Jesus the Forgiveness Trainer

Jesus the Forgiveness Trainer
September 17, 2017
Matthew 18:21-35

When I was on sabbatical in Honduras, I spent a weekend in the city of La Entrada. There, I joined a group of Americans and Hondurans in making visits to the families of schoolchildren. These families were very poor, and didn’t even have enough money to buy their children school supplies. We sat in their homes, heard about their struggles, and made decisions about what kind of financial support we could give them.

A key member of this team was a man named Kelvin, who taught at the bilingual school and acted as our translator. At the beginning of our second day of visits, he announced that he would have to leave the team because one of our Honduran partners had insulted him. This created a huge problem, since we really needed Kelvin’s translating abilities. We Americans did not speak much Spanish, and the Hondurans spoke very little English.

I tried to mediate this conflict in English, while one of my Honduran friends tried to intercede in Spanish. Finally, Kelvin said that he would be willing to continue his work with the group. “I am a Christian,” he told us. “I must forgive.”

What a simple but profound thought: I am a Christian … I must forgive. But for you, for me, and for everyone who follows Jesus, this is so much easier said than done. What I think we learn from today’s passage of Scripture is that forgiveness begins with a choice, and then it becomes a process. First, we must choose to forgive, and then follow through with it.

Jesus urges us to make the choice to forgive when he responds to Peter’s question about the number of times we should forgive. “Lord,” asks Peter, “if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Once … twice … three times … “as many as seven times”?

“Not seven times,” says Jesus, “but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Other translations of this verse say “Seventy times seven times” … a total of 490 times (Matthew 18:21-22).

However you count it, Jesus is saying that your forgiveness should be countless. It should go on and on and on. He is like a personal trainer at the gym, urging us to increase our reps and get stronger every day. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven … 77 … 490.

But Jesus is not our personal trainer. He is our forgiveness trainer. “Forgive a limitless number of times,” he says. Make the choice to do it, and then turn it into an ongoing process.

So why exactly does Jesus say this? Forgiving the people who hurt us can be hard to do, much tougher than lifting a stack of weights at the gym. I believe that Jesus recommends it because forgiveness is good for us. Not just for the person who needs to be forgiven, but for each one of us. Forgiveness can enable us to regain the personal power that we have lost when someone sins against us.

“Always forgive your enemies,” said the writer Oscar Wilde. “Nothing annoys them so much.”

Unfortunately, many people fail to forgive. Jesus tells the story of a slave who owes his master several million dollars. The Bible says “ten thousand talents,” but I have gone ahead and converted the money into today’s dollars (v. 24). Since the slave cannot come up with the cash, the master orders him to be sold, along with his wife and children and possessions.

The slave throws himself on the ground and begs to be given more time to pay. Out of pity for him, the master releases him and forgives his debt (vv. 23-27). Now you might think that the story ends here, with a truly happy ending. Right? Not so fast.

As he leaves his master’s house, the slave sees a fellow slave who owes him a few dollars. He grabs the man by the throat and says, “Pay what you owe.” The second slave hits his knees and begs for more time to settle his debt. But the first slave refuses and throws him into prison until he can pay. Although the first slave has been forgiven a debt of several million dollars, he cannot find it in his heart to excuse a few bucks. Clearly, the first slave needs forgiveness training (vv. 28-30).

When the man’s fellow slaves see what is happening, they are horrified. Reporting to the master what they are seeing, the master summons the first slave and asks him, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”

The answer is yes. Of course he should have had mercy, but he did not. He did not see forgiveness as a process, one that began with his master and should have continued with him. The master hands him over to be tortured until he comes up with the millions of dollars he owes. And so God will do “to every one of you,” promises Jesus, “if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (vv. 31-35).

Our forgiveness trainer Jesus is tougher than any coach at the gym, standing over us and barking, “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.” Jesus demands that we forgive other people, based on the fact that we have all been forgiven. Yes, that’s right: We forgive others because we ourselves have been forgiven. Forgiveness is a process that begins with God, continues with us, and makes us stronger and stronger every day. That’s what my friend Kelvin in Honduras understood. It’s what we should all grasp as well.

The amazing thing about forgiveness is that it is not just good for our Christian faith. It is also good for our health. A psychologist named Robert Enright has found ways to include forgiveness in his therapy sessions, and to study its benefits.

According to Salon magazine (August 23, 2015), Enright is helping elderly women to forgive people who have wronged them in the past. Some are victims of abuse and incest. He has created two groups: One made up of women undergoing forgiveness therapy, and one made up of women