We are always on the lookout for ways to make life easier. And it has always been that way. There is a reason the wheel caught on. There is a reason that farmers use tractors instead of horses. There is a reason we have microwave ovens. There is a reason we carry cell phones. There is a reason we like indoor plumbing and air conditioning and drive-through lanes. It’s nice to sit in a recliners – or better yet, a power recliner. We want life to be easy.
But some things just refuse to cooperate. There are those things in life that are just plain hard. Our scriptures today deal with one of the hardest things around: forgiveness. Forgiveness is never easy.
Our Old Testament scripture is from the last chapter of Genesis, near the conclusion of the story of Joseph and his brothers, the children of Jacob.
A few weeks ago, we looked at an overview of Joseph’s life. Joseph was the favorite son, showered with gifts by his father and resented by the other brothers. They had finally sold him as a slave into Egypt and told their father that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal. In Egypt, Joseph is very much alive but languishing in a prison cell, accused and convicted of a crime he did not commit.
But that was then. Now Joseph was the one holding all the cards. Now he was powerful – as powerful as anyone in all of Egypt, save for Pharoah himself. In a time of famine, his family had come to Egypt searching for food, and Joseph himself was in charge of all the stores of grain. He had in fact toyed with his brothers – he had his own silver cup placed in youngest brother Benjamin’s grain sack and then accused him of theft. He had power of life and death over them – and they did not even know he was their brother.
In the end Joseph broke down and wept and embraced his brothers. He sent for his father and brought his whole family to Egypt, to a place of plenty, a place of safety and security.
But now Jacob was dead. The patriarch was gone. If Joseph had been biding his time until Jacob was gone, now was his chance for retribution. He had the opportunity and the power to avenge himself. And what’s more, he had the right. There was nothing to stop him. His brothers knew it. They expected it. They deserved it. And they came before Joseph in fear, begging for mercy.
But Joseph said to them that what they had meant for harm, God had used for good. And he forgave them and embraced them.
We all know folks who have been estranged from family members. We are all acquainted with families that cannot get along, where family members have been badly hurt, where deep grudges are held. This may happen in our own families. The hurt can be so deep, so painful when caused by someone in our own family. And we all know of situations where reconciliation seems completely out of the question.
But imagine a family where brothers sell one of their own into slavery in a foreign land, a place where this brother sits in prison. How could there possibly be any hope for such a family? Forgiveness can be exceedingly difficult.
And then we have Peter. Jesus had just talked to his disciples about how to deal with conflict in the church, and perhaps this spurred Peter’s question, “How much should we forgive? As many as seven times?” Peter thought he was being pretty magnanimous. Once you’ve been burned a couple of times, you learn. Forgiving two or three times is pretty impressive. But Peter asks, how about seven times? After forgiving seven times, then can I stop forgiving? I’m trying to be generous, Jesus, but we have to draw the line somewhere.
Jesus says, no, not seven, but seventy-seven. Some manuscripts have this as “seventy times seven.” But it doesn’t matter. Jesus’ point is that there is no line. There is no limit. We are to just keep on forgiving.
And then to reinforce what he was saying, Jesus tells this story. A king was settling accounts with his servants, and one person was found to owe ten thousand talents. It is a huge amount, equal to many years’ worth of wages.
How he accumulated such debt we do not know, but this is clearly beyond his ability to repay. He begs and pleads with the king and promises to repay everything - which he certainly cannot do - and the king mercifully decides that he will forgive the debt. An enormous amount, just written off as bad debt. It is an incredible act of grace.
What a relief to this servant! How thankful he must have been! Except that, he runs into a colleague who owes him money - 100 denarii. This was not an inconsequential amount of money, except that compared to his own debt that had just been canceled, it was a mere drop in the bucket. But the one who had just been forgiven a million dollars refuses to pass on the forgiveness and demands his thousand bucks right then and there. He ignores the pleas for patience and has the man thrown into debtor’s prison.
Reading this story, I am aghast at this man’s lack of mercy. What really galls us is the hypocrisy of it all. How could someone forgiven so much not be generous? How could he not forgive someone else? We want this guy to get what he deserves, and he does: the king has him thrown in prison to be tortured until he can pay his debt, which of course he never will.
Did you notice what has happened? The forgiveness of the king was short-lived, and we have all been roped into being unforgiving as well. At first, we were on the side of the servant who owed the great amount, but as soon as he turned out to be a jerk, we wanted the forgiveness rescinded, and we were glad when he was punished.
We are left with these terrifying words that Matthew attributes to Jesus: “So my heavenly father will do to every one of you if you do not forgive in your heart.”
That’s enough to make the most ardent biblical literalist do some tap dancing, because we know that forgiveness is no small thing. And really, this is not at all in the character of Jesus – who lived a life of grace and offers us forgiveness. Threats of torture for not being forgiving really don’t seem Jesus’ style. I mean, so much for seventy-seven times, let alone 70 times 7.
Matthew interprets this story as an allegory – the king represents God. And looking at it this way, we are certainly impressed with how important forgiveness is. But is God really like this king?
I think that we are better off thinking of the story as a parable – a story for us to chew on. And the point is not so much about God but rather about our shocking lack of forgiveness. We, who have been forgiven so much, are slow to forgive others.
