Last week, I talked about the importance of communication, describing a model Jesus gave us to seek peace in times of discord. A few of my congregants told me afterward they found the sermon to be a bit of a toe-stomper—all of us, myself included, were thinking of moments where we had let our tongues get ahead of our relationships.
At least there is lots of forgiveness to go around. Jesus’ teaching on communication and unity is followed immediately in Matthew by a question from the disciple Peter: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
Peter’s question implies there are limits to forgiveness, even within the community of Jesus’ followers. Jesus’ answer, however, shows there should be no limits. Yes, Jesus provides a specific number, but biblically, sevens upon sevens point us toward a lifelong behavior rooted in an eternal truth.
Of all the marks of a dedicated Christian, a willingness to offer forgiveness may be the most important one. Jesus follows his answer with a parable, telling the story of a slave whose master forgives a ridiculously large debt. The slave, however, later refuses to forgive one of his debtors, a fellow slave who owes him a relative pittance. When the master finds out, he rescinds his forgiveness of the large debt and punishes the slave terribly.
“So my heavenly father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart,” Jesus says in concluding the parable.
The demand on Christians to offer forgiveness within the community is indisputable, it would seem. And yet, I often see people struggling with the concept after disputes within their churches. I even have heard Christians use the phrase “I’ll never forgive you” or “I could never forgive that,” which, in the context of the parable mentioned above, causes me grave concern.
Forgiveness is a difficult concept because it seems to conflict with our desire for justice, particularly when we consider ourselves victims. There’s no doubt the two are somewhat related—some people certainly find it easier to forgive after justice has been achieved—but we have to remember the two concepts are not mutually dependent. And forgiveness is hardly the weak theological sister to justice. We are all told to forgive; we have no guarantees of justice as long as the world remains broken, just a promise God will set all things right in the end.
To borrow from Acts 17:6, we are called to turn the common notions of the world upside-down, just as the early Christians were accurately accused of doing. Forgiveness does this more than any other Christian concept, I think. Its most powerful effect is when it ends the cycle of punch and counter-punch, the model the world has long upheld as the norm, the way of thinking still driving much of the decision-making in the world today. Forgiveness likely prevented mass slaughter in South Africa after apartheid came to an end. Properly understood by the right people, forgiveness could end the problems of the Middle East.
Forgiveness also has the possibility to create some very awkward situations on Judgment Day. Imagine this scenario: A man full of anger and evil murders another man, and goes to prison for life. (Justice in this life actually prevails.) As years pass, the murderer learns that even his sins are covered by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, and he accepts Christ as his savior.
During the same time, the brother of the murdered man, a leader in his church, grows angrier and angrier about the crime, despite the killer’s conviction. The brother wants a more painful punishment for the killer, every day imagining the worst kinds of prison deaths. He never lets go of his anger, his hatred, leading a bitter life to the end.
At the judgment, who, according to our text today, is better off? With forgiveness as an important standard, Judgment Day is liable to be a strange scene. As hearts are measured for forgiveness, we may be surprised at who stands as righteous with God, and who does not.