Friday, September 12, 2014

Let Go of the Rope - Matthew 18:21-35

Matthew 18:21-35
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?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.[a]
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold[b] was brought to him. 25 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.
26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins.[c] He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

It is the single hardest thing you will ever do in your life.

            To forgive someone.

            Forgiveness is not easy.

            It’s hard.

            Oh I know, you are walking in the grocery store and someone bumps into you.  They look at you and say, “Oh I’m so sorry.”

            You look at them and say, “Ah don’t worry about it.”

            You walk away from each other and never think anything more about it.

            That kind of forgiveness is easy.  It’s nothing.

            I’m not talking about that.

            I’m talking about finding the strength to forgive someone who has hurt you deeply and profoundly.

            How do you do that?

            You marry the love of your life.  You make a commitment to that person.  And then one day you find out that person has not made a commitment to you.  Or at least not kept that commitment.  Your beloved, has been sleeping with another. 

            How do you forgive that kind of betrayal?

            Someone at work you consider to be a friend has lied about you.  For reasons you will never understand, your friend has sabotaged you. 

            How do you forgive that?

            You’ve been raped.

            You’ve been robbed.

            You’ve been fired.

            Someone else took credit for your work.

            Someone said something about you when you were in the 3rd grade and you’ve never forgotten the pain.

            Your mother called you fat, or your father called you lazy, or your best friend in high school stole your girlfriend 25 years ago.

            Whatever – big or small, you have a grudge.

            And forgiving is the hardest thing you will ever do.

            In our New Testament lesson, Peter comes up to Jesus and asks a question.  “How many times do I have to forgive my brother?”

            Now Peter knows that the teachings of the Rabbis of that time was that three is a good number.  Three strikes, you’re out! 

            It comes not from baseball, but from the Old Testament book of Amos. 

            So Peter knows Jesus is always talking about going the extra mile.  So he suggests not three times, but seven.

            “How many times do I have to forgive my brother?  Seven times?”

            And Jesus says “no” – let’s make it 77 times. 

            Or some translations suggest a mathematical formula – 7 times 70 times.

            But the numbers are not important.

            What is important is that you are expected forgive to the extreme.  Without boundaries.

            Yep, that’s not going to happen.

            We’re human.  You can only expect so much from us.

            After all, we love the grudges we hold.

            We cherish them dearly.       

            That insult spoken at a family gathering years ago.  The boss who fired you.  The teacher who gave you a failing grade.  The rude co worker. 

            Whatever the hurt, forgiveness is hard, hard work.

            It is the hardest thing you will ever do.

            Frederick Buechner in his book of short essays, Wishful Thinking, addresses anger and has this to say:
Of the 7 deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back--in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you. (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking  p. 117.)

            Indeed, Beuchner is right.  Holding a grudge and refusing to forgive can destroy your spirit, and your body.

            Just Google the words “holding a grudge” and add “health problems” and the Internet will show one article after another from such sources as WebMD and the Mayo Clinic.

            Chronic pain in their back or stomach, arthritis, headaches and heart attacks.  Blood pressure rises, diabetic problems increase. 

Well maybe – but knowing that holding a grudge is unhealthy does not make it any easier to forgive.

We all believe in forgiveness.  But practicing it is so very difficult.

In a recent nationwide Gallup poll, 94% of respondents said it was important to forgive, while only 48% said they usually tried to forgive others. (“Holding a Grudge Can Be Bad for Your Health” by Mike Fillon, WebMD News).

Katherine M. Piderman, Ph.D., staff chaplain at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., points out that forgiveness is difficult because it is so often completely misunderstood. 

People think that to forgive you must forget, but that’s not true says Piderman.  We can’t forget.  We have to remember.  We can’t help but remember.  The act that hurt or offended you may always remain a part of your life.  You cannot erase it.  In fact, you should not.  Our sufferings make us who we are.  When we go through difficult and painful times, we have the potential to become stronger, more mature in our faith and values.  Forgiveness is not forgetting, but letting go ---  of the pain, even while you remember what happened.

Nor is forgiveness reconciliation.  Sometimes the other person does not repent.  Heck, in their opinion they did nothing wrong.  But forgiveness is letting go --- of your resentment.

Forgiveness also doesn’t mean that you deny the other person’s responsibility for the pain inflicted upon you.

Forgiving is just letting go --- of the wounds.

During World War II, Eric Lomax was a signals officer in Singapore.  It was at a time when the war was not going well for the Allies.  In fact, the British had to surrender in the Battle of Singapore – it was the largest capitulation in the history of the British Empire.  An overwhelming 80,000 British, Indian and Australian solders became POWs.

Eric Lomax was one of them.

When it was discovered that he had taken part in building a radio, Lomax was taken away to be tortured and interrogated.  His pain was unimaginable. 

In the movie based on his authobiography, THE RAILWAY MAN, it was the arrival of the Allied army that liberated and saved Lomax’s life.

After the war he went home to live in apparent peace.  But he was not at peace.  He lived with hate and anger and bitterness.

And then he found that his interrogator was still alive.  Not only was this Japanese soldier, Nagase, still alive, but strangely he was a docent giving tours at the former POW prison that had become a museum for tourists.

Lomax traveled half way across the planet to seek revenge on this man.

He was successful in restraining his former tormentor.  He treatened to torture him with the same methods once used on the prisoners.  He held a knife he brought with which to kill the man.

But he doesn’t kill him.

Instead he stands on the bridge of a railroad he and others had been forced to build for the Japanese army and quietly threw the knife into the river below.

