Forgiveness Heals and Transforms
Matthew 18:21-35 & Genesis 50
Pastor Charles was an 83-year-old retired pastor who was preaching on forgiveness one Sunday. He shared the story of being in the McDonalds drive-thru line. The driver behind him felt he was taking too long to order. She honked and yelled and made obscene gestures. Pastor Charles confessed that he had a decision to make: offer forgiveness or seek revenge? When he reached the first window, he decided he would pay for the other driver’s meal. Sounds like a nice thing to do. But when he reached the second window, he showed both receipts and took both meals, so the other driver had to start all over at the back of the line!
It's a fun story, I have no idea if it’s true or not, but it’s a cute story about how we are faced with the choice of forgiveness or revenge—and how this pastor gave in to the temptation to take revenge instead of forgiveness.
Obviously, the story of Pastor Charles is an example of how not to respond to people when they’re mean to you. Because in the Gospel lesson today Jesus emphasizes the need to forgive. To forgive again and again and again. Peter asks Jesus if they should forgive someone who sins against them as much as seven times. Seven times is an awful lot, Peter is being very generous with that. But Jesus says no not seven, seventy-seven! That’s obviously not a literal limit but Jesus’ way of saying to forgive infinitely, without ending. Certainly this is easier said than done. But Jesus did practice what he preached, as evident especially when he forgave those who crucified him.
Now the parable Jesus tells is an important lesson about forgiveness and unforgiveness. Some may assume the king in this parable is God; others are quick to point out that we shouldn’t automatically assume that interpretation. Either way, the parable seems straightforward that if you don’t forgive others God won’t forgive you. Elsewhere in Matthew we see Jesus teach that if you don’t care for those in need God will respond that way to you. Cosmic karma like this is a theme in Matthew’s Gospel. But there’s debate about whether God holds our inability to forgive against us or if our unforgiveness is its own punishment. After all, I wouldn’t want to say that Pastor Charles is going to hell because he refused to forgive the driver behind him at the McDonalds drive-thru. And I’m hesitant to say God would hold it against someone who can’t find it in their heart to forgive someone for terribly wronging them.
I think what’s important to notice in this parable is what happens to the unforgiving slave. He is forgiven. But he refuses to forgive. And then he goes to prison. I think that image is the centerpiece of the parable as Jesus originally told it. This man refuses to forgive and ends up in prison. Perhaps what’s most relevant for us is to consider how our own unforgiveness makes us wind up in prison too. Unforgiveness locks us in a prison of our own making. Forgiveness frees us from that prison. Forgiveness liberates us from the shackles of hate and anger and spite. Forgiveness provides healing. Unforgiveness locks us in our woundedness.
The 2007 book The Shack by William Paul Young provides a wonderful example of how forgiveness frees a person from prison. The Shack is a fictional story about a man named Mack whose daughter was kidnapped and murdered. It’s a fictional story but contains many deep truths. At the beginning of the book we encounter Mack years after his daughter’s death. For years he has questioned and been angry with God. At the beginning of the book, he receives a mysterious note in the mail to return to the shack in the middle of the woods where they found the last traces of his daughter. It is mysteriously signed “Papa” the name his wife calls God. Mack journeys there by himself and encounters God the Father in the form of an African American woman. God the Son, being Jesus a Middle Eastern Jewish man. And God the Holy Spirit, who is in the form of an Asian woman.
The book relates the experiences Mack has and the lessons he learns during a weekend at the shack. On the final morning of his time there, God the Father takes the form of a Native American man and guides him up a mountain to show him where his daughter’s body is found. Papa tells Mack to forgive the murderer. That healing lies in forgiveness. Mack says that that’s impossible, but Papa encourages him to try. And when Mack finally whispers “I forgive you” through gritted teeth, he doesn’t feel any different or any weight off his shoulders. But Papa says it won’t all happen at once. It takes months of saying “I forgive you” every day until he’ll really feel it, but eventually it will come, and Mack will find the forgiveness he’s been looking for.
I pray none of us ever has to deal with forgiving someone for such a terrible thing as Mack experienced. But there are real life examples of people forgiving great evils done to them. We may recall the families of the Emanuel Nine, those nine African American Christians killed by a white supremacist at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in South Carolina. At court the families and survivors spoke directly to the murderer who was on video from prison. They expressed their grief, sadness, and anger, but also did the unthinkable and told him they forgive him and that they were praying for him and asking God to have mercy on his soul.
And then there is the man who shot and killed Amish school children and then killed himself in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The Amish community showed up at his funeral to mourn with the family and sought to console the murderer’s parents while they were still grieving themselves.
The examples of the AME and Amish churches show us real life examples of the power of forgiveness. Forgiveness didn’t heal their grief and sadness, but it did allow them to let go of hate. And maybe that’s what it means to be freed from prison. By offering forgiveness they ensured that hate was not responded to with more hate. They responded to hate not with hate, or to evil with evil, but they responded with love and forgiveness. When we respond to sin with love and forgiveness, we take away its power in the world. That’s how we stop sin and evil from circling round and round in the world. We refuse to transfer it to the next person. We suffer the effects of sin and refuse to pass it on, refuse to add fuel to the fire.
And that’s exactly what Jesus did on a cosmic level, on the cross. On the cross, Christ bore the sin of the world and accepted it totally. He did not respond to hate and evil and sin with more hate and evil and sin. Instead, Jesus Christ took all the hate and evil and sin of the world and suffered its full consequences, and responded only with forgiveness and love.
Doing the same, on our own individual level, is the life of discipleship Jesus calls us to. It is the incredible forgiveness shown by his followers at the AME church in South Carolina and the Amish school in Pennsylvania. Forgiveness from Christians who understood that when we forgive, we help heal the world.
And even when we can’t forgive fully, we know that we are on our own healing journey. If we follow God’s guidance and desire to forgive, healing and forgiveness will come in time. The forgiveness we receive from God has a way of transforming us into forgiving people ourselves. Just as receiving God’s love transforms us into loving people, so does receiving God’s forgiveness transform us into forgiving people.
So whether it’s somebody beeping at you in the McDonald’s drive-thru or somebody committing an unthinkable act of evil against your loved ones, let us take the call to practice forgiveness seriously. To carry that way of being in all we do. Life gives us plenty of opportunity to practice forgiveness. And with God’s help, let us forgive as we have been forgiven. Not imprisoning ourselves in hatred and anger, but forgiving others as God has first forgiven us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian, September 17th, 2023