Sermon preached by Revd. Duncan Strathie, Sunday 17 September, 8:00 a.m.

Matthew 18:21-35

21 Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

23 ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” 29Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. 31When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

How do you feel about this week’s gospel reading? I don't know about you but I'm looking forward to moving out of Matthew and into Mark at Advent. We seem to have an interminable number of passages giving us over-familiar readings and parables when we largely know what the point of them is. Here’s another one.

We all know that forgiveness is a central part of the Gospel message and that as Christians, above all people, we are meant to endlessly forgive those who do wrong against us. So why do we need a another sermon on it?

If only life were that simple. We are so good at lying to ourselves that whilst we know that this is how, as followers of Christ, we are meant to behave, why do we sometimes find it such a struggle?

And if we are truthful, there is one person we repeatedly find it impossible to forgive and that is our self.

We know that we are unconditionally forgiven by God. How can we follow that example and forgive each other and more importantly forgive ourselves?

Forgiveness is a process, much like grief; it has stages that can be observed and described, though no two people go through the stages in exactly the same way.

An helpful description of the process of forgiveness comes from a little book called Forgive and Forget, by the American theologian Lewis Smedes.

This is how human beings forgive, Smedes says: “We hurt, we hate, we heal. We hurt; that is, we allow ourselves to feel the depth of an injury that has been dealt to us—we don't minimise it, or try to sweep it under the rug. We hate; that is, we blame the one who has hurt us—we don't condone or excuse the offence. Finally, when we are ready, we heal; we let go of the pain that is binding us to the past, and move on. That is how we human beings forgive”.

On the face of it, the process itself sounds simple, but it always happens inside a maelstrom of complex emotions. Particularly when the wound is deep, forgiveness comes slowly, and in fits and starts, if it comes at all. Forgiveness may be the hardest work that you and I will ever do.

Quite often when I am meeting with folk in a pastoral situation and we are discussing their situation, forgiveness (or lack of it) features as a difficulty. But I usually find that the biggest stumbling block to forgiveness is not usually a lack of knowing how to forgive. More often, it has to do with a lack of willingness to forgive.

As a process, forgiveness is something that we can choose to engage in, or not. Why should I choose to forgive someone who has wronged me, or betrayed me? Why should I want to forgive someone who has abused or abandoned me, or worse, hurt someone that I love.

Samuel Weisenthal, a survivor of the Nazi holocaust, tells a story that raises this question about as strongly as it can be raised. Weisenthal, a Jew, was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. One afternoon he was assigned to clean a hospital that the Germans had improvised for wounded soldiers.

There a nurse walked up to Weisenthal, ordered him to come with her, and led him upstairs to a bed in which a young soldier, his head wrapped in blood stained bandages, was dying. He was maybe twenty-two, and a member of the SS.

The soldier, whose name was Karl, reached out and grabbed Weisenthal’s hand. He told him that he had to speak to a Jew. He had to confess the terrible things he had done. Otherwise, he could not die in peace.

Fighting on the Eastern front in Russia this young man had committed terrible atrocities against Jewish people in a town they had captured. These had haunted the man and his conscience was sorely exercised.

The young man paused and then said, “I know that what I have told you is terrible. I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. I know that what I am asking is almost too much, but without your answer I cannot die in peace”.

There was silence in the room. Weisenthal tells us what he did next, “I stood up and looked in his direction, at his folded hands. At last I made up my mind, and without a word, I left the room”.

Weisenthal survived the concentration camp, but he wondered, troubled for a long time, whether he should have forgiven the soldier. He tells this story in his book, The Sunflower, and ends it with an awful question for every reader: “What would you have done?”

Thirty-two distinguished people wrote answers to Weisenthal, in response to his question. Philosopher Herbert Marcuse wrote what was probably the consensus of most: “One cannot, and should not, go around happily killing and torturing and then when the moment has come, simply ask, and receive forgiveness”.

Here is the crucial question. Why should the SS man be forgiven? What about the demands of justice? Weisenthal's story poses the question in its most extreme form, as the holocaust helps us to focus all kinds of moral and spiritual questions, but we can bring it down to the kinds of hurts you and I have experienced in our lives, hurts large and small.

Why should we forgive the parent who beat us or sexually abused us? Why should we forgive the drunk driver who hit us, the co-worker who stabbed us in the back, the spouse who cheated on us, the child who threw our values away? Particularly if these people aren’t sorry; if there is no repentance, no restitution; it isn’t right! Forgiveness is an offence to our universal instinct for fair play.

Well, what is the alternative to forgiving? Vengeance is one option. If someone hurts you, the most natural thing in the world is to want to get even. Give back as much pain as they gave you, plus a bit extra. That would be fair, wouldn’t it?

Perhaps you know the story of Herman Engel, a German general in World War II. After the war, Engel was sentenced by the Nuremberg Court to thirty years in prison for atrocities committed by his army. He completed the sentence and was released. His story is dramatized in a play called The Black Angel.

