21 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?”
22 Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times. 23 Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle accounts, they brought to him a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold. 25 Because the servant didn’t have enough to pay it back, the master ordered that he should be sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, and that the proceeds should be used as payment. 26 But the servant fell down, kneeled before him, and said, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ 27 The master had compassion on that servant, released him, and forgave the loan.
28 “When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred coins. He grabbed him around the throat and said, ‘Pay me back what you owe me.’
29 “Then his fellow servant fell down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ 30 But he refused. Instead, he threw him into prison until he paid back his debt.
31 “When his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply offended. They came and told their master all that happened. 32 His master called the first servant and said, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. 33 Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ 34 His master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners until he had paid the whole debt.
35 “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35, Common English Bible)
Simon Wiesenthal was a young Jewish man working in a Polish architectural office when Hitler’s Nazis invaded his homeland. From 1941 until the end of the war in 1945 he was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps. he survived, but 89 of his relatives did not.
After the war, he wrote a book called The Sunflower: The Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. In that book, he relates an odd but haunting experience. At one stage Wiesenthal and some fellow prisoners were given the job of removing garbage from a hospital for wounded German soldiers. As they did so they would pass the cemetery housing German soldiers who had died. The graves were covered with sunflowers, something Wiesenthal envied knowing he would probably be buried in a mass grave under a pile of other Jewish corpses.
One day a nurse approached him as he was on garbage detail at the hospital. She asked him to follow her and led him into a hospital room containing a wounded soldier. He came across a man whose face was covered in bandages, with openings cut for mouth, nose, and ears. he was dying.
The man started to speak. “My name is Karl…I joined the SS as a volunteer. I must tell you something dreadful…. Something inhuman. It happened a year ago… Yes, it is a year since the crime I committed. I have to talk to someone about it, perhaps that will help.”
He grabbed Wiesenthal by the hand, holding him tightly so he could not get away. “I must tell you of this horrible deed – tell you because…you are a Jew,” Karl told of atrocities too savage to repeat. Of hatred and rage directed against Jews. Then he turned to Simon Wiesenthal and said “In the last hours of my life you are with me. I do not know who you are. I know only that you are a Jew and that is enough. I know what I have told you is terrible. In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and again I have longed to talk to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. I know what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer, I cannot die in peace…I beg for forgiveness…”
Simon Wiesenthal, an architect in his early twenties, now a prisoner, stared out the window at the sunlit courtyard. He watched a bluebottle fly buzzing the man’s body.
“At last, I made up my mind,” Wiesenthal says in The Sunflower. “And without a word I left the room.”
I can’t speak for you, but I can see how easy it would be to respond, under similar circumstances, I could easily behave as Simon Wiesenthal did. I could be the one who walked out of the room without giving the desired forgiveness. Some people, it would seem don’t deserve forgiveness, or so our line of thought sometimes goes. This man had committed an untold number of atrocities, things that were unspeakable to people just because of their faith. Then he would have the nerve, while lying in his death bed, to ask the forgiveness from one who lost so many family members at the hands of S.S. members just like Karl. What? I might think. He wants my forgiveness. Never. Or so things might go.
What would it take for you to forgive someone like Karl? We often want to think it is easy to forgive until the time comes when we are faced with something terrible. We have been betrayed. Someone has caused us or someone we love great pain. A significant loss is handed to us by another person. With great pain comes great difficulty in letting go and forgiving. Yet that is precisely what Jesus calls us to do.
This morning we are moving on to part three in our series, “Why Jesus?” Why do I need Jesus in my life? We need Jesus because we all need grace in our lives. Grace can be defined as the unmerited favor of God. There is nothing we can do to earn grace. We cannot borrow grace. We cannot buy grace. Grace is the undeserved gift of God. Some define grace as forgiveness. Forgiveness is an element of grace, the element we are focusing on today, but grace is more than that. It is God’s unmerited favor.
But, just because grace is a free gift that we cannot borrow or buy does not mean we lack responsibility in grace. Much as we hope to receive grace from God, we also must be willing to give grace to those around us. And friends, that means forgiveness.
Every Sunday, we pray one historic and traditional prayer. It was Jesus’ example prayer he gave to the twelve. Today we call it the Lord’s Prayer. All too often I think we make that prayer by rote memory and we don’t think about what the prayer actually says. Lest we forget what this prayer we pray every week says, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” To put that in a more modern context, The Common English Bible, our pew Bibles says, “Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you, just as we also forgive those who have wronged us.” Uh-Oh! We are asking God to forgive our sins just as we forgive those who wrong us. Could that mean that I pray, “God, since I haven’t forgiven Joe or Jane, don’t worry about forgiving me.” Umm, Yeah. That is exactly what that means.
Our lesson this morning is just such a story. First, Peter asks Jesus how often should I forgive my neighbor? Should I forgive as many as seven times?
Many of us and even more people out in the world would think that even seven times is excessive. If someone wrongs me once, sure, forgiveness is probably in order. Well, really that depends on what it is. If they do somethings, I might find even the first time difficult.
But, if it isn’t something too serious, I can forgive twice, maybe three times but after that? Well, I am just being a patsy then. You know the old saying, “Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.” After that, well, there probably won’t be a third time.
Now, here Jesus is, telling Peter, and us, you have to forgive 490 times. What? How am I ever supposed to keep up with that? I will probably lose count after about ten times.
That is the point. In truth, for a Jew of Peter and Jesus’ day, to say you must forgive 70 times 7 didn’t really mean 490 times. It really meant, don’t stop forgiving. Keep on giving grace. To this, there is no end. Forgive infinitely. See Cindy, I told you math was weird.
A childhood accident caused poet Elizabeth Barrett to lead a life of a semi-invalid before she married Robert Browning in 1846. There’s more to the story. In her youth, Elizabeth had been watched over by her tyrannical father. When she and Robert were married, their wedding was held in secret because of her father’s disapproval. After the wedding, the Brownings sailed for Italy, where they lived for the rest of their lives. But even though her parents had disowned her, Elizabeth never gave up on the relationship. Almost weekly she wrote them letters. Not once did they reply. After 10 years, she received a large box in the mail. Inside, Elizabeth found all of her letters; not one had been opened! Today those letters are among the most beautiful in classical English literature. Had her parents only read a few of them, their relationship with Elizabeth might have been restored. Each letter Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote was a testament to, “How many times should I forgive my neighbor.” She knew the meaning of seventy times seven.
Second, as Jesus tells the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, he begins by telling us about grace. The servant who owed ten thousand bags of gold, an unbelievably large amount of money in our era, in Biblical times, it would have been all but unimaginable. Despite the huge amount of money, the master forgives.
For his part, the servant isn’t such a soft-touch. He isn’t about to let someone who owes him money, even if it is a small fraction of the amount he owed, get away with something like this and has the man thrown into debtor’s prison.
One receives grace. At the same time, however, he is willing to give the same kind of grace he received.
Richard Hoefler’s book Will Daylight Come? includes a homey illustration of how sin enslaves and forgiveness frees. A little boy visiting his grandparents as given his first slingshot. He practiced in the woods, but he could never hit his target. As he came back to Grandma’s backyard, he spied her pet duck. On an impulse, he took aim and let fly. The stone hit, and the duck fell dead.
The boy panicked. Desperately he hid the dead duck in the woodpile, only to look up and see his sister watching. Sally had seen it all, but she said nothing. After lunch that day, Grandma said, “Sally, let’s wash the dishes.” But Sally said, “Johnny told me he wanted to help in the kitchen today. Didn’t you, Johnny?” And she whispered to him, “Remember the duck! So, Johnny did the dishes.
Later Grandpa asked if the children wanted to go fishing. Grandma said, “I’m sorry, but I need Sally to help make supper.” Sally smiled and said, “That’s all taken care of. Johnny wants to do it.” Again, she whispered, “Remember the duck.” Johnny stayed while Sally went fishing. After several days of Johnny doing both his chores and Sally’s, finally, he couldn’t stand it. He confessed to Grandma that he’d killed the duck. “I know, Johnny,” she said, giving him a hug. “I was standing at the window and saw the whole thing. Because I love you, I forgave you. I wondered how long you would let Sally make a slave of you.
Johnny found grace, even when Sally was unwilling to give grace. One day, the need for such grace comes to us all.
Jesus concludes the parable by telling us, in essence, how we treat those who wrong us, is the way God will treat us in the end.
Our society has become afraid of giving grace and forgiveness. We have become much more in tune with a “you did wrong, you’ve got to pay.” So many of us may claim we are Christian while at the same time, we have an attitude that says, you wronged me. Now you must suffer the consequences.
One day several years ago I was at Home Depot and was backing out of my parking place. I know I looked but I must not have been paying attention and I backed right straight into another car. The man in the other car was a man in his late sixties or early seventies. I apologized quickly and assured him I would, well my insurance would take care of it. He came around the car to look and he saw the small dent, well it was small to me, to others it might not have been so small. He looked at the dent and said, “Awe, that’s nothing. I was probably already there.” I took another look at his car. There wasn’t a scratch on it except for this dent, “That was probably already there.” I knew better.
He said, “We aren’t going to worry about it.” Though I don’t have one on my car at the moment, I often have had a clergy sticker on my car. It helps in some hospital parking lots. The man glanced at my car, which had no damage, and said, “Oh, I see you are a pastor,” as I was writing down my contact information. I told him I was and what church I was with. He then tried to stop me from writing but I insisted. I told him to take the car to the body shop and get it fixed. He took my information and told me he wasn’t going to the body shop.
That was on a Saturday. On Monday I called my insurance agent and told him about the accident. He said he had heard nothing so far that day. I checked with him a few more times that week and he heard nothing.
About a month passed and my insurance agent called and told me the man had indeed called that day. He told my agent that he meant what he said in the parking lot that day. He was not going to file a claim. He said he only waited a month so it would prove he had no intention of doing so and that he really was a man of his word. That friends is forgiveness. That is grace.
Last month Governor Abbott granted clemency for Thomas Whitaker, a man who had planned the murders of his father, mother, and brother. Whitaker’s mother and brother were killed in the attack, but his father survived a gunshot wound to the chest. For many reasons, following a unanimous recommendation for clemency in the Whitaker case from the Board of Pardons and Paroles, Governor Abbott granted clemency and, in its place, gave life without the possibility of parole.
One of the reasons the governor granted clemency was that Whitaker’s father Kent fought hard for his son’s sentence to be commuted to life without parole. Abbott’s actions gave Kent Whitaker exactly what he sought. He didn’t want his son to die.
I am not telling this story to debate the death penalty. That is far from the case. What I am saying is, Thomas Whitaker experienced grace. He experienced grace from the Board of Pardons and Paroles. He experienced grace from Governor Abbott. He experienced grace from his father. I would like to think he has also repented and found grace from God. Three, possibly four times, Thomas Whitaker has experienced grace, unmerited favor.
The one that gets me most, however, was the grace his father gave him. Here is a man whose wife and son was murdered with the direct involvement of another son. That same son that took those lives had him shot in the chest as well. And yet this father forgave his son. I hope I could be that forgiving, but I am not so sure.
What Kent Whitaker did was love. It was grace. It was unmerited favor. It was forgiveness. God promises the same to us, but God calls us to forgive, just as we are asking God to forgive us.
Copyright 2018, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved