Romans 14:1–12; Psalm 103:1–13; Matthew 18:21–35

I will never forget a riveting talk given in a forum at a parish I
served in Chicago some years ago. A distinguished Shakespeare professor
was asked to talk about a faith struggle he had been through, and he
told us of the tragedy of his son’s death as a result of a
careless dentist. His son had had a heart murmur, something the dentist
knew, but the dentist forgot to take the necessary precautions to
protect the boy, and an infection settled into his heart that within
days had killed him.

This gentle father stood before that forum and talked of how, after
getting through the initial shock and grief, his deepest desire was for
revenge. He described how badly he wanted to hurt back for what had been
done to his son and his whole family. What else could set the world
right after that man had so wrecked it? He said he thought of suing the
dentist, but what kind of money would that be, money gained by the loss
of his son? How else could he hurt him, he wondered? What could ever
make up for that loss?

How do we deal with the hurts, the wounds that come our way? How do
you? Some time ago I sat over lunch and caught up with a friend I
hadn’t seen in nearly twenty years. There was much ground to
cover, but our talk quickly focused on the trauma he had gone through
over the past four or five years. In that time, he had come to find out,
his wife had been involved in a series of extramarital affairs, had
managed to spend up virtually all the family savings, and caused great
pain to their children.

Even though my friend had known the full story for over two years,
the rage and shock were still raw. He said to me, “I know I need
to forgive her, but how could I even begin? How do I forgive?”
With wounds such as these, or with wounds much smaller, the question is
the same. How do I forgive?

Today’s gospel lesson is the second in a row in which Jesus
talks about the fundamental human need to forgive. For a species such as
ours, riddled with selfishness, short tempers, cruelty, and betrayal,
forgiveness is not a luxury. We cannot live without it.

You may know the old story about a woman who was having her portrait
painted. When it was finished she complained, “It doesn’t do
me justice!” The artist then replied, “Madam, it isn’t
justice you need, it’s mercy!”

Mercy is the deepest need of us all. The past bears its full share of
failures, disappointments, and wounds. So the question is, what power
will the past play in our lives? Are we going to continue to be bound by
the painful parts of it, or can we find our way to freedom?

In fact, Jesus put forgiveness at the center of everything. It is at
the heart of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Often when he
encountered someone in need of healing, the first thing he would say to
them is “Your sins are forgiven.” He told stories of
prodigal sons and lost sheep and lost coins, which are all stories of
forgiveness. And of course he died on a cross saying, “Father,
forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

In our Gospel lesson this morning Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if
another member of the church should sin against me how often should I
forgive? As many as seven times?” In other words, how much is
enough? What are the limits of my having to forgive? When do I get to
say that’s it, I’m not going to try any more?

But Jesus replies, “Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy
times seven,” which is his way of saying it never ends. There is
no real life without forgiveness. Forgiveness for Jesus isn’t
simply an isolated act but a way of life.

Of course much of the worst cruelty of the last century has been
because of people’s unwillingness to forgive. Many historians say
that the Second World War might never have happened if the Allied powers
had been less vengeful toward Germany after defeating it in the first
Great War.

The Israelis and Palestinians have been locked for decades in a
bitter conflict, and the violent attacks and reprisals, the wounding and
being wounded, seem endless. Both sides have been damaged immeasurably.
And yet…to remain locked in the resentments of the past only
makes shaping a new future impossible. It reminds me of the account of a
former inmate of a Nazi concentration camp who visited a friend who had
gone through the ordeal with him and asked, “Have you forgiven the
Nazis?”

“Yes,” his friend said.

“Well, I haven’t. I’m still consumed with hatred
for them.”

“In that case,” his friend said, “they still have
you in prison.”

Into this bitter web of wounding comes Jesus calling us to the
miracle of forgiveness. It is a miracle because it shatters the chain of
cause and effect. It sets people free from prisons of hatred and
recrimination. It heals relationships and creates the possibility of new
life.

We should be clear what forgiveness is not. It doesn’t mean
saying the offense never happened. It did. It isn’t saying that
everything is right away okay, because often it is not.

Forgiving is not forgetting. Memories linger, and they should. It is
about remembering that a person is more than this act that has hurt me,
and it means remembering that I too have a history, that I have hurt
people as well.