            Lomax and Nagase later come face to face once more.

            Both are silent for several minutes.  Then the former Japanese soldier bows to his former captive.

            Finally, the former Japanese solder says with tears in his eyes.  “I am sorry.  So sorry.  I don’t want to live that day any more.”

            The former captive who had harbored so much hate for so many years looks at his tormentor and says, “Neither do I.” 

            The two break down in tears and embrace.

            Later in his life, Eric Lomax wrote to the Japanese man, “The war has been over for many years.  I have suffered much.  But I know you have suffered, too.  And you have been most courageous in working for reconciliation.  But I cannot forget what happened in that prison so many years ago. But I assure you of my total forgiveness.  Sometime the hating has to stop.”

            Such a good example of forgiveness.

            It does not come easy.

            Forgiving someone may be the most difficult thing you will ever do in your life.

            And sometimes, as it did with Lomax in THE RAILWAY MAN it takes years. 

            In the New Testament lesson, Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive a brother who sins against him. 

As part of his answer, Jesus tells a parable.

A man is in debt up to his eyeballs, and he begs his master to forgive him.

And the master forgives.

Not only that, but allows the man to continue to work for him.

In telling this parable, Jesus uses exaggeration for ironic effect. This man owes his master 10,000 talents – a talent was a large sum of money. 

In his book Antiquities of the Jews, historian Josephus, said that the total tax revenue for Judea, Idumea, Samaria, Galilee, and Perea for one year amounted to 800 talents.

And in the parable, the amount the man owed to the master was an overwhelming 10,000 talents.

But the master forgives this debt, as big as it is.

What happens in the parable is that the one who is forgiven then goes to someone who owed him money.  Just a tiny bit of money.  A mere 100 denarii.  Pocket change. 

And the man who was forgiven by his master, refuses to forgive the man who owed him money.

Now, this is not a lesson in economics and debt relief.

It is a reminder that God has forgiven us.

Not because we deserve it.  Not because we earned it.  God has forgiven us freely by his love and grace.

And because of that, we are expected to forgive others.

This parable does not end well.  In the parable the master finds out that the man who was forgiven for this huge debt was himself unforgiving to another for a small debt.  Jesus said, “The master summoned the man and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’  And in anger his master handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.  So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

From your heart!

It’s not enough to live forgiveness and to just restrain yourself from seeking revenge.  You must feel the forgiveness.  From your heart.

Forgiveness like that may well be the most difficult thing you will ever do.

Many years ago, during the Nazi era of Germany, Corrie ten Boom, along with her sister and father, were sent to Ravensbruck, a Nazi concentration camp.
Her sister and father died there, but Corrie was released, due to a “clerical error.”
After the war this native of Holland went back to a defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.  It was a message she believed that a bitter, bombed-out nation needed to hear.  She often gave her favorite illustration of God’s forgiveness.  Perhaps because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, she liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown.
In many gatherings she gave the familiar speech:  ‘When we confess our sins,’ she said, ‘God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever. And even though I cannot find a Scripture for it, I believe God then places a sign out there that says, ’NO FISHING ALLOWED.’
One night, as she was giving this familiar story, she looked out at the faces, and that is when she saw HIM. 
He was dressed in a brown hat and an overcoat, but in her mind she saw him in a blue uniform, wearing a cap with a skull and crossbones.
She remembered this man. 
She had seen him when she was in a crowded room with dozens of other prisoners.  There was a pile of dresses, a pile of shoes, and she and her mother and sister were walking past him, naked and afraid.
This man she was now looking at was one of the guards at the concentration camp where her father and sister had died.
And now this man was in front of her.
After she finished the message, he walked up to her and Corrie ten Boom wondered if he remembered her.
He thrust out his hand and said, “A fine message, Fraulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!"
As Corrie ten Boom later told the story, “I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course—how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women? But I remembered him. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
The former guard continued to speak to her.  "You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk.  It just so happens that I was a guard there."
No, he did not remember Corrie ten Boom.
"But since that time," he went on, "I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the terrible things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein,"—again the hand came out—"will you forgive me?"
And she stood there.  She whose sins had again and again been forgiven—and could not forgive. Her sister had died in that place.
Corrie ten Boom said, “It could have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
“For I had to do it—I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. "If you do not forgive men their trespasses," Jesus says, "neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses." And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart.  Woodenly, mechanically, I thrust out my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
"I forgive you, brother!" I cried. "With all my heart!"
[Holocaust Victim Forgives Captor, Citation: Corrie Ten Boom, Tramp for the Lord (Berkley, 1978), pp. 53-55]

Corrie ten Boom describes forgiveness like letting go of a bell rope.  If you have ever seen a country church with a bell in the steeple, you will remember that to get the bell ringing you have to tug for a while.  Once it has begun to ring, you merely maintain the momentum.  As long as you keep pulling, the bell keeps ringing. 

Corrie ten Boom says forgiveness is letting go of the rope.  It is just that simple.  But when you do so, the bell keeps ringing.  Momentum is still at work.  However, if you keep you hands off the rope, the bell will begin to slow and eventually stop. 

It is like that with forgiveness.  When you decide to forgive, the old feelings of unforgiveness may continue to assert themselves.  After all, they have lots of momentum.  But if you affirm your decision to forgive, that unforgiving spirit will begin to slow and will eventually be still.  Forgiveness is not something you feel, it is something you do.  It is letting go of the rope of retribution.

            It’s time to let go of the rope.

Copyright 2014, Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved.