The Hard Work of Forgiveness

Recently, at home, we’ve been learning an additional verse to a well-known children’s song, Jesus Loves Me:

Sisters, brothers sing along
Mothers, fathers join the song
Jesus loves both you and me
Jesus calls us family.

Matthew 18 is the text we use in the church for governing our life together as a family.

When we hurt one another, when we have disagreements, when we need reconciliation, we remember Jesus’ instructions: that if we have something against a sister or brother, we are to go to them one on one to talk about it; and if that doesn’t work, we are to take another member or two with us to mediate; and, if that doesn’t work either, we are to call a family meeting and work it out.

So, after Jesus instructs forgiveness as a way of life for the church, Peter, almost child-like sees how far he can push the envelope. He asks, “how many time are you talking about Lord?”

And then probably feeling pretty proud of himself, he asks: “Should I forgive someone seven times?” And he has a right to feel pretty proud of himself.

Seven is a lot of times to go through the difficult process of getting together, explaining your side, listening patiently to the other side, working out what really happened from each person’s perspective, coming to some sort of agreement about what happened, and working on a consensus about how to move on together in relationship with one another. The description alone wears you out!

And Jesus says, “Not seven, but seventy-seven (or according to other ancient manuscripts: seventy times seven (or 490) acts of forgiveness).

Peter is thinking about quantity, Jesus is thinking about QUALITY.

When we think about some people whom we’ve known a long time, we might want to carry around a notepad and a pencil, and every time they do something we don’t like or do something to hurt us… we could imagine taking out that pencil and making a little mark in our book while saying “I forgive you!” and when we get to 490 marks, we could drop the pencil like a hot mic and say…PEACE OUT!!! We want to be done with it.

But what Jesus means, of course, in choosing such a large number is that we’re not supposed to count…Its not about quantity, it’s about quality.

The key to forgiveness is that when it’s over its over. Forgiveness means not bringing up the offense after its been forgiven. Forgiveness means moving on with things. Forgiveness means entering back into the relationship with trust and respect.

When Joseph’s brothers, who sold him into slavery, who robbed him of the life he was supposed to lead, who took him away from home, who separated him from his beloved father…when they ask for forgiveness, Joseph weeps and says “Don’t be afraid, I will take care of you and your children.” Joseph grants total forgiveness.

At least in part, the parable Jesus tells is about what happens if we can’t forgive.

There are consequences that are real and painful.

Jesus couches the story in the language of financial debt.

If you have ever carried significant debt – credit card debt, school loans, a mortgage, a business loan or maybe something else, you may know the stress and the burden it can cause, the feeling of anxiety you might experience knowing that you’ve made yourself vulnerable, perhaps thinking about what might happen if for some reason you can’t pay back the debt.

Most of us have experience with debt, but have almost certainly never owed the equivalent of ten-thousand talents. Its actually hard to imagine how the slave in the parable could run up such a hefty debt, since 10,000 talents is roughly equivalent to three times a person’s total lifetime salary.

So the king comes to collect the debt and asks for the repayment of this essentially unpayable debt. When the slave says he is unable to pay back 3 lifetimes worth of wages, the king announces that the consequence is the slave and his wife and children will be thrown in prison.

But the slave throws himself before the king and pleads for mercy… “somehow” he says, “I will pay you back.”

Because of the slave’s contrition, the king cancels the debt and all is forgiven with a stroke of the king’s benevolence.

If we were to be asked, without having heard the end of the story, how likely the forgiven slave might be to himself forgive a relatively small debt owed by another fellow slave, which amounted to 4 months wages, we might think we would know the answer.

We might think the forgiven slave would gaze into the eyes of his fellow slave, and see the resemblance; that he would be choked up with empathy at seeing where he had just been and do for this man the thing that had been done for him.

But he grabs the man who owes him 4 months wages by the throat and chokes him in a rage to snuff out his life, unwilling to forgive a comparability miniscule debt, after being granted his own life and the life of his family back to him.

This parable asks us the penetrating question: Have there been times, we have refused to forgive; and if so, do we really understand the mercy that God gives us in Christ?

When we think about someone who owes us, or is indebted to us, or who has hurt us, we always know that choosing forgiveness is an option. We have two choices: to forgive or to withhold forgiveness. We don’t have to do it. No one will make us. You can try to make a child forgive a friend but we know you can’t even do that.

