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Forgiveness

Date: Jun. 26, 2016

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Matthew 18:15-35

Key Verse: Matthew 18:21

“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’”

Recently, I just reread a Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. In it there is a mysterious murder that confounds the local police, but Sherlock Holmes solves it and has the offender apprehended within three days. The story behind the murders is very interesting. It starts off with a man named John Ferrier and a girl named Lucy in the wilderness in the American West. They were a part of a group traveling to the West, but most of their party died on the way. Only John and Lucy were left. They were just about to die themselves, when they were rescued by Mormons fleeing persecution. They accepted the gratitude and decided to stay among the Mormons. John adopted Lucy has his own daughter and they lived for many years in Salt Lake City. When Lucy became of age, the elders wanted Lucy to marry a Mormon man, but John did not like the idea. He followed their rules pretty well, but never took a wife and did not want to give Lucy to one of them to become a part of their harem. During this time, a man name Jefferson Hope came to court Lucy. They really liked each other and wanted to marry, but the elders were fierce in their direction. John and Lucy tried to escape with Jefferson, but the young men who were wanting Lucy chased them down. John was killed and Lucy was taken away. She was forced to marry a man named Enoch Drebber. Lucy eventually died because of grief. Jefferson was so enraged that he hunted Drebber and his companion Stangerson for twenty years trying to catch up with them. Then, in London, he murdered them both face to face. Jefferson was wronged terribly and he sought revenge for it. We’re no different in our lives. Now we might not have been as wronged as Jefferson, but we honestly want to seek retribution for what was done to us. We prefer to make sure that the other person pays for what they did. We want to return the favor in kind: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, pain for pain. Today, Jesus talks to his disciples about sin and forgiveness and Jesus’ ideas were very radical back then, and I am pretty sure that they are radical even now.

Last week, we heard from Mike about who the greatest is. The greatest is one who takes the lowly position of a child. To God, the little ones are the most important people in the whole world. Each one is precious and he is not willing that even one should perish. Jesus warned about making one of the little ones to stumble in their lives of faith. Sin is a very serious thing. It is not something that we should take lightly. Jesus said it would be better for a person to have a large millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea than to cause one of the little ones to stumble. Sin is serious and in this passage, Jesus continues to talk about sin. “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.” (15) Jesus is talking about one believer sinning against another one. When Jesus says, “If your brother or sister sins,” it is inferred the words, “against you”. So the beginning would say, “If your brother or sister sins against you”. Unfortunately, even as believers, people sin against each other. We hurt each other, whether it is intentional or not. Now what this looks like is difficult to ascertain. Sinning against someone usually means that someone is hurt or offended by another person. Now it might be a small thing or a large thing, but what really matters is that an offense has occurred. I am honestly certain that there have been numerous times, where I have sinned against each and every one of you, and I probably only know about a fraction of those. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if I have sinned against you today. If I did, please accept my sincerest of apologies. I didn’t mean to. I’m just ignorant. At any rate, people are so dissimilar to each other that there are going to be times of friction.  We are not puzzle pieces that fit together perfectly, we are all irregularly shaped people with sharp, pointy parts poking out all over the place. When you put each of our pointy parts together, they poke soft spots and cause harm. It is so natural for us to be hurt when we are poked, but sometimes, when we are poked, we treat the situation like we were stabbed and we are bleeding out.

Then, there are a few reactions that we tend to have. One of them is that some of us want revenge and poke back intentionally. Others shut down and stop communicating with the other person, the silent treatment. Others grumble like a pot of hot water on the verge of boiling. Others, still, are silent to the person that wronged them, but are very vocal to other people about what had happened. Do any of these responses resolve the situation? Is everything bound up in a neat little basket and all ok when you do any of these things? No. Actually, I can’t think of a time that one of these reactions ever made anything even a little bit better. Usually, things stay the same or they get worse. Hopefully, we are people who really want for things to be resolved, and Jesus gives us a way to do so.

Let’s look at that first verse again. It says, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.” (15) Jesus says to go and confront the person and point out their fault, just between the two of you. When trying to resolve the issue, it is important that, first, you simply talk to that person about what had happened. This means that you don’t go to someone else to talk about it to vent, or talk to someone to talk to that person. It means that you talk to that person. For all you know, the offender doesn’t even know that they offended you. If you talk to around the offender, then it might seem like gossip since you are airing someone else’s dirty laundry. If the offender hears about it from someone else, then they might be embarrassed because it has become gossip. As hard as it might be, we need to make sure that we protect the offender and make sure that they are not offended by our own actions. So, when you come to that person, you shouldn’t have anger in your heart either. You shouldn’t beat around the bush, but you shouldn’t be angry. The Bible explains what this looks like a couple of ways. The first is from the Old Testament, which the disciples would have heard of. “Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:17-18) And in the New Testament. “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1) The point is that when you confront a person about the sin they committed, you shouldn’t be trying to get revenge, but you should try to restore them. Not revenge, but restore. We are trying to help the other person come back to God, and that requires grace and a gentle hand.

