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Arthritis of the Spirit

Scripture - Matthew 18:21-35

The song “Forgiveness” was written by Matthew West in response to a video he saw of a mother whose daughter had been killed by a drunk driver, Rene, & the young man who killed her, Eric, in which they discussed the power of forgiveness in their lives. Both spoke of the horrible circumstances that brought them together & that had almost destroyed their lives. Both spoke of sleepless nights, anger, fear, depression, & shame; but each also spoke of the beauty & goodness they had found in being able to forgive & accept forgiveness. They talked about what it meant to not be defined by their pasts, to be set free from a burden they had not chosen, & how life-giving the practice of forgiveness had been.

Today’s text from Matthew moves us to consider one of the most difficult practices of Christian discipleship—forgiveness. Forgiveness is a hard road to walk, but it is the way to life & life abundant. Forgiveness is the way of Jesus, & the way of the cross. While at first glance revenge may seem much easier & more satisfying, in fact it leads to bondage & death. From the place of death, vengeance, & coercive violence—from the cross—Jesus spoke words of forgiveness, pointing to the way that leads to life. At the heart of discipleship lies the painful & challenging practice of forgiveness.

Matthew tells us that Peter came & asked Jesus, Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as 7 times? (v. 21). Jesus said to him, Not just 7 times, but rather as many as 77 times (v. 22). (Or is it 70 times 7?) I cherish this answer. Jesus gives clear instructions about the importance of forgiveness as a way of life in the kingdom of heaven.

Perhaps sensing that Peter hasn’t quite gotten the point, Jesus tells a story. In the parable Jesus deftly describes our propensity to seek vengeance, to demand a righting of the scales of justice in a manner that we believe balances our accounts with others. A man experiences undeserved mercy & compassion from one to whom he owes a significant debt – 10,000 bags of gold! 60M days wages! In other words, a debt that could never be repaid. Instead of shaping & defining his dealings with others by the mercy he has undeservedly received, that man immediately turns to one who owes him a much smaller debt – 100 coins, about 3 months wages - & demands the account to be paid & the debt settled.

Upon hearing what he has done, his master, who had extended him mercy, now calls him to account & hands him over for punishment. The man is in bondage to his own greed & his misguided sense of justice. He, who had been set free for life, chose the way that leads to bondage & torture. He chose not to forgive. Sadly, so many of us do the same.

In relating this story Jesus holds up a mirror for us to see our tendency to withhold the very mercy & forgiveness we have received. The only righteous judge, Jesus, says from the cross, Forgive them. We, from our positions of self-righteousness, cry out, “Pay me what you owe.” What a tragedy that we forfeit the gift of freedom because we are unable to allow the spirit of love to form us into a people who practice the abundant economy of forgiveness rather than the bankrupt market of vengeance, getting even, & settling the score. I know forgiveness is a hard road. It may take months, years, countless tears, & endless prayers to say, “I forgive you.” But Jesus was clear: grace is costly & forgiveness involves the way of the cross. True life is found only on the other side of Golgotha.

Let’s be very clear about what we are talking about. Forgiveness is a practice, a discipline made possible by the grace of God, not some heroic act of the human will. It is something that we practice again & again, on a daily basis, until it becomes a part of who we are.

Rene was so controlled in her anger & resentment by the death of her daughter that her only hope of freedom was to forgive Eric. (A friend of mine calls resentment “arthritis of the spirit.”) Rene visited him in prison to give him the news. He expressed true contrition & Rene began working for his early release from a 22-year prison sentence. Eventually, his sentence was cut in half & he was released after 11 years. But more than that, their relationship did not end. Eric has become like a son to Rene & her family. The 2 of them travel the country speaking on the dangers of drunk driving & the power of forgiveness.

Obviously, forgiveness is not forgetting. One cannot forgive that which is forgotten. Forgiveness involves telling each other the painful truth, not to hold something over the other person but to find a way forward that breaks the cycle of eye-for-an-eye violence in which we so often find ourselves trapped. Forgiveness is not about becoming a doormat & relishing the role of victim. Forgiveness is about being victorious, freed from the horrible things others have done to us. Likewise, forgiveness is not a strategy for turning our enemies into our friends; it is instead a grateful response to what God has done for us. We forgive others as a way of saying “thank you” to God, who in Christ has graciously forgiven us.

Finally, practicing forgiveness does not deny the possibility or the necessity of justice. Rather, it redefines justice, & ensures that it is God’s peculiar brand of justice we are practicing & not the retribution & retaliation that often masquerade as justice. In calling us to forgive, Jesus offers us a different kind of justice that holds open the possibility of a new future, a way through the hurt & pain that can lead to resurrection & new life. Forgiveness is about having our lives defined by the justice of God’s kingdom rather than the justice of the kingdoms of this world.

We just marked the anniversary of 9/11—a day when horrible atrocities were committed in the name of God. The events of that day led to a violent response from our own nation as it pursued “justice,” also in the name of God. Thousands of men, women, & children on all sides have lost their lives. Whatever we think or feel about the events of the past several years, it might be good for us to ask, “How does one follow Jesus & practice forgiveness in such a time?”

I have to be perfectly honest & say that I’m not entirely certain how to answer that question except to say that maybe Jesus knew there would be times such as these. One day on a hill by a lake, he gathered his disciples & told them to pray like this: Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us. Perhaps that is where we begin. With all the hurt, pain, shame, guilt, anger, and betrayal in our world, perhaps that is where we should begin today. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive.

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