Breaking the cycle of ungrace, why forgive?
The story of Hashim Garrett is told in the series Jesus the Game Changer by Olive Tree Media.
Hashim was 15 and a member of one of the gangs of Brooklyn.
He was shot in the back with a machine gun by another gang member and left a paraplegic.
Recovering in hospital after the shooting, he was depressed and desperate, trying to come to terms with the lifelong outcome of being unable to use his legs ever again.
Hashim began to read a Bible his mum had given to him and this changed his life.
One of the passages that became very important to Hashim was on forgiveness.
It is where Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive.
The context of Jesus’ statement is that Peter had asked Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who has wronged him.
The rabbinic teaching (what Jewish rabbis taught) at that time was that you should forgive others three times but on the fourth occasion there was no forgiveness.
Peter has offered to double that number plus one, offering to forgive seven times.
It seemed very generous and yet Jesus responds “I tell you not seven times but seventy times seven”. Matthew 18:21-22
21 Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” 22 “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!
Hashim considered these words as a 15 year old and said “I was doing the maths. That’s a lot of forgiving”.
Remarkably Hashim made two decisions in response to reading the Bible.
Firstly he decided to follow Jesus, to put his life and future in Jesus’ hands.
Secondly he heeded Jesus call to forgive.
Hashim had to forgive his parents for divorcing, his stepfather for being abusive, the kid who shot him but also Hashim came to recognise that these were not the toughest parts of forgiveness for him.
He had to forgive himself for the choices he had made.
Forgiveness became the starting point for a new life for Hashim - a fresh start as a follower of Jesus.
The story of Hashim demonstrates the release he found in forgiveness.
This was not an easy one-off action but an ongoing struggle.
Hashim quoted Martin Luther King Jr, who said “Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a constant attitude.”
Both these men, Hashim and Martin Luther King Jr, had a constant struggle to continue to forgive.
Hashim talks about how one day he would forgive and “let it go” and then in the middle of the night all his anger, resentment and loss would rise up again and he felt like taking it back.
Forgiveness is a life choice, a value you continue to live out.
It is not based on the situation, the person or the culture.
It is a daily attitude that you seek to put into practice even if you feel wronged and even if those who brought you pain are not seeking your forgiveness.
Forgiveness matters – Jesus made this point in two passages
First Matthew 6:14-15
14 “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. 15 But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.
It is helpful to remember how important forgiveness was for Jesus.
Jesus teaches on prayer in a section called the Sermon on the Mount which runs from Matthew 5:1 to 7:28.
This is a sermon Jesus gave to a large group of people on a mountainside.
In the middle of this passage Jesus teaches the listeners how to pray.
Jesus is not prescribing a specific form of words for all people to recite every time they pray but giving a template of what we should be praying about.
It is significant that the Lord’s Prayer includes forgiveness (v12) and then immediately after the prayer Jesus continues the theme.
The only section of the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus commentates on is his teaching on forgiveness.
Jesus says, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15)
Second Matthew 18:23-35
23 “Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. 24 In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. 25 He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt. 26 “But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ 27 Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt. 28 “But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. 29 “His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. 30 But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full. 31 “When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. 32 Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ 34 Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt. 35 “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”
In this passage Jesus tries to help those listening to understand what the failure to forgive looks like from God’s perspective.
In this parable Jesus tells a story where a servant owes the master an outrageous amount of money and has no possibility of repaying the debt.
The amount in today’s terms is basically millions of dollars.
How a servant could accumulate such a debt is unbelievable but that is the point of the parable.
The amount owed is unpayable and the forgiveness of the debt is incomprehensible.
The servant leaves the master after having his debt forgiven, only to meet up with a man who owes him a small amount and demands payment.
This amount is tiny but not insignificant, perhaps a days wage in those times.
The debtor used exactly the same words as the first servant when he pleaded for mercy from his master.
Yet this time the plea fell on deaf ears and the servant is sent to jail until he could repay the meager debt.
In Jesus’ story, others hear of the situation and complain to the master.
