"The Force of Forgiveness" – Matthew 18:21-35
Stop by my house and you’re likely to hear a lot of apologies. You would hear us apologize for the dog hair on the floors. You would hear us apologize for toys being strewn about like shrapnel from an explosion. And if you watched us as we supervise our boys interactions, you’d likely hear this sequence of phrases:
“Stop that; we don’t take toys away from someone else. What do you say?”
“OK, go tell your brother you are sorry.”
There’s a lot of apologizing that goes on in our house. On one level, the apologies are efforts at admitting fault, repairing the damage of past offenses, and re-establishing trust. But on another level, the apologies are merely the next step in an established pattern of behavior: step 1–rip the toy out of your brother’s hand; step 2-get caught doing it; step 3-apologize because mom or dad says so; step 4–repeat.
I can imagine either of my children saying to me, “How many times do I have to forgive my brother when he takes my toys?” It’s a question they are right to ask, because they know that despite the apologies, the behavior isn’t going to stop (at least anytime soon; but I don’t know, I’m an only child and I never had to share! At what age to siblings stop taking things from each other?).
“How many times should I forgive someone who sins against me?” asks Peter. “Seven times?”
“No, not seven times,” replies Jesus; “But seventy-seven times”
Notice, however, what is missing from Peter’s question. It’s rather remarkable; because what we typically assume Peter is asking is this: “How many times must I forgive someone who sins against me when they ask my forgiveness?”
That’s what we assume Peter is talking about, right? We assume he’s talking about forgiving people who are seeking forgiveness. But that’s not the question. The question is how many times to forgive someone regardless of whether they feel remorse or not.
So imagine it like this, “Lord, how many times should I forgive someone who has hurt me but refuses to admit he or she did anything wrong?” When you ask it like that, seven times seems incredibly generous. Jesus’ response of seventy-seven times just sounds ludicrous.
My wife and I tend to role our eyes when the boys apologize to each other in a way that clearly demonstrates the apology is less than whole-hearted; but perhaps the most profound thing that comes out of these encounters is the opportunity to practice forgiveness, regardless of whether the apology is sincere.
Because what are the alternatives? Sulking? Anger? Distrust? Self-righteousness? Waiting for the offender to suddenly realize the error of his ways? Dwelling on the infraction so that it becomes an emotional, spiritual, and physical barrier to your well-being? That sounds like torture; which might be what Jesus’ point was in that strange parable about the unforgiving servant – the servant who failed to translate his own forgiveness into a force of grace and ended up in agony.
“How many times should I forgive someone who has hurt me but refuses to admit he or she did anything wrong?” Well, that depends on how much forgiveness you have to share. Jesus seems to think you’ve received enough forgiveness to go and forgive others a ludicrous number of times. After all, what’s the alternative?
I am reminded of a man named Bruce Murakami, who one day received the terrible news that his wife and daughter had been killed in a car accident. The accident was caused by a young man named Justin Gutierrez, who was street-racing. A distraught, angry Murakami fought for justice and sought a conviction and long prison term for the young man.
Eventually, however, Bruce found that his desire for retribution was destroying himself. He realized that he needed to forgive Justin so that he and the remainder of his family could find healing.
Bruce received permission to meet Justin one-on-one, and this confrontation resulted in mercy in the courtroom.
At the end, Murakami and Justin, as part of his community service sentence, joined forces on the school lecture circuit to promote safe driving among young people. (The nonprofit organization Safe Teen Driver Inc. has a Web site at www.safeteendriver.org. )
In an interview, Bruce is quoted as saying, "If I hadn't forgiven him, I would have been the third victim of the tragedy.
"Early on I was deeply mired in my own grief. Later, I would actually practice saying out loud, 'I forgive you, Justin.' And that helped me to slowly take baby steps out of the darkness that I was in. On the day that we finally had our heart-to-heart, I put the theory of forgiveness into action. I knew in my heart I'd forgiven him."
There are a lot of incredible parts to this story, but what really strikes me as profound is that that Bruce began the process of forgiving Justin before he had any way of knowing whether Justin was at all sorry for what he had done. Before the two men met face-to-face, Bruce had already forgiven the man who killed his wife and daughter.
This forgiveness was so powerful and life-giving that it rescued Justin from a life behind bars and instead put him in front of crowds of young people so that he could encourage them to make safe driving decisions.
Restorative justice can be a beautiful thing. Second chances can be a beautiful thing. Forgiveness can be a beautiful thing.
May you know in your heart that you are completely, utterly, entirely forgiven. May you have the strength to accept this forgiveness. And may you be inspired to share that forgiveness with others, no matter how many times it takes.
Bruce Murakami quotes from Jim Heinrich, “Crossroads: A Story of Forgiveness” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 19, 2007