not? And why is that, do you think? Is it too obvious – it’s right in front of us, and we just don’t think about it? Or is it because it’s not obvious enough? You know, we raise our children to remember to always forgive other people; it’s something we teach in Sunday school, it’s talked about on Sesame Street. But somewhere along the line we’ve created a disconnect when it comes to the breadth and depth of forgiveness. We preach and teach that it is God who forgives – and that’s true, of course. But is it really possible to ask and expect something of God that we have not already done for ourselves?
The predicament of forgiving ourselves goes like this: we hear God’s voice guiding us throughout our life. Some people call this our conscience. Our conscience helps discern the difference between right and wrong. Now the fact that we have this God-given gift does not mean we always make the right choices. We will make mistakes, even when we know the choices we’re making are the wrong ones. And so our conscience kicks into gear, like a captain on a ship to steer us back on track. We learn from our mistakes. We continue on our way.
But things take a turn when our conscience is twisted into something much different – and that is guilt. And it’s odd, isn’t it, how our society has sort of embraced guilt, like it’s this horrible-tasting medicine we think we’re supposed to take. We’ve managed to fashion guilt into something that’s just part of life, painful as it is. We’ve even gone to great lengths to justify guilt. It was Garrison Keillor who once famously said, “I’m not sure I’m in favor of repentance. A strong sense of personal guilt is what makes people willing to serve on church committees.”
Now personally I hope it’s a strong sense of being called by God that leads people to serve in the church! After all, when we read the gospels and pay attention to the life Jesus led, we don’t see him preaching non-self-forgiveness to get us to go along do we? No, we see him leading with love, always with love.
And so here’s the truth: guilt is not a God-given gift; in fact, guilt works against the very gift of God’s grace. Instead of inspiring us to embrace God’s goodness, guilt causes us to beat ourselves up for being someone not worthy of God. Guilt paralyzes and imprisons us. Guilt tells us we are not children of God. Guilt informs us that no matter what we do, we are hopelessly held captive to our faults. Guilt convinces us, in no uncertain terms, that we have been and always will be unforgivable.
You look out in our world today and it’s not hard to see the devastating effects of guilt; how it eats away at us, like a cancer. Our world is full of people walking this earth, bound by the shackles of guilt, living in a perpetual state of self-unforgiveness. I once heard someone refer to guilt as “self-hatred.” That’s really what it is – it’s a way we teach ourselves to hate who we are.
It is the uncomfortable voice we hear in the dark of night, when all is quiet and when doubts settle in. It says to us: You’re nobody. You’re worth nothing. How can you call yourself a good person, much less a Christian? We make it through our day, we go to our jobs and schools and run our errands; and other people – perhaps even ourselves, to a degree – are unaware of what’s brewing beneath the surface. It is, in many ways, a silent killer of the soul.
Jesus knew that guilt and self-hatred would be something all of us would have to deal with. And I wonder if that’s what he was thinking about when he said those famous words:
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me;
for I am meek and humble in heart.
And you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
And the thing that has always fascinated me about Jesus’ words here is the fact that he describes his burden as light. Light compared to ours. Which means he is indirectly suggesting that we the one we are carrying is heavier. Now think about that. Think of all that Jesus endured in his 33 years of life – and yet here he is telling us that his burden is lighter than the one we’re walking around with. Can you imagine! Why do we put ourselves through this? God does not wish for us to carry this heavy burden of ours. God does not want the guilt and self-hatred to weigh us down one minute longer. All Jesus wants is to make a trade with us – our heavy burden for his lighter one.
Last week in her wonderful sermon, Rebecca teased an upcoming sermon series we’ll be preaching beginning next Sunday that we’re calling “Let’s Get Real.” Our prayer, our hope is that this conversation will carry over into the congregation as we continue discerning the kind of church God is molding us into; the kind of church we are becoming, despite all the struggles and challenges we’ve faced, despite the sense of grief and loss we’ve felt. Over the years I’ve heard many of you, and many others, wonder out loud: what have we done to cause this? Is it our fault?
So hear me loud and clear when I say this, people of God: you have done nothing wrong. You haven’t “messed this up.” God is in the midst of doing a new thing and that new thing cannot help but unsettle the old thing. God’s got this, friends. So let go of that guilt. It is not a burden you need to bear.
Indeed, there is power in forgiveness. There is peace in letting go. There is joy in allowing ourselves to be consumed by God’s grace, a grace that is sufficient for every one of us. That’s why every Sunday, as part of our worship service, we take time to confess our sins and receive the forgiveness of God.
You know, in my youth I used to get tired of the Prayer of Confession and Words of Forgiveness. It seemed sterile and manufactured – not “real” forgiveness. But over the years, the more I’ve experienced it, the more I’ve come to understand what it’s all about: that no matter what kind of life we lead, what kind of place we work or go to school; no matter what lies in our past or in the deep recesses of our hearts, we will, at least one time during the week, hear and speak out loud those powerful words: In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven. God knows there are way too many people walking this earth who have little or no sense of that. I know people whose eyes well with tears when they hear these words. That’s how deeply God’s forgiveness touches them.
So let me remind you, siblings in Christ, of Jesus’ own words:
Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy.
And my burden is light.
May love replace self-hatred;
May grace do away with guilt.
And may our hearts and all that we are
Embrace this promise God makes to us today and every day:
Friends, believe the Good News of the Gospel:
In Jesus Christ, We are forgiven.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.