Well, as I said, it is hard. Really hard. Why? Well, we have to put aside our need for power – the power of being right, the power of punishing for pain afflicted, the power of revenge. Forgiving another means setting these aside and being vulnerable. And forgiveness is hard because it is unnatural. It goes against our human instinct. It goes against our every emotional impulse.
Forgiveness is hard because we have so few models of real forgiveness. In our daily lives, where do we see it? Where do we see it at work or at school? Where do we see forgiveness in public discourse? Where do we see it in our families? We can think of a few examples – but not many.
Tom Long told about a preaching class he taught. He announced that there was going to be a test. The class looked at him apprehensively – they had not been expecting this. There would not be a grade on the test, he told them, but it was an important test nonetheless. It involved being given a list of theological words and students writing about how they had experienced these concepts in a personal way. If preaching means making such ideas real and understandable, Long told the class, then students needed to be able to articulate what these things meant to them.
The first word was hope. They wrote away about hoping for a baby to be born, they wrote about high hopes for their children, about standing at a bedside and praying hopefully for healing, about standing at a graveside and hoping for joy to rise from sorrow. They knew about hope.
The next word was faith. Again, the pens got to writing. They had chosen a life of ministry, after all. Many had left careers to come to seminary. They had trusted God’s voice and followed. They knew about faith.
The next word was forgiveness. Long said that the pens stopped writing. When students did write, it was about fairly trivial things. A mother forgiving a child over a broken vase, a high school teacher not holding a bad test score against a student, things like that. They were preparing to preach a gospel rooted in forgiveness, but they did not have a lot of concrete examples of forgiveness in real life. They had not experienced much of it for themselves.
To be honest, deep forgiveness is not so common. Now, failing to forgive may be human. Holding on to the hurt may be natural. But in refusing to forgive, in holding on to the pain, we are only hurting ourselves. Anne LaMotte wrote that refusing to forgive is like “drinking rat poison, and then waiting for the rat to die.”
Barbara Brockoff told about a neighbor who had a sign in his front yard for many years. The sign sat on a pile of dark, ugly sheets of aluminum. The sign was lighted at night and could be read from a distance. It read, “This Alcoa aluminum with a 30-year guarantee is no good.”
The house was newly painted, the lawn was mowed, there were beautiful flowers in bloom. It was an otherwise lovely home, but its beauty was marred by this ugly sign. Apparently, the owner had a bad experience and used this sign to get even. But who was really being hurt by this grudge?
Forgiveness is hard. Even when we become victims of our own lack of forgiveness, it is still hard. And sometimes the person we have the hardest time forgiving is ourselves. Sometimes we are willing to offer grace to others, but cannot forgive ourselves.
Forgiveness may be more than just hard. There is a sense in which it is downright impossible.
Nearly every Sunday we pray to God, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” As if we can forgive the way God forgives. As if we are even in the same league.
“Forgive one another,” we are told, as if by a sheer act of will we can get past the deep pain we have experienced, as though we can just change our heart by a decision of our mind. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t work that way.
The Bible frequently asks us to do things that we really can’t do. Love your enemies. Bless those who persecute you. Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. Pray without ceasing. Forgive one another as I have forgiven you.
To forgive another – to truly, deeply, completely forgive – can be an impossible task. But maybe we need to look at forgiveness in another way.
Timothy Haut, a pastor colleague in Connecticut, wrote:
Forgiveness is something we cannot just do as a technique to make us better than we were, to heal an old hurt, or to free us from a corrupting power that diminishes us. Of course, forgiveness helps us in all those ways. But forgiveness seems to mean that I willingly dip my heart into the fountain of God's love so that I may be a channel of that love, and if I am observant and patient, I see miracles. Grace, joy, wonder, healing--all these things start to happen in me and in the other, too.Forgiveness then is not simply something we decide to do, but it is a process that grows out of our own experience of God’s love. It is not so much our decision but a gift from God. It’s not so much that we grant forgiveness but we participate in God’s forgiveness. Forgiveness in the New Testament sense is not a quick or superficial event. It is about a deep healing, a repair of broken relationships, a removal of the poison that destroys love and community, a restoration of wholeness and trust – and this can come only from God. It is beyond our power.
You probably recall the terrible shooting at an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania several years ago. Several school children were killed and the shooter then took his own life. What was most amazing was the response of the Amish community. They forgave the troubled young man who had committed this horrible crime. Members of the Amish community attended his funeral. Money that came in was shared with the family of the shooter. They understood that his family had suffered loss just as they had.
It was a powerful witness to their faith. But you have to wonder: can you really have instant forgiveness for a loss so deep? Can you really forgive someone on the same day that he killed your child? I don’t think you can. You can’t really forgive when you haven’t even experienced the pain yet, and this is a pain they will always have with them. I don’t think you can really, truly forgive just like that. But what they did was to align themselves on the side of forgiveness. We cannot ourselves create forgiveness, but we can participate in God’s forgiveness.
Tom Long wrote,
Genuine forgiveness takes time; indeed, it takes more time than we have. There are not enough days in a human life for all the pain to be healed; there are not enough years in history for all the wrongs to be righted. Only in God who is eternal, only in Jesus Christ who is “the same yesterday and today and forever,” is there enough time. God has time for human restoration; God takes time to make peace with humanity. In God’s eternal time, all the wounds have been healed and all of the restless, vengeful spite of human harm has been transformed into reconciliation and peace.Forgiveness is required of us. And true forgiveness is impossible for us. But thankfully, with God, all things are possible. Amen.