If they listen and accept the word you say, then everything is good and they are restored, but if they do not listen, Jesus gives further instruction. “But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (16-17) So, if the person is not listening, Jesus says to bring one or two people along and confront them again. Again, this is not so that you can seek revenge, but so that you can help the offender come back to God, but the extra people are so that there are witnesses to the offender’s lack of repentance, if the offender continues to refuse to listen. If that is the case, the offender is to be brought before the church. This is the third opportunity for the offender to repent. In this case, the person is brought before the leadership of the church and the call for the person to repent of their sin. Again this is done in a way with great grace and respect because the point is to restore the person. If the person repents, then all it fine, but if not the person is to be kicked out of the church.

In today’s time, this doesn’t seem to be all that much of a threat, but in Jesus’ time, to be kicked out of the group was a serious threat because their entire social and economic livelihood was wrapped up in being a part of the group. Now, Jesus tells them to treat the person like you would treat a pagan or tax collector. The person would no longer be a brother or sister, but they would be like a Gentile is to a Jew. It is also written, “Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed.  Yet do not regard them as an enemy, but warn them as you would a fellow believer.” (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15) Even if the unrepentant person is kicked out of the church, it is important to make sure that it is not out of anger, but out of love. We are not to turn our back on those who are kicked out, but always hold out the hope that they will repent one day. Jesus goes on to explain that when the church chooses to remove the person, God is in the decision with them. It is easy to think that the decision to remove a person from the church is only a decision of the church, but Jesus tells the disciples that wherever two or three gather in his name, he will be there also. God is as much a part of the decision as anyone else. But, again, it is important that the decision is done out of love with gentleness. It is to be done with Christ-like care in Jesus’ name.

All this talk about trying to get a person to repent when they sin against you, leads in to another point. In order for you to bring that person to repentance, you cannot hold a grudge against them. You have to forgive them, and that can be hard. Those abrasive and prickly parts don’t always fit with another person. The offender could constantly be offending you. It might not be intentional. It could just be two different personalities that don’t mix very well. It might be cultural or gender differences that lead to misunderstanding. For example, men talk to other men with relatively short and direct sentences. It is about conveying information from one man to another, but if a man talks to a woman in the same way, the woman can be offended. When women communicate, there are all these different layers that are not just the words, but tone, for example. Men are tone deaf. We have no concept of tone and it doesn’t come into play in our conversation. However, a woman can hear a bad tone that the man is completely unaware of. This leads to the woman being offended. Now, nothing was ever intentional, but one person was offended by the other, and actually, that usually means that the man becomes offended that the woman was offended. How could they misunderstand what you said? It was a short simple statement with no underlying remarks and yet, the woman heard underlying remarks. Now you have both people offended. Now, not every man or woman is like this, but it happens often enough to be a decent example. I get in trouble with my wife often enough for tonal issues, but I am so tone deaf that I don’t even notice what just happened. What I am getting at is that these offenses can come multiple times and not be intentional. Someone might hurt you and sin against you over and over and over again and to that, Peter had a question.

Peter’s question was a simple one, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” (21) How many times should a person forgive another? It is hard enough to forgive them once, but if they do it again, should you forgive them again? How many times should you forgive them? There has to be a stopping point before you just shouldn’t forgive them anymore, so Peter asks about seven times, the number of perfection. Surely, you could do no more than perfection, but Jesus’ response is shocking. “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (22) Jesus takes Peter’s question and multiplies it. Jesus tells him that he should forgive seventy-seven times. This is a hyperbole to illustrate that there is no limit to how many times we should forgive another person. Now that is eye-opening. Who want to forgive someone every time they sin against you? It is tiring and can make you feel like a chump.

In society today all around the world, there is a sense of anger bubbling up from beneath the surface. The African-American community has been offended for years by racial profiling from some of the police and it bubbled over last year after a number of notable deaths that did not need to happen. It led to so much anger and protests and violence. Even now, there is still a current of anger running among the people. This is why Trump is so popular right now. I don’t want to get into politics, but Trump’s campaign is built on being angry at the status quo and the established political system. It is not just here in the US. Overseas, Britain just voted to leave the European Union. This vote, too, was done out of anger. The British were offended at all the immigration that was stealing jobs and felt marginalized in the place in the world. We live in a world of anger and we are offended by others left and right, but how we respond to that offense is very telling. Jesus says that we should forgive every single time that we are sinned against.

