“FORGIVE ONE ANOTHER”

EPHESIANS 4:32; MATTHEW 18:21-35

 

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            The Christian writer, Simon Schrock, had an unforgiving cat.  Her name was Fluff.  She was yellow and white, and when Schrock’s children were small, Fluff was an ideal pet.  His two-year-old could hold him, handle him, drag him around like no one else in the family seemed to do.  The entire family enjoyed Fluff, until Fluff had a bad experience and wasn’t willing to forgive the Schrocks.

            It happened while they were pouring concrete.  Fluff got into the wet, slopping mixture, and anyone knows a nice cat shouldn’t have concrete dry and harden on itself.  So, Schrock’s wife, out of good intentions, proceeded to give Fluff a bath.  Fluff did not take to the idea.  He threw a fit in order to avoid being submerged in the water.  His opposition was so great that he expressed it with a loud scream.  Since he was just a cat, the family expected he would get over it, but he didn’t.  He never forgave the Schrock family for the bath. 

            They discovered this unforgiving attitude when they tried to get him to purr.  Prior to the bath, Fluff was a world-class “purrer,” but after the bath he wouldn’t purr even when the rubbed his ears and stroked his fur forwards and backwards.  He was different in other ways as well.  He wouldn’t let their son handle him as before.  He was not as pleasant to have around.  He wanted to have things his own way.  His unforgiveness for the bath made him into an undesirable and suspicious cat.

            Schrock summarized the situation with these words,

 

            Fluff never got over his problem.  He seemed to nurture his grudge all his life.  He failed to become the nice cat he was before.  So we just endured life together ... His contrary ways remind me too much of some Christians I have met.  They can’t really forgive.  They have lost their purr, their song for Jesus.  They are suspicious of others ... They become grouchy and unpleasant.   Life becomes one big drag.

 

            Some of us this morning may have lost our “purr,” our song for Jesus because forgiveness does not come easily.  Some of us may even go to our graves with hurts, slights, offenses still burning in our belly.  Yet, forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian faith.  Jesus not only cried out, “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they do,” but also the Apostle Paul instructed us to be forgiving people.  To his little congregation in Ephesus he penned these words:  “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

            Forgiveness is such an important element of faith that biblical authors use six different words for it, three Hebrew and three Greek, to express the nuances of forgiveness.  And an interesting fact, at least to me, of the 122 verses that contain the word “forgive” only eighteen percent deal with person-to-person or “horizontal” forgiveness.  The rest, eighty-two percent of occurrences of the word “forgive” in the bible, all deal with “vertical” forgiveness, of God forgiving people.  The point of all this?  Well, given the percentages, eighty-two percent “vertical” to eighteen percent “horizontal,” God’s forgiveness seems to go ahead of, and make possible, “horizontal” forgiveness.

            That certainly is the point Jesus drives home in “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.”  An innocent conversation prompted the parable.  Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?”  One suspects what may have been behind Peter’s question.  After all, it can’t have been easy being one of the first disciples.  One day you were holding down a steady job with a family and a roof over your head, the next you were out on the open road following a teacher named Jesus.  One day you had a steady circle of friends and neighbors, the next you were part of a group of guys which included everyone from a tax collector to a former terrorist.  And OK, while you didn’t have problems with Jesus, surely the other people around you sometimes rubbed you the wrong way, or didn’t share your point of view, or borrowed something that was yours.  So, it’s little surprise that after several months of traveling around, Peter comes up to Jesus and asks, “How many times should I forgive one who sins against me?  Seven times?”

            It’s the kind of question we have all asked from time to time - when our friend or colleague fails to pay back the money we lent them, or our neighbor’s dog does his business on our lawn once again, or our nearest and dearest fails to put his socks in the hamper.  Knowing how far to forgive, well, who hasn’t wrestled with that question?   Furthermore, Peter was actually being magnanimous suggesting seven times, because the going rate was three times.  The Jews instructed people to forgive once, forgive twice, and a third time, but from then on, forget it.  Peter, however, doubled the going rate, and added another for good measure.  Surely, his magnanimous standard of “seven” would more than suffice.

            So what, then, does Jesus say in reply to Peter’s question about forgiveness?  Jesus says, “No, old boy, not seven but seventy-seven times.”  And just in case Peter was still unclear what he meant by this, Jesus goes on to tell a very simple, but very powerful story.

            He said that there were three children playing a game of Monopoly, named Tom, Dick and Harry.  One of the players, Tom, was clearly winning, and had managed to build hotels on the two most expensive properties, Park Place and Boardwalk.  In the end, as always happens in Monopoly, one of the other players landed on Park Place and couldn’t pay up.  But the first player was in a generous mood and didn’t want the game to finish just yet.  He said, “That’s OK.  We’ll let this one go.” 

            “That’s great.  Thanks.” said the second player, let’s call him Dick. “I can live with that.”

