I love you.
Please forgive me.
Let’s label these phrases as the seven keys to a happy life.
It’s the basic manners that we were taught as children. Show affection, express appreciation, be polite, and extend forgiveness.
We know these phrases, I’m sure we’ve even used all of these phrases before, and for the most part, we don’t mind using them. It’s an easy enough thing to thank someone when they do something nice or go out of their way to help you.
When you bump into someone at the grocery store, apologizing is easy. Telling your spouse or your children or your parents that you love them is a simple task.
Most of these phrases are reciprocal. An, “I love you.” Usually receives an “I love you too.” A “thank you” is almost always followed by a “you’re welcome”.
Yes, in most instances, we know how to respond to each of these phrases.
Except the last one.
I love you.
Please forgive me.
That idea of forgiveness isn’t one that we can control. We generally tend to fall in love with someone that loves us back, that’s what makes a great relationship work: there is something reciprocal to it.
But when it comes to forgiveness, it is all out of our hands.
Maybe they forgive us quickly. Maybe they don’t. And there’s nothing you can do about it.
Elise and I have learned something about parenting: one of the things that we need to teach our children is that sometimes you have to do something you don’t want to.
Like apologizing for example.
When we have neighborhood kids over and someone gets hurt, we encourage the children to apologize and reconcile.
And the number one thing we hear when we suggest that?
But I didn’t do it on purpose!
As if our intention was all that mattered.
No, instead we reassure them that whether they meant to hurt someone else or not, they did, and that warrants an apology. They may not feel like they need to, but our goal is to teach them that every time we offend someone, intentionally or not, we should go and seek repentance to restore the relationship.
Truth be told, we’ve had to share that with some adults too.
More than intention, is the result. Someone was hurt by your actions, an apology is warranted.
But the receiving of forgiveness is not a guarantee.
I think Peter struggled with a similar situation. Listen to his question, perhaps prompted out of pain, fear, rejection, and hurt: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus, Peter says, Someone keeps hurting me and asking for forgiveness. Isn’t there an end to when I have to stop forgiving?
Peter wanted to know the boundaries. Who’s in, who’s out, and how can we tell? Can we exclude someone because their chances or merit for forgiveness have run out? Even unemotional pain wears our souls thin and we struggle to continually forgive someone’s careless or reckless lifestyle. It’s not just the intentional or malicious sin that harms us, but daily grind of someone else’s poor choices. One pastor referred to it as, “death by paper cuts.”
And Jesus response is classic Jesus, he breaks down the barriers that Peter, we, and all of humanity try to build. “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Jesus here shows us the depth and extravagance of God’s love and forgiveness for us.
The first book of the Bible, Genesis, is a telling story of humanity when left to it’s own devices. What was quickly one sin multiplied, with murder and death taking center stage. And Genesis 4 gives us a telling story of human vengeance. Cain, after killing his brother Abel, is a man outcast from society. Dismayed and afraid for his life, God pronounces a hedge of protection over him. Should anyone seek vengeance on him, they will experience a increase in violence seven-fold. It was God’s way of trying to stop the violence.
Because violence doesn’t solve anything.
Love does, and so does forgiveness.
So God pronounced that Cain would be protected from retaliation.
And just a few verses later we see someone trying to own that for themselves, but taking it to the extreme. Lamech told his wives that a man had injured him and in response he killed the man.
The violence escalated.
An accidental injury turned into murder.
Violence led to more violence.
Exactly the opposite of what God wanted.
And then Lamech says, “And if Cain is avenged seven times, I shall be seventy-seven times!”
If Cain’s protection was from escalating violence seven-fold, Lamech wanted to go even further, seventy-seven times.
One act of violence extended to seven and then exploded to seventy-seven
And that is the exact opposite of what God had in mind.
Lord, how many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me? Up to seven times?
Peter’s question is biblical right? Seven is a good, holy number after all. And that seems more than fair. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me, fool me seven times and good luck in hell, sinner!
And Jesus turns the whole paradigm on it’s head. It’s not about boundaries, merits, or acceptable limits. It’s about radical, abundant, and unending grace.
Peace was meant to extend not just in limited quantities, but to everyone in all things an at all times. Forgiveness isn’t something that can run out, so keep extending it and you’ll keep discovering that you have more to give.
Sort of like trying to empty the ocean with an eye dropper. You’ll discover that you go on forever, because there is always more to do.
Every act of forgiveness extended to someone reveals something deep and vast about the extent of God’s grace and forgiveness for us.
So Jesus tells us a story:
There was a certain king that wanted to settle some outstanding debts. He called in one gentleman who had someone managed to accumulate twenty years worth of debt. Paycheck after paycheck for twenty solid and unending years worth debt. And the king? Well, he somehow forgave that. The median US household income is $51,000. Over twenty years, that meant the man amassed a debt of just over a million dollars. A million dollar debt and the King forgave it all.
The servant, ecstatic no doubt, left the royal court leaping for joy. A million dollar debt forgiven! On his way home with the good news, he ran into a man that owed him $13,000. No small amount for sure, but paling in comparison to the debt that had just been forgiven of
This second servant, unable to pay, was thrown into jail to work of his debt. Like coming up short at a restaurant and needing to wash the dishes to pay off your bill. This man had $13,000 worth of dishes to wash.
The king found out and he was unhappy. More than that he was upset. He called in the man whose million dollar debt had been forgiven and demanded an explanation.
“You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?”
And off to jail he went, to wash a million dollars worth of dishes.
Now we see the extravagant example of forgiveness. Not once, not seven times, and ultimately not even seventy-seven times. The real answer is to forgive up to a million times, or really, what we might say, “as many times as necessary.” That is, after all, what Christ does for us.
The question that Peter asks, and that all of us ask, is somehow related to the question of enough. We want to know, “When is enough, enough?” Jesus’ answer is essentially ‘never.’
There is no end, bottom, or limit to the amount of grace that God has given us, no end to his forgiveness and love; and so as good servants (because we wouldn’t want to be like the evil one, would we?) we should live the same way. We should extend forgiveness as often as necessary for someone to experience true repentance and reconciliation in Christ.
And we know how difficult this is, because we immediately try to justify or defend our beliefs about forgiveness.
Yes, but you don’t know what they did.
You don’t know how bad it hurt.
It wasn’t an accident.
And all of those statements may be true, and they probably are. I’ve experienced all of those before.
But Jesus tells us, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive a brother or sister from your heart.”
And many here want to fight back still: “So you just want to forgive and forget huh? Easy for you to say!”
No, not easy to say, and most certainly not true.
Forgiveness is not about forgetfulness, it is about grace.
It is about not forcing someone to ‘work their way out’ and experience your good graces again, because they can’t work long enough, hard enough, or good enough for that. We’d always find something wrong to keep bringing up the grudge or the offense.
If we demanded that people work of their debt to us, like the two men in the story, we’d all be living in fake relationships sucking up to everyone around us. We would never experience real and transformative love, support, community, and life with God.
No, forgiveness is not about forgetfulness.
The truth is, you may need to forgive this person a million times, you may even have to forgive them a million times today. Because forgiveness is ultimately about releasing what you feel ‘owed’ because of the wrong they did.
You may not know why they chose to hurt you, but you can choose to forgive anyway. You can choose to say, “It would be impossible for you to repay to me the pain and hurt that your actions have caused. There is no possible way for you to work your way out of the debt that you owe, but I choose to release it anyway.”
It doesn’t mean forgetting, and it also may not mean having the same relationship as before, maybe a relationship has become impossible and unhealthy. But it does mean releasing them from the debt that they owe, much like God has done with you.
Not just once.
Not just seven times.
Not even seventy-seven times is enough.
Perhaps the offense is more in the range of the millions. And yet we are called to forgive anyway.
Because violence never works. Neither do grudges or legal records of the wrongs received.
Only radical, abundant, unending, unwavering grace and forgiveness.
This was a recent sermon from our series on The Parables of Jesus and the text came from Matthew 18.