The servant is dragged back before the king and asked why he did not forgive a small debt when he had been forgiven such a large debt.
The question from the master to the unforgiving servant is one we all need to consider.
The point of the parable is that we are no different to the servant.
We have been forgiven of an enormous debt and therefore should forgive others.
Why do we struggle to forgive?
1) We underestimate the amount we have been forgiven
The whole point of the Matthew 18 parable is that the first servant seems unable to comprehend the extent of the forgiveness offered to him.
Surely if he understood the scope of the forgiveness he had received he would have been able to forgive another’s small debt.
It is a common trait of the Church & Christian leaders at various times to underestimate the need for humankind to experience God’s forgiveness.
When Paul wrote to the church at Rome he wanted them to understand the state that every person finds themselves in.
He wrote “ for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23).
This is a precarious position that we are in before God.
Paul, in another letter written to the church in Ephesus, suggests “…you were dead in your transgressions and sins (Ephesians 2:1).
This is means we are dead in sin and that causes spiritual death in our lives towards God.
This death is the inability to respond to God and the inability to save ourselves from our position.
In modern times we lack the insight to understand this position.
Regularly people speak as if we are all good people going through a bad patch and Jesus may be able to help a little.
If we think like that we reflect the first servant - we show little understanding of our need for forgiveness and therefore lack the insight to appreciate the forgiveness we receive.
2) We are suffering deeply from our own hurt
There is a true story of a Jewish man, Simon Wiesenthal from a prison camp in WW II.
Rabbai Zalman Bendet tells his story in his blog:
“In his book The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, Simon Wiesenthal recounts how as a concentration camp inmate in Lemberg he was summoned from his slave labor detail to the bedside of a dying SS soldier. The soldier had participated in the mass murder of Jewish women, children, and old men in Dnepropetrovsk, and his conscience was torturing him in his last moments on Earth. With the help of a nurse, he sought out a Jew to whom he could confess and ask for forgiveness before he died.
“In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and time again I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. Only I didn’t know whether there were any Jews left…I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace.”
Wiesenthal said nothing and left. Later he questioned his behaviour: “Ought I have forgiven him? Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong? This a profound moral question.”
Wiesenthal’s book, The Sunflower, is a discussion of whether he ought to have forgiven the officer and the book contains responses from 53 different people who he wrote to and asked their opinion.
Each of our lives are different and each of us have to deal with actions committed against us by others.
There are people here today for whom forgiveness of another feels impossible.
You have been hurt, abused and wounded.
The scars of those wounds go deep and suggesting you forgive feels like an impossible request.
The Greek word for forgiveness used in the New Testament and in particular in Peter’s question to Jesus, “How often should I forgive”
Has the sense of letting go of something, to leave behind or to leave as in sending off.
As one commentator said it is like blowing up a ballon and before you tie the end off you let it go, the ballon flies away, it is gone.
Forgiveness is a letting go of the hurt, letting it fly away.
After all who want to pick up a ballon that has been let go and is all slimy and full of spit.
Because that is what you do when you pick up the hurt again.
Recognition leads to capacity
The significance of the story Jesus told in Matthew 18 is that our most natural and usual response to the unforgiving servant is – “if you were forgiven such a great debt, why don’t you just extend that same forgiveness to the person who owes you?”
We can’t help but respond this way, the reaction of the unforgiving servant feels unjust and ungrateful.
The point that Jesus is making is that if we are forgiven, that gives us the motivation to forgive others.
Recognition of our forgiveness gives us the motivation and potentially the capacity to extend that forgiveness to others.
Our capacity to forgive is influenced by our experience of forgiveness.
This is the foundation of the message of Jesus.
We have the opportunity to experience forgiveness through our relationship with Christ, that allows us the capacity to extend forgiveness.
It starts with each of us, one person at a time
Jesus impacts the world one person at a time and they go on to change the world by living out the teachings of Jesus in relationship with others one person at a time.
Jesus wants to influence your life through the power of forgiveness and the gift of grace.
God’s unmerited favor on us.
How do you responding to Jesus’ offer of forgiveness?