At the time of the play Engel is building a cabin in the woods where he and his wife intend to live out the years left to them, incognito and in peace. But a man named Morrieaux, a journalist, is waiting for them.

Morrieaux's family had been massacred by Engel’s army during the war. When the Nuremberg Court had refused to sentence Engel to death, Morrieaux had been outraged, and privately condemned him to death. He had kept the fires of hatred burning in his heart over thirty years.

Now that Engel was released, Morrieaux had stirred up the fanatics in the village. That very night they were going to come up the hill, burn down the cabin and kill Engel and his wife.

Morrieaux, however, wanted to get to Engel before the others did. He wanted to fill in some gaps in his knowledge of the village massacre. So he went up the hill, introduced himself to Engel, and talked to him all afternoon.

The conversation confused him. Engel seemed more like a tired old man than the monster he had imagined. Morrieaux began to be plagued by doubt.

Toward the end of the afternoon, he blurted to Engel that villagers were going to come kill him that very night. He even offered to lead Engel out of the woods and save his life. But Engel looked down at the ground, and said, “I'll go with you, on one condition.” “What?” said Morrieaux. Engel said, “That you forgive me.”

Morrieaux had executed Engel a thousand times in his fantasies. Face to face with Engel the human being, he was unsettled. But forgive him? That was more than he could do. That night, the villagers came with sacks over their heads, burned the cabin, and killed Engel and his wife.

Now we have to ask: What did their vengeance accomplish? Two more people dead, one of them innocent. Was anyone brought back to life by Morrieaux's refusal to forgive? How was the cause of justice served?

The problem with vengeance is that it never really evens the score. Think, for a moment, of someone who has violated you, or cheated you, and imagine that person now being hurt in the same way. Does that actually compensate you for the injuries you have suffered? Does it make up for the life you have missed, the pain you have endured?

What’s more, the lust for revenge often sets off a chain of escalating retaliations. Consider the history of Bosnia or Israel. People on both sides in those endless conflicts are certain that they are serving the cause of justice, even as they self-destruct. Ghandi was right: “If we all live by an eye for an eye, soon the whole world will be blind”.

Let’s say that we don’t go so far as to seek revenge, but still refuse to forgive the people who have harmed us. What then? Well, you know what happens. ‘Unforgiveness’ is like a poison eating away inside a person. It saps your energy and steals your joy.

Think of Morrieaux, plagued by nightmares for thirty years, and probably even after the Engels were dead. What did the refusal to forgive do to his chances for happiness? We need to ask: was that fair?

The thought dawns: what if forgiveness isn't primarily for the sake of the person who commits an injury? Granted, forgiveness might release that person to die in peace, or to begin life again, and do things differently than they did before. But they may also be unavailable, or unrepentant.

So set aside the well-being of the injurer, for the moment. What about the one who has been injured?

Think for a moment of a time when you have been betrayed. Doesn’t the memory revive the old pain, make it hurt again? Suppose you never forgive, you feel the pain each time your memory lights on the person who did you wrong.

In that case you are being controlled by the pain of your past. It is impairing your ability to love and trust and be at peace in the present. Who is being hurt now, by your lack of forgiveness? What could be more unfair to you than the wretched justice of not forgiving?

Forgiveness is something we must do, not for the sake of those who have hurt us, but for the sake of our own healing.

Forgiveness in the Gospel of Matthew is not only relational it is reciprocal and reliant. When teaching his disciples to pray Jesus said, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors”—a prayer we shall say together shortly within this service. This fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is echoed in this lesson of a parable about the kingdom, reflecting it back in reverse. We ought to forgive as our King has forgiven us, Jesus says.

In answering the disciples’ request for help in praying Jesus teaches them that forgiveness, both the giving and the receiving of it, is reciprocal—one cannot have it without doing it.

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).

In answering Peter’s request for help in understanding how far forgiveness needs to go, Jesus teaches that God’s forgiveness surpasses both our deserving and our comprehension of it; we who have first been forgiven must, forgive those who have wronged us.

The point of this parable is clear, and its demands both in the context of the Gospel of Matthew and its application in our congregations today is urgent. Forgiveness lies at the heart of our faith in God and our love of one another.

Forgiveness, which we receive from God our King in the person of Jesus is what our King expects from his subjects in their dealings with each other. It may be unfashionable to say such things in today’s world but however you choose to dress it up, this is a truth we need to hear and live out in the world in which we live each day.

Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors; as a prayer this puts the emphasis on what we will receive in turn for the forgiveness we have offered. Forgive your brother or sister from your heart; the parable turns the tables, teaching us that we have been first forgiven and encouraging us to forgive in turn.

Taken together, this is a composite picture of the kingdom of heaven, and the kingdom we practice, both of which are driven by forgiveness. 

In some churches the absolution is pronounced before the confession because we know we are forgiven. In some ways I like that, in other ways it downplays our responsibility to act accordingly.

Why does Jesus command us to forgive the people who hurt us, seventy times seven? Because forgiveness is something even better than fairness. It is the way we are set free and the best freedom of all comes when we have the courage to forgive ourselves.