Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
March 4, 2018
Matthew 18: 15-22 (CEB)
15 “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. 16But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. 17But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector. 18I assure you that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven. 19Again I assure you that if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, then my Father who is in heaven will do it for you. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”
21Then 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?”
22Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times.”
I need to begin this morning with a confession to you all. Jesus has laid out these very clear instructions of how we are to deal with one another when we hurt or have been hurt by one another through words or actions. And, in theory at least, these instructions are pretty simple. If you have been wronged, or feel you have been wronged, you are to go to the person who wronged you and essentially work out the matter face-to-face. So here’s my confession. When I feel I have been wronged by someone or even know that I have been wronged by someone, I almost never go talk to them face-to-face. Instead, I go talk to OTHER people about this awful person and the terrible things they have done to me. Such venting usually devolves into gossip, and if not gossip, then just outright criticism of this person or people who have wronged me. It’s really awful the things I say sometimes. I know that. I know the way I handle such situations is wrong, and yet, I continue to do it anyway. But here’s where such behavior on my part really becomes problematic. When we act in such a way in response to wrongdoing, we are actually only perpetuating the wrongdoing. We are sinning ourselves (perhaps even worse than the sin against us), and by our sin, we are making reconciliation even harder.
We have been working through this Lenten series on forgiveness, and last week we talked about how important it is for us to forgive those who have wronged us. Forgiveness is important because it keeps us from being consumed by negative feelings and emotions, such as hatred and vengeance, that sap us of the good life God intends for us. But forgiveness does not always come easy, and so today we are exploring some of Jesus’ instruction about how we are to be a forgiving people. This passage ends with Peter asking Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?” And Jesus responds, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times.” Or some translations say “up to seventy times seven.” Now, that’s all well and good, but this is clearly easier said than done.
So I want to begin by saying this: We have to stop talking about one another and start talking to one another. And when it comes to offering our forgiveness to those who have wronged us, an important first step is to recognize that we have hurt others, too. We have to acknowledge all the ways and all the times we have caused harm to others through words or actions. When we are able to be honest with ourselves about how we have intentionally or unintentionally caused harm in the life of another, it is easier for us to forgive people who have wronged us because we can understand more fully their need to be forgiven. Think about it like this: imagine you have had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. You get home from wherever you have been and the house is a complete wreck. Dishes are stacked up in the sink, toys are scattered all over the floor, beds aren’t made, mail is spread across the kitchen table. So you just lose it, and anyone and everyone within earshot is the target. You explode at your kids, you call your spouse names, whatever. Your family is hurt by your words and you know it. So as soon as you have cooled down, you start speaking with your children, with your spouse, trying to repair the damage that was done. You tell them that you love them, that you’re sorry, and that you didn’t mean those things you said, you were just in a bad mood. And what is it we are hoping to accomplish when we try and repair such rifts that we create in our relationships? We want to hear, “It’s okay. I love you, too.” Right?
I offer that example to say this, people need our forgiveness as much as we need to forgive. Just as holding on to anger and resentment can sap us happiness, and energy, and life, so too can guilt and shame sap the life of those who long to be forgiven. Indeed, it is important to understand that in giving these instructions about forgiveness to his disciples, Jesus is saying that as important as it may be to establish the rights of the offended, it is equally important to care for the offender or sinner. We are all children in need of God’s grace. In fact, just prior to this Scripture passage is the story of the shepherd who left 99 sheep in order to go and search for the one that went astray. God in Christ Jesus graciously offers forgiveness to us, and we in turn should be equally prepared to offer forgiveness to others, as many as seventy times seven.
Now, I realize that there are situations that are much more complicated than some mean words that were said in haste. We have watched in horror in recent days, weeks, months, and years, as one individual after another steps into public venues and begins shooting those gathered. Hundreds of innocent people have been killed in these senseless mass shootings. Are we to simply offer our forgiveness to the shooters? And what are we to do when those persons are already dead and we can’t speak to them face-to-face? And if we forgive them, does that mean they are also relieved of any punishment? These are the sorts of things get us “hung up” when it comes to forgiving the actions of others, especially in instances of great harm, where lives are lost or trust is broken. Let’s take a moment to consider these questions because, in all truth there are times when offering forgiveness too readily can cause more harm than help.
As we consider these questions, let’s remember first that just because we offer forgiveness, it does not mean that we are saying what was done is “okay.” Instead, we are choosing not to allow the wrongs to continue to affect us, or to give the wrongdoer any more power over us. Similarly, just because we offer forgiveness, it does not mean that people do not have to face the consequences or punishment for their actions. Someone who has acted unfaithfully or betrayed another person will likely face loss of trust by those who were wronged, even if they are forgiven. In the same way, a child who has carelessly wrecked a parent’s car may remain grounded for several weeks after the accident, even if the parent has forgiven the child for messing up the family car. Or a mass murderer will likely spend a lifetime in jail if not more, even though the families of the murdered might find over time that they are able to forgive the person who took the life of their loved one. It is possible to forgive someone who has wronged us, while still feeling that person should face some consequence or even punishment for his or her actions.
And one other thought. Unquestioningly, Jesus tells us that we are to offer forgiveness seventy-seven times. As we know, Jesus didn’t mean we should start forgiving and keep count until we have said, “I forgive you,” seventy-seven times. Instead, Jesus was saying our forgiveness should be full and it should be complete. But there can be times when offering forgiveness to those who are unrepentant may not be good. Certainly, that can be a sign of God’s grace and love that might soften the hardened heart of the individual. But such forgiveness might also be received as a message that the actions are acceptable. Offering mercy before the person understands the need for it can diminish the gravity of the act. It gets in the way of the true goal of forgiveness, which is the redemption of God’s people, each and every one. The New Testament calls people to repentance so that they may receive forgiveness. There needs to be an awareness of the wrongdoing, regret for the pain caused, confession and a request for forgiveness and restoration, and ultimately transformation. Christ’s desire is that every person might be changed and renewed, living a life worthy of “the calling to which [we] have been called.” Forgiveness is one step in that whole process of redemption, and receiving the fullness of God’s grace and forgiveness also requires genuine repentance.
Indeed, we need to be ready to freely, willingly, and generously offer forgiveness to those who have done us wrong; for our sake and for theirs. But each of us also needs to be ready to repent and turn from our wicked ways when we have sinned against God and others. And ultimately, this is about the whole community, indeed the whole world, living as a reconciled people, a sign of God’s kingdom of justice and mercy. This is part of what it means to forgive “seventy-seven times,” that we are continually trying in this way to make God’s kingdom real on earth by offering forgiveness over and over again in the same way that God forgives us. What makes us Christian is not whether we fight, disagree, or wound one another, but HOW we go addressing and resolving the brokenness and hurt that results from such behavior. Forgiveness, not expulsion, not exclusion, not even retribution is the way of Christ followers. And here’s the thing: if we in the church do not forgive and heal, who on earth is going to do it? If the church—even just two or three believers—will agree in Christ and seek prayerfully to do the will of God, then God will respond. We can be thankful that God has forgiven us. How many times? Seventy-seven? Seventy times seven? Seventy-seven times 490? There simply can be no end to our forgiving.