When we choose to withhold forgiveness from someone, we do so because we think in giving forgiveness, we would be giving them something too good, something they don’t deserve. We hold our forgiveness back because we think: “they don’t deserve it.”

But we’ve fooled ourselves. When we refuse to forgive we have mistakenly imagined that it’s something they get. When we forgive, we are the primary recipients of the gift. We experience the debt released from our own heart.

We think we don’t have to give forgiveness, because we think we can ignore the problem and it will go away. But it doesn’t go away. We carry the anxiety from the broken relationships we have with people we haven’t forgiven.

It’s like the home screen of your computer when you have a lot of applications open, you might not see the ones that are buried deep, but they are there, and they are running.

Jesus is interested in what is happening in our life together, and so he’s interested in what is happening in our heart, deep within us. His teachings, his stories, his energy and focus are not directed first toward our morality, to the necessity of us keeping the laws of the scriptures, or to imparting a philosophy for life, except as these things relate to our heart.

And because he cares for us and for our heart, he wants to teach us forgiveness.

The first public words he utters are, “Repent for the kingdom of God is near.”

When his disciples ask him to teach them to pray he essentially teaches them to ask for three things: food, protection, and forgiveness.

It’s that important.

Jesus wants us to experience forgiveness. In our everyday life.

Jesus wants us to experience the forgiveness that cleanses the heart and mind so that we are open to see the present, and are not blinded by the past, so that we receive the moment that is given rather than getting stuck repaying and replaying old grudges and hurts and compiling grievances so that we miss the life going on all around us.

Jesus invites us to experience the forgiveness that changes our lives and opens door that we thought impossible.

Someone sent me a youtube video this week which profiled a musician named Daryl Davis, a rock n’ roll and blues pianist who won’t make the hall of fame, but who has played with Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Muddy Waters, and many more in the pantheon of great American musicians.

In the video, I heard the story about how Daryl Davis, who is an African-American, was playing country western music one night in 1983 in a “white” bar when a patron came up to him and said it was the first time he had “heard a black man play as well as Jerry Lee Lewis.”

Davis explained to the man, “Jerry Lee learned to play from black blues and boogie-woogie piano players and he’s a friend of mine.” The white patron was skeptical and over a drink admitted he was a member of the KKK.

The two became friends and eventually, the man gave Davis contact information on KKK leaders, which Davis used to begin writing a book, to answer the question he had always wondered of white supremacists: How can you hate me without even knowing me?

Daryl would contact KKK leaders on the phone, so that they were unaware of his race, and set up meetings and show up. Sometimes these meetings became tense, but to their surprise, Daryl just wanted to talk, to listen, to understand.

Daryl has seen knives and guns, he his experienced fists and violence, but he says that he has made friends with many of these people. Over twenty Klansman, because of their friendship with Daryl, have renounced the KKK and many have given Daryl their Klansmen robes.

When people ask Daryl how he can risk his life and where the resolve comes from to work for forgiveness and reconcilation, Davis says that its because he follows Christ and that he has used his faith as a way to connect with and convince Klansmen to leave and denounce the KKK.

Now that’s a powerful parable in its own right.

Jesus closes his parable about the king and the slaves by telling us that the forgiven slave who would not forgive is in prison, with his debt reinstated, being tortured for the rest of his life.

And Jesus leaves us to ponder these words:

“And so, my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from the heart.”

If we cannot forgive one another, if we cannot see in the face of our sister and brother someone to be respected and valued; if we cannot extend kindness and mercy to them; if we cannot work toward reconciliation, then we will all find ourselves wasting away in the dark prison of our supposed self-righteousness.

Forgiveness is hard. We could ask: Is there anything harder? But forgiveness is possible because of what God has done for us in Christ.

From the cross, straining under our sin, which has put him there, Christ thinks not of himself but asks for our forgiveness.
And because we have been forgiven, we can forgive others.
We can look into the face of our sister and brother and see the resemblance.

This person is like me: broken, sinful, worthy of God’s love, worthy of my love.

If we think the task is too much for us.

If we think we aren’t up to the challenge…

The words of “Jesus loves me” remind us, we are weak but he is strong.