Seeing the looks of shock on the disciples’ faces Jesus decides to try a story to explain his point. So he describes a servant who somehow has managed to rack up a huge debt with the king – a hundred thousand dollars worth of debt. When he can’t pay it back the king is ready to auction off this servant at the slave market and not only the servant but his wife and children too. The poor wretch throws himself at the king’s feet and begs for a chance to pay the debt back. Heaven knows, he would have to work several lifetimes to pay back this debt. But the king, touched by this plea mercifully goes above and beyond the request and erases the whole debt.
Just minutes later this same servant confronts a fellow servant who owes him money – no-where near the amount of his own debt – just a mere ten dollars. So what does he do? He seizes the poor fellow by the throat and demands immediate pay back. And when this poor wretch also falls down and begs for a chance to repay – the first servant refuses and has the man arrested. When the king gets wind of this he is furious with the first servant. He says, “I forgave your entire debt when you begged for mercy. Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked you for mercy?” And with that the servant is thrown into jail and his debt is reinstated. As Jesus concludes this story he warns the disciples – “And that is exactly what God will do to each of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.”
Well – I guess that gets the point across – Jesus is really serious about the need for forgiveness. So – all we need to do now is go about our lives being a forgiving sort of people – right? Except for one little problem – forgiving others can be a pretty hard thing to do. Let’s make this a bit more personal. I want you think about someone who has injured you in some way – it may be a tangible sort of injury – something that has cost – or it may be a more intangible injury –something that created hurt inside. If you are fortunate enough not to have any current example think back a ways – I am guessing you will come up with something.
Okay – now let’s look at the things that get in the way of forgiveness. High up on the list is that we don’t seem to have the means to deal effectively with emotions such as hurt and anger. Instead these emotions can, at times, dominate us and paralyze our wills and in the end leave us with a sense of helplessness that prolongs the original harm. You know what this feels like it -- these emotions relentlessly swirling around inside of us becoming more toxic and dangerous making forgiveness seem next to impossible.
Another major obstacle to forgiveness is our need and desire to be right. Forgiveness asks us to value the relationship over being right. But let’s face it often we possess a strong dose of self-righteousness that demands some form of judgment before forgiveness will be granted. We tend to believe that only punishment will balance things out, make up for past wrongs and restore things to where they were. The truth of the matter is – we don’t much like the indiscriminate and extravagant forgiveness that God spreads around when retribution feels so much better.
Or maybe the problem is that we have forgotten what it is like to be forgiven. If we can remember a wrong we have committed and what it felt like to have another genuinely forgive us – how could we deprive anyone else of this same experience? Think about what it means to have someone willing to wipe the slate clean – to give you another chance even when you have done nothing to deserve it. If we can hold on to that experience how much easier it might be to make such a gift to another.
Sometimes there are particular circumstances and situations that make it really challenging for us to forgive. The difficulty may arise out of the wrong that was committed – some offenses are especially heinous and abusive. Or there may be an absence of apology itself. Or we may assume that forgiveness will simply encourage the same behavior again. In such cases why would we want to forgive? Well – then we forgive for our own sake – so that we can be released from the bondage of our emotions and get on with our lives.
In the broadest sense forgiveness is about letting go of the hope that the past can be changed. Let me repeat that – forgiveness is about letting go of the hope that the past can be changed. We forgive as a way of letting go of our investment in the past so that we can turn to the future. We let go of our need to control the other. We let go of the emotions that are controlling us. We let go of our sense of righteousness. We let go of all of this stuff that anchors us to some past reality. We let go so that something new can happen in our world. Forgiveness is ultimately not about the past. Forgiveness builds the future. And because of this forgiveness is always a daring and risky act.
So – how do we do what Jesus asks us to do? How do we forgive seven times seventy? How do we become a forgiving people? We forgive not because we are compelled to – not out of some duty – but because we have the freedom to – the choice is ours. We forgive because we trust that God’s love is working within us providing not only the desire but also the courage we need. We forgive because we are invited to share in God’s strength to make this possible. We forgive because we ourselves have been transformed by the abundantly generous love and forgiveness of God. We are willing to risk responding to God’s love with love and forgiveness of our own. In the end, Jesus’ message of forgiveness is calling us to change our minds – to gain a different perspective – to see God differently – to see ourselves differently – and to see the future differently. Forgiveness is not about a restoration of the past. Rather forgiveness gives us the breathing room we need to live and grow into the future – to enter a new and joy filled place God so wants to provide.