First Evangelical Lutheran Church
February 22, 2015
Corrie Ten Boom was a Dutch Christian who, along with her family, helped Jews escape the Nazi holocaust. Eventually, they were imprisoned in a concentration camp where several members of her large family died. Corrie was released and returned to The Netherlands where she often spoke about her experiences and the deep need to forgive. At one such public gathering, a man who had been a guard at Ravensbruck Camp where she was imprisoned approached her. He told her that because he had converted to Christianity and because of her powerful witness, he was emboldened to ask for her forgiveness. He put out his hand to her, and she hesitated, remembering that her sister, parents and aunts had died in that terrible camp.
In her book, “The Hiding Place”, she wrote:
And still I stood there, with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘…Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling. And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust 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!’ For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then.
Forgiveness is central to Jesus’ teaching. The heart of the Gospel is that God sent Jesus to take on the sins of the world and bring us into eternal life because he loves us.
The heart of God’s love is that Jesus does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. The very nature of human existence is to be trapped in sin with no humanly way out. Let us be clear—sin is not fundamentally what we do, it is who we are, separated from our Creator. In that state of separation all sorts of sinful words and actions emanate, but it is our separation that requires the intervention on the cross to restore us to a state of right relationship with our creator. We like it that God loves and forgives us. And every week in worship we repent our sins and accept God’s love and forgiveness. Hopefully we also do that daily in our prayers. But then we go back out into the world and think we have it covered. We forget that there is a real life connection to what we profess in church.
This passage from Matthew begins with Jesus giving us practical advice on forgiveness. If you find yourself in conflict with someone, the direct approach is best. Have a conversation between the two of you. Many times that will resolve the problem. If it doesn’t, widen the circle, bring 2 to 3 friends with you. If that still does not work, bring in the whole church, with the promise that the Holy Spirit will be a part of that conversation. And given that we are human beings who are existentially trapped in sin, if there is no possibility for change, expel the intractable person from the Body of Christ.
Now Peter—being Peter, wants to push Jesus to absurd limits. Okay, I think I can forgive someone seven times. Surely that is good enough. He thinks he sets the bar very high with 7 times, but Jesus raises the limit to a hyperbolic absurdity—77 times. Jesus is not asking us to keep score here—that once we reach 77 we are free to withhold forgiveness. Jesus is telling us to let go of score keeping and make forgiveness our default position. He illustrates with the parable of the king and the servant.
The servant owed the king 10,000 talents, which is roughly equivalent to our bazillion. In the ancient world, it would take about 15 years to earn 1 talent, or 150,000 years to earn 10,000. It was an impossible debt to repay. And so he asks the king for forgiveness, and the king grants it to him, and wipes out the debt. The king is gracious and forgiving beyond measure.
But the king’s grace does not have any real world significance for the servant who demanded immediate payment from a fellow slave for the 100 denarii he owed. The first slave showed no mercy to the second and imprisoned him for the debt, equal to about 1 day’s wage. His fellow slaves were horrified and told the king what was happening. The king then imposed the harshest sentence possible on the unforgiving slave. Jesus’ point is very clear. God is the forgiving king.
What possible justification do we have for not forgiving each other as God forgives us? Like everything else concerning our relationship with God and one another, there are consequences to the choices we make.
If we choose to be unforgiving to those who ask it from us, we will reap the consequence when we answer to God for how we lived our lives.
Are we truly willing to reconcile to one another or do we just talk about it in the abstract? Practical rules are a starting point, but following a process is not enough. This is not a formula or pie chart or a how-it problem to solve. The first step in forgiveness is letting go of a hurt, grudge, pain and stubborn human pride, but it does not end there. When we refuse to forgive someone who has repented of the deep they have caused us, all movement stops. The relationship becomes stuck and the violations of trust take over. What true forgiveness does is release us from the anger and pain so that the past does not dictate the future. Forgiveness is transformative, designed to restore relationship. It opens up a future that the past has closed off.
Now, here is the Holy Paradox. Continuing to hold on to grudges finally maims the one who will not forgive. To be unforgiving hardens our hearts and souls, paralyzing and controlling us, miring us in pain which turns into anger which turns into hate. And it is compounded when we ourselves have been so graciously forgiven by our Creator. In the parable, the king has the unforgiving slave tortured until he pays off his debt. It is important not to be biblical literalists here, but to understand the last hyperbole of the parable. Jesus is not telling us that there is some cosmic eternal torture chamber worthy of Dante’s Inferno awaiting us. He is telling us that when we will not be gracious to each other as God is gracious to us, we create our own torments. The horror is finally in the injuries we do to ourselves when we cannot forgive.
Only God through Christ has the power to enable us to forgive on this scale. It is humanly impossible to get there ourselves. Corrie ten Boom could not forgive the man who had imprisoned, brutalized and murdered her family. But she could take his hand and pray that God would intervene. And God did, most graciously. And she lived out her life as a most gracious lady. Most of us have never been wronged on the scale that she was. But all of us have been wronged, and all of us have wronged other people. Forgiveness is not about the temperature of the human heart. Otherwise we would all freeze to death. Forgiveness is about giving all human sin to God and allowing his grace to warm our hearts and draw us into the future, releasing us from the harshness of the past. It is about saying, I cannot forgive without you, Lord. God have mercy on me.
To God be the glory.