How is it possible to do that? It seems like there would be a point where we can’t forgive any more. But Jesus gives an illustration of how and why we should forgive. I am going to read the whole story:

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. (23-34)

So, let’s go into the story a little. There was a king who wanted to settle accounts. This is a euphemism for the final judgement. So the king found out that a servant owed him ten thousand bags of gold or ten thousand talents. Now, one talent is about 20 years of an average person’s wages, so ten thousand bags would be 200,000 years’ wages. Let’s put that in to a little context. The median annual household salary in the US is around $52,000. Two hundred thousand years’ wages would be $10.4 billion. That is a big chunk of change. Now, the numbers aren’t exactly important here. Ten thousand was the largest number in the Greek number system and a talent was the largest denomination of money that they had in existence. Jesus was trying to show them that the debt was larger than anyone could ever believe or 200,000 years’ worth of wages. No one could ever pay back that much debt. We don’t live anywhere near that long.

Now, the king wanted to sell everything that the man had, including his family to recoup some of that debt. He couldn’t get all of it, but something was better than nothing. The servant begged for patience and said he would pay it all back. Again, this was impossible to do by any measure, but the king did the unthinkable, he forgave the man his entire debt. That’s amazing, but he did it. Now, the servant went out and found another servant that owed him money. It was a smaller, but not insignificant amount. The man owed one hundred day’s wages. The first servant demanded his money and began to choke the other servant. This other servant begged, just like the first one, using pretty much the same words, but they had no effect. The first servant had the second thrown into a debtor’s prison until the debt could be repaid. When the king heard about the servant’s action, he was furious and he rescinded his forgiveness and had the servant tortured until he could pay back all he owed, which was never. The servant was thrown into prison for life.

Jesus then makes the connection, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (35) God is like the king in this passage and our sin is like the debt that is owed. The amount of sin that we have committed against God is immeasurable and there is no way that we could pay back that debt even if we had 200,000 years. And yet, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has forgiven our sins. He has taken that debt and wiped it out. Since he has forgiven us, we too, should forgive others. The sin committed against us is small compared to the one that we committed against God. It might have hurt, but God was hurt even more and he forgave. If we do not forgive, then our own forgiveness will be taken back. The good thing is that we can forgive because we were first forgiven. We can love because we were first loved. The Bible also says, “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) and earlier, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John 9-12) Because Jesus loved us first by dying on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins, we can love each other in the same way and forgive each other. Peter, himself, later wrote, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8)

We don’t need to hold a grudge against our brothers and sisters. In fact, holding a grudge and wanting revenge hurt you more than it hurts the other person. In fact, the other person might not even know about that grudge that you hold against them. They might be completely oblivious. That doesn’t mean that they don’t care about the grudge they just don’t even know that it even exists. If you hold on to that hurt, it begins to change you. Have you ever seen a person that nurses a grudge for a long time? They are usually very bitter about everything and their hearts and minds are filled with anger and dark thoughts. They are not pleasant to be around and can end up being very lonely. It hurts you to not forgive, but if you do forgive, then it is actually liberating. You don’t have that burden on your heart anymore. You are no longer being controlled by a past event. You are loving and kind and joyful. You see, granting forgiveness is not about the other person; it is about you and your condition. Forgiveness changes you because you are acting as Christ did.

Honestly, we really don’t have a choice in offering forgiveness. If we do not forgive others, then we will not be forgiven of our own sins. But if we accept the forgiveness of our own sins through Jesus’ death on the cross, his atoning sacrifice, then that forgiveness should overflow from our lives and we should be very forgiving people. We do not have to rely on grudges and anger. We can live in forgiveness and love because forgiveness and love were shown to us first. We will sin against each other each and every day, because we are sinners and we are so different from each other. Cultures, mindsets, personal perspective and past experience have all colored the way we view and interact with the world. So many times, that view is vastly different from someone else and you will offend them and they will offend you. In those times, you have to stop, take a step back, forgive them for what they did, and reconcile. We should always have grace, love and gentleness flow from our lips because that is what was shown us through Jesus. He is our guide and example. He is the king that forgave our debt that we could never repay. The next time you get hurt by someone, think about your heart. Don’t hold a grudge. Don’t seek revenge. Offer forgiveness.

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