The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
September 13, 2020
Someone said, “We should always forgive. We should forgive those who repent, for their sake; and those who do not, for our own sake.”
Jesus so emphasized forgiving that Peter wondered how often he’d have to forgive someone, asking, “as many as seven times?” Jesus replied, “Not seven times, but…seventy-seven times.” He was not being literal, as if He expected Peter to keep count and on the 78th infraction to refuse forgiveness. “77” was just a large number to imply there’s to be no limit to being gracious.
But what about those who do not repent? People often must forgive the unrepentant, for their own sake. To forgive those who’ve hurt them is an act of grace to themselves. For it keeps the wrongdoers from hurting them any longer. For when those wronged cease to hold on to resentment against the wrongdoers, they cease to hold on to a bad past and can move on with their life into a better future.
But in this 18th chapter of Matthew, a chapter focused entirely on how Christians are to live together as the church, Jesus suggests it can be an act of grace to the unrepentant to refrain from forgiving them.
Just before Peter asked his question, Jesus had encouraged His disciples to care enough to confront people about their bad choices, in a gracious concern to keep them connected with Christ.
More often than we like to admit, we love people well by not letting them get away with certain things. We bless them by forsaking a tolerance that enables them to continue down a self-defeating or even self-destructive path. To care is to exercise the tough love that refuses to make it easy for an addict to escape responsibility, that calls to account a friend who bullies others, that keeps checking up on a rebellious teen to make sure they’re doing the right thing, that holds a mirror in front of an unconscious racist to give them a chance to face the ugly truth about themselves they’d like to deny.
To exercise such tough love, despite the discomfort and unpleasantness it may involve, is to be gracious to someone we care about. It is to be as devoted to their welfare as a shepherd who leaves behind the rest of the flock to search high and low for one little lamb that’s gotten lost.
Grace, even if it takes an uncomfortable form, is always a generous gift of love given without regard to a person’s meriting it or earning it.
Now, since grace is undeserved, it belongs to everyone equally, even those we deem especially undeserving (that is, those who have wronged us personally). Whether grace is shown by speaking a word of confrontation or of comfort, grace is what every believer owes everyone no matter how bad they’ve been or are.
To fail to live out what grace we can– even if it’s no more than forsaking the desire to see the wrongdoer pay – is to refuse to live by the grace that is our only hope. To bar the bridge someone else must cross to reach redemption is to bar the bridge that we ourselves must cross to reach it. Our not sharing grace blocks our receiving grace.
In response to Peter’s question about possible limits to being gracious and forgiving, Jesus told a parable. A king finds out that one of his administrators has embezzled “ten thousand talents”, the equivalent of a billion dollars! When the king brings down the hammer on the scoundrel, he begs for mercy. Surprisingly, in a magnanimous act that only a heart full of grace can explain, the king releases the man from prison and forgives him all his debts. But when the king later learns that this recipient of grace refuses to give any to someone who owes him just “a hundred denarii”, one millionth of what he had owed the king, the monarch rescinds his previous act of mercy and orders the man to be tortured until he pays his entire debt.
Now, in many of Jesus’ parables most of the details have no purpose but to advance a story, one meant to convey but a point or two. Thus, the king’s torturing the man is not intended to reveal God’s capacity for cruelty. The parable actually is all about revealing God’s capacity for graciousness, even while it warns about a hard truth about life: that certain things, such as grace and love, are lost if they are not passed on to others.
We should not think the man in the parable behaved so badly it was beyond the capacity of grace to forgive him. The point is that no one can accept God’s forgiving grace as their own free gift unless they accept its being such for everyone and anyone else, regardless of their worthiness of such generosity and kindness.
In other words, if you withhold grace, you don’t keep it to yourself; you keep it from yourself! To demand payback is to impoverish yourself! That’s why Jesus’ last word on Christian community is to watch out for cutting yourself off from God’s illimitable grace by cutting others off from it. Since grace is undeserved, if it’s good for even one, it has to be good for all! Thus, you cannot, Jesus concludes, be forgiven “if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart”. If you deny grace to someone in particular, you are by your actions denying it to any and all others, including yourself!
Grace comes from the heart of God, and thus it’s not yours to dole out as you think right. It’s His, and He tells you to give it to whomever needs it, in whatever form they need it, with the same generosity with which He’s given it to you! Let us pray.