            But the very next to go, the third player, Harry, lands on the cheapest property on the board owned by Dick.  And although Harry only owed Dick a measly twenty dollars, he couldn’t afford to pay him back.  “That’s it,” says Dick.  “You’re out of the game!”  And, of course, that’s when the argument started.  After all, if Tom had let Dick get away with landing on Park Place shouldn’t Dick have let Harry get away with landing on Baltic Ave? 

            Of course, Jesus didn’t tell the story exactly like this, but the main point is the same.  There is someone we owe a large debt, and it’s not a player in a monopoly game, or the bank who issued our credit card, or even the IRS.  The one to whom we owe a huge amount is God. 

            And when Jesus says to Peter you must be willing to forgive “seventy-seven times” or “seventy times seven,” which ever your translation might read, he wasn’t intending us to start counting until the other person has committed offense number seventy-eight or number four ninety-one.  What Jesus means is that when somebody else has wronged you, you ought to keep on forgiving more than you think reasonable.  Because that is how much God has forgiven us.  And the acid test of whether we have really understood what it means to have integrated what Christ has done for us on the cross does not lie in saying the right words on Sunday morning.  No, it’s the way we react when someone cuts us off in traffic, or when the person we lent $10 to on Friday doesn’t repay us on Monday as promised, or when our nearest and dearest leaves his dirty socks on the floor once again.

            You see, the simple truth is, we are more like the servant in the parable than we care to admit.  We leave church assured of our sins being forgiven, maybe even with a fresh sense of God’s presence with us, and it’s not too long, maybe as soon as on the way home from church we get cross, angry, bothered with the first person who upsets us. 

            So, given the fact that we have been forgiven much, and given the fact that forgiveness is not an elective in Christianity, but rather a required course, what’s our problem?  What gets in the way of our being forgiving people?

            Well, maybe it’s confusing forgiveness with reconciliation.  Of course, forgiveness may lead to reconciliation, but it is not reconciliation.  For example, whether Elin forgives Tiger is a different issue than whether she accepts him back as her husband. 

            Or maybe it’s thinking that forgiving is forgetting.  It’s not, but maybe we think “I’m can’t forgive because I can’t forget,” but forgetting is not a realistic or a desirable goal.  Listen to these words from Charlotte Witvliet, an associate professor of psychology at a Christian school, Hope College.  She says,

 

            Despite the familiar cliche, 'forgive and forget,' most of us find forgetting nearly impossible.  Forgiveness does not involve a literal forgetting.  Forgiveness involves remembering graciously.  The forgiver remembers the true though painful parts, but without the embellishment of angry adjectives and adverbs that stir up contempt.

 

            I know this is difficult to imagine, but there is something I do that drives Trudy crazy.  You see, as difficult as this is to imagine, I can be somewhat inflexible, especially if it involves a change in plans.  And Trudy remembers those inflexible times, but she doesn’t remember them with angry adjectives and adverbs that stir up contempt. 

            I also think of the woman who was physically abused by her father.  She has forgiven him for that, but she has not forgotten what he did.  She has a couple of daughters and she keeps them at arms length from him.  She would be foolish to forget what he had done to her, thus putting her own children at risk.

            Or maybe what gets in the way of our forgiving others is the lack of knowledge of what it does for us, let alone them.  In a 2001 study, the researchers monitored the physiological responses of 71 college students as they either dwelled on injustices done to them, or imagined themselves forgiving the offenders.

            When focused on unforgiving responses, their blood pressure surged, their heart rates increased, brow muscles tensed, and negative feelings escalated.  By contrast, forgiving responses induced calmer feelings and physical responses.  In other words harboring not forgiving comes at an emotional and a physiological cost.  Cultivating forgiveness cuts these costs.

            Or maybe we simply forget that this is not a suggestion, it is a command.  The Apostle Paul instructed us in his letter to the Ephesians, “Forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.”  He did not say, “If you feel like it, forgive one another.”  He did not say, “If you think of it, forgive one another.”  No, he said, “Forgive one another, as God has forgiven you.”  And how has God forgiven us?  Graciously.  Extravagantly.  Abundantly.

            In fact, forgiving is so important Jesus included it in the Disciples’  Prayer.  If you were here last Sunday you know that I’ve started a campaign to change the name of the traditional Lord’s Prayer to the Disciples’ Prayer, and make the Lord’s Prayer what Jesus prayed in John 17, but I’m getting nowhere fast with this, but nonetheless, Jesus felt this was so important to our well being and our relationship with God, that he included in the Disciples’ Prayer, also known as the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  He tied our vertical forgiveness to how well we practice horizontal forgiveness.

            A great preacher from a century or so ago, Harry Emerson Fosdick, tells of the time when he was a little boy, and he overheard a conversation between his father and mother at the breakfast table.  He heard his dad say, “Tell Harry he can mow the grass today if he feels like it.”  As his Father left for work, he heard him call back to his mother, “And tell Harry he better feel like it.”

            Forgiveness is not a feeling, it is a command.  It is not an elective course in Christianity, it is a required course. 

            “Forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.”  Amen.