Fr. John Allison
September 17, 2023
Christ Church, Hudson
Our reading today from Matthew’s Gospel is part of what is generally called Jesus’ discourse on community. In it, Jesus teaches his disciples how they are to be in relationship with one another—today specifically focusing on the necessity of forgiveness. And this is one of his teachings that, at least on the surface, seems fairly straightforward. Forgiveness, after all, is a virtue lauded even in secular society, not to mention in the world’s other major religious traditions as well. More recently, science and medicine have recognized the importance of forgiveness to our overall health and well-being and a quick internet search on forgiveness produces results ranging from Christianity to psychology to politics. Forgiveness is part and parcel of the human condition—so much so that we may easily fall into the trap of complacency, of nodding along to admonitions on the importance of forgiveness without sufficiently probing the depths of our hearts, without really recognizing what it means to truly forgive, what is demanded of us in such an act.
In the years following World War II and the liberation of the concentration camps, a young Dutch Christian woman named Cornelia ten Boom traveled throughout Europe preaching about forgiveness. She herself had been liberated from a concentration camp a few days after the Allies conquered Germany and took upon herself the difficult process of forgiveness. She came to believe that only a deliberate, intentional approach to forgiveness could heal the people of Europe. She and her family had been imprisoned for hiding Jewish refugees and helping them escape after the Nazis had invaded the Netherlands in 1940. In her book, The Hiding Place, she recounts preaching to a crowd of people in Munich who were seeking forgiveness for their actions during the war. After the service was over a man approached her and extended his hand. “Ja, Fraulein ten Boom,” he said. “I am so glad Jesus forgives us our sin, just as you say.”
She was taken aback as she recognized this man as one of the guards at the camp, one who had often been especially cruel. As he stood there with his hand extended ten Boom’s own arm remained frozen at her side. She was stunned by her response. She could not take this man’s hand in forgiveness, even after all the work she had done. She had thought she had overcome the hate and the pain that had been inside her; she had gone all over Europe extolling the virtue of forgiveness but here she was unable to forgive this man who stood before her. She turned away and left him there and later, as she tried to make some sense of her response, she did the only thing that seemed truly authentic to what she was feeling. She prayed. “Jesus, I cannot forgive this man. Forgive me.”
In the starkness of her honesty we see where we must all begin. Forgiveness begins with where we actually are, in acknowledging the feelings we have, in acknowledging our limits, in acknowledging our own need for forgiveness. That’s where true forgiveness begins.
In just a little while we will pray together the Lord’s Prayer and we will say, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” There is a reciprocity in our call to forgive. Ultimately it is God’s forgiveness that empowers us to forgive others. As creatures made in God’s image we are called to live into and to reflect the mercy God shows to us.
Jesus tells us the story today of the king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. One slave comes to him unable to pay the enormous sum he owes—ten thousand talents we are told. It’s important to realize that this is an impossible sum; a single talent would have represented more than a years wages; not only is there no way a slave could ever have repaid such an amount, he couldn't have even have owed this much in the first place. And yet, as the slave begs for mercy his master takes pity on him and forgives the debt. Our master, our God, does this for us every minute of our lives. That’s the nature of God’s mercy. A love so extravagant that nothing we could ever do would be enough to earn it. A love presented to us purely as gift. That’s God’s nature. It has nothing to do with us or our merits or what we can give.
The question, then, is what do we do with such extravagant love? We know what the slave does. Immediately after being forgiven his own debt he accosts a fellow slave who owes him money, assaults him and has him thrown into prison. Obviously, not the right response. The master, upon hearing this, revokes his gift of mercy and sentences the slave to be tortured until the debt is repaid in full, which, of course, we know is impossible.
Now, as I’ve already explained this is a story rich in hyperbole but the point is not lost on us that we who are forgiven are often not so willing to forgive. Each and every one of us here is forgiven. And yet, how often do we find ourselves in situations where forgiveness of another is not so easy for us? It’s likely nothing so extreme as the behavior exhibited in our Gospel story; it could be a complete break in a relationship or, more likely, it’s subtle, something that might look more like a snub or nasty remark behind someone’s back. Without deep self-reflection and prayer such behavior or feeling may never even rise to consciousness, but, even so, it has the power to create a barrier that not only separates us from one another but separates us from God’s love. That’s one of the ways in which we understand sin—those acts which have the power to separate us, or perhaps blind us to God’s love.
In the story, the slave received his master’s grace but something got in the way. I’m only speculating but it appears that his attack on his colleague was motivated by the sin of greed. Greed prevented him from truly receiving the grace he had so clearly been given. And all of us face similar dangers. Maybe not from greed. Anger perhaps. Or envy. The point is that true forgiveness begins in God and that in our earthly lives we face many forces that threaten our apprehension of that love. We become bound by past injuries and cling to old feelings that prevent us from truly receiving. Only in forgiving, in letting go, are we set free.
Peter asks, “How many times are we to forgive? Seven times?” Not seven, but seventy-seven, or seven times seventy depending on the translation we use. The point is that forgiveness is not something to be measured, not something that can be tallied up as a measure of holiness. Rather, forgiveness is a process in which we are always engaged, always participating, receiving it for our sins and offering it in pardon. That is the end toward which we are all traveling. That is our completion in Christ. That is the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen.