Matthew 18:21-35

“While all the world’s major religions teach about the necessity of forgiveness, it has been only recently that the medical and scientific world has also begun to delve into the importance of forgiveness for health and well-being. It is now widely recognized that unforgiveness, or holding on to past hurts and resentments, deeply affects our emotional and physical health.  Jesus speaks to the necessity of forgiveness because he know the effects unforgiveness has on individuals and communities.”[1]

Today’s section of scripture is all about forgiveness.

First, we see Peter asking how many times he needs to forgive.  Then Jesus illustrates his point by telling of a servant who owed an absurd amount of money.  Hyperbolic in nature, the story highlights the incredible grace of the master at forgiving this servant his debt, yet then the ungratefulness of that same servant for refusing forgiveness of the debt of a fellow servant that was microscopic in comparison.  Since the servant was unable to practice forgiveness in his own life, the master revoked the initial forgiveness he had granted.  Forgiveness has to work both ways. This morning, I want to talk about two aspects of forgiveness, how forgiveness has to work both ways.

If you are a football fan or having watched the news of late you have perhaps heard the story of Ray Rice and the videos showing the horrific acts of domestic violence he committed against Janay Palmer, his then fiancé, now wife .  Though she has publicly downplayed the incident and asked the media to let it pass, victim’s rights organizations have highlighted the possibility that she is simply saying what she needs to say to stay safe and avoid further abuse and violence. [2]

Such tragedy highlights the dangers that can result from an irresponsible handing of this passage by a pastor.  So often in the past, ministers preached to their congregations the necessity of unconditional forgiveness, regardless of the attitude of the offender.   In turn, generations of Christian women have suffered through abuse because their pastors told them to forgive their abusers repeatedly, essentially letting the abusing spouse off the hook for their horrible actions and perpetuating the cycle of abuse.

In this context, the common platitude of “forgive and forget” can be ignorant at best and life-threatening at worst.  Yet should victims of violence and abuse simply be left to suffer through the emotional trauma and memories of the abuse? So often it seems what hurts people the most is not the abuse itself but the painful memories and emotional scarring long after.  What are we then to do?

Rabbi Harold Kushner tells a story that offers us some guidance:

A women in my congregation comes to see me.  She is a single mother, divorced, working to support herself and three young children.  She says to me, “Since my husband walked out on us, every month is a struggle to pay our bills.  I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies, while he’s living it up with his new wife in another state.  How can you tell me to forgive him?” I answer her, “I’m asking you to forgive him because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter, angry woman.  I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically, but you keep holding on to him.  You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you’re hurting yourself.”[3]

I think there is an aspect to forgiveness we don’t often think of.  When someone does not apologize, I do not think we are required to forgive them—and by that I mean, I don’t think we are required to act like it never happened.  Forgiveness in this aspect is more about ourselves.  Forgiveness in the face of an unrepentant abuser is perhaps a forgiveness of ourselves.  Sometimes it is about allowing ourselves to let go of the pain, the trauma, the emotional baggage. Sometimes it is about re-shaping the narrative of our lives from victim to survivor—where we are no longer victimized by this tragedy in our lives. Sometimes it is allowing ourselves to go on living our lives and not allowing the trauma to define us.

But I do not think we should allow an unrepentant offender to act as if the offense never occurred.  If an abuser is not willing to make recompense for his abuse, he is not worthy of our reconciliation.  I think that the master recanting on his forgiveness for the servant who owed the humongous debt—because of the evil actions of this servant toward a fellow servant—exemplifies the necessity of forgiveness, in the common sense of the word, only being due to those who are truly repentant.

A couple weeks back I had the privilege of hearing holocaust survivor Eric Cahn speak at the Brighton Armory.  Responding to the question of if he had forgiven Hitler for the atrocities that had been done,  Cahn replied that he did not forgive Hitler.  Yet, Cahn was clearly not a man who allowed the evil and violence of Hitler to engulf his life.  He had in a sense transformed the pain and trauma he and his family experienced into something good—a story he can tell to as many people as possible so that such a thing never happens again.  Though he has not forgiven Hitler in the common sense of the word, I do think he exemplifies this other aspect of forgiveness, of re-claiming his family history to be used for good rather than the evil Hitler intended.