Forgiveness doesn’t depend on the other person’s being
sorry. Sorrow makes it easier, but forgiveness isn’t about the
other person, but about me. It is about changing how I see and relate to
someone who has hurt me.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be punishment or
consequences or restitution. Society has laws for our life together and
they need to be honored.

And finally, forgiveness doesn’t mean staying in a destructive
situation. The struggle to forgive also calls us to refuse to be wounded
continually, either by an unjust government, or an abusive spouse, or a
destructive relationship.

Forgiveness has its own clear message: “I am furious at you for
what you have done. It has hurt me and continues to. BUT, I refuse to
stay trapped in my rage. I am going to forgive you because I know that
you are more than what you have done to me. And I know that we both need
God’s forgiveness. I want to let go of this, and begin again with
a clean slate, and leave the rest in God’s hands.”

At its core, forgiveness is about discovering who I am in relation to
God and everyone else. It’s what Jesus is getting at in the
parable he tells in the Gospel this morning of a palace servant who was
forgiven a vast debt of ten thousand talents and then refused to forgive
a much smaller amount.

Forgiveness, Jesus is saying, begins not with an act but a
recognition—that all of us are in debt, all of us need mercy.

And so the heart of forgiveness is a profound act of letting go. The
word for forgiveness in Greek and the Aramaic Jesus would have spoken
means, “to release,” “to let go,” “to
surrender.” We decide to release our grip on the hatred, rage, and
hurt, and claim our place in God’s ceaseless love and
forgiveness.

The steps are simple. First, face up to the hurt and decide to take
your time in this work of forgiveness. Second, when the pain washes over
you, keep letting go of it as much as you can. Slowly it will get
easier. And most importantly, pray for the ability to forgive, and pray
for the person who hurt you. Try to see that person in the light of
God’s love. Ask for the healing power of Christ to give you the
power to release the anger.

We have to be willing to stay at this forgiveness thing. 70 times 7,
Jesus said. Sometimes it can take years. In one of her books writer Anne
Lamott describes her struggles to forgive her mother through the years.
“I prayed for my heart to soften,” she wrote, “to
forgive her and to love her for what she did give me—life, great
values, a lot of tennis lessons, and the best she could do.
Unfortunately, the best she could do was terrible… And my heart
remained hardened toward her.”

And so, Lamott says, for the first two years after her mother’s
death, she kept her mother’s ashes in her son’s closet. But
slowly Lamott was able to move them to a corner of the living room. And
that was for her a major event. She says that Jesus understands that
things like forgiving a mother take time. “I don’t think he
was rolling his eyes impatiently at me while she was in the
closet… I don’t think much surprises him: This is how we
make important changes—barely, poorly, slowly. And still, he
raises his fist in triumph.”

That’s the power the world needs for our healing. That’s
the power my Shakespeare professor friend discovered on the far side of
revenge, as did my friend whose wife had betrayed him. Today is the day
of the annual Unity Interfaith Walk, which arose in response to the
events of 9/11 seven years ago. Several hundred people of many faiths
come together to face the divisions of the past and to mark their
determination to see healing and reconciliation. We Christians call that
forgiving 70 times 7.

I read recently that on the day that the Civil War ended, a group
gathered outside the White House and President Lincoln came out to
speak to them. A band was there ready to play. President spoke briefly
about the horrors of war and then joked some, as he often did. People
were elated. Lincoln talked too about how important it was to heal the
nation’s wounds and bring everyone together again. Then he called
on the band to play something. The crowd was prepared for “The
Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which had become their theme song.
But instead the President said, “I wonder if we, in winning the
war, have the right now to play the music again…if maybe
that’s not appropriate.” And then he said, “I want you
to play Dixie.”

For a long moment everyone stood their stunned, looking at each
other. The band hadn’t played it in years. But after a lengthy
pause the band began to play, and they say there wasn’t a dry eye
in the crowd.

As preacher Roger Lovette puts it, “When we forgive we play
music we never thought we could play and sing songs we thought we could
never sing.”

“How many times must I forgive?” Peter asks.

Peter is looking for limits—limits on his relationships with
his neighbors, limits to the demands of God’s love.

But Jesus refuses. There is no counting. Because there are no limits
on the times we will hurt and be hurt. No limits on the love that
forgives you and me. And no limits on the power of Christ to heal the
past and to set us free.