And something else I want to point out—this forgiveness took him some time.  It wasn’t until the middle of his life that he was even able to begin talking about his family’s experiences of the holocaust.  So this aspect of forgiveness takes time, it is a process of healing.

The other aspect of forgiveness I want to speak on is the common understanding of forgiveness, where a person offends yet apologizes. Here we are instructed to forgive for the sake of reconciling the relationship.  Peter asks Jesus, “how many times am I to forgive? Is seven times enough?” Jesus says, no, try seventy seven times.  Commentators think Peter wasn’t trying to set a precise limit, but rather that the number seven was understood in Jewish culture as the number of perfection; so, then, forgiving seven times would be perfect in Peter’s mind.  Yet, why did Jesus say forgive 77 times? I think it’s because sometimes for the sake of relationships we need to eternally offer forgiveness.

Whether seen on television of experienced in our own lives, we can all probably recognize the damage unforgiven failures can cause on a relationship.  Now I’m not talking about wrongs that haven’t been apologized for, rather I’m talking about mistakes that have been made that are apologized for and initially forgiven, yet as time goes on are brought up once again.  It’s a scene that comes to mind rather easily; a couple having it out over a misunderstanding or disagreement—just as nearly all couples do—but in the heat of the moment one of the partners brings up a past mistake of the other partner, a mistake that partner has long since apologized for and been forgiven of by the other partner.

We can likely all imagine what such a mistake might be—unfaithfulness, poor money choices, parenting mistakes, bad decisions, and a host of things.  If an old mistake is vengefully brought up again by the offended party after that mistake has been forgiven and is still regretted by the offender, those old wounds and division of the mistake are ripped open once again.  Probably each one of us can think of a relationship that was ruined by the inability to let forgived be forgotten.

Now, I understand that might sound a little contradictory to the prior point I made about abuse.  But, here I am talking about forgiveness in the context of an offender that is truly repentant and makes changes.  I think that Bible is clear that if a person is truly repentant, we are to forgive them.  And the reason for that 77 times? Well, that’s because there will be instances in any and all relationships where we will be tempted to bring back up that hurt that was once done to us—even though the offender has repented.  Essentially, forgiveness is a never ending process, hence the 77 times.  When we are angry, when we are upset, when we are trying to score points against our loved one, it can be easy to bring up those past hurts—yet in those cases, perhaps even 77 times—we need to continually forgive the wrong of the offender.

And just as we understand the importance of forgiveness in any relationship, forgiveness is just as essential to a community.  Just as in a marriage, past wrongs can continually be dug up in the heat of the moment and thrown out to cause hurt and shame. And that’s why continued forgiveness is essential in any close knit community such as the church. For just as in a relationship, when past failures are once again revisited, the wound is reopened and the unity and harmony ripped apart. And just as such actions can spell doom for a relationship the same can be said for a church. Forgiveness is essential to achieve a healthy community.

I don’t know much about the past of this church—I haven’t been here that long.  I don’t know what mistakes have been made or wrongs committed.  If you are the one in the wrong, I pray that you would seek forgiveness and restoration.  If you are the one who have been wrong, and the other person is repentant, I pray you would continually have an attitude of forgiveness toward that person.  And if you have been wronged yet not apologized to, the only thing you can do is to let go of the situation and give it to God.  Re-living the pain and hurt will only cause continued detriment to yourself. Don’t allow yourself to be continually victimized, but neither continue to be the victim either.

If we are to be a healthy and vibrant church, forgiveness must be an integral part of our make-up.  We must remember both aspects of forgiveness.  We cannot undo that past, we cannot change hurts that were done to us. But we can let go of the bitterness and anger that is only poisoning us.  And we must continually offer forgiveness to the offender who seeks our forgiveness.  After all, this what we pray each week, asking God to “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  Our forgiveness from God must engender forgiveness from others. The forgiven must forgive others.[4]


[1] Cleghorn, Charlotte Dudley. “Matthew 18:21-35.” Feasting on the Word, 68.


[3] Kushner, Harold S., “Letting Go of the Role of Victim,” Spirituality and Health, Winter 1999, 34.

[4] Donelson, Lewis, R. “Matthew 18:21-35.” Feasting on the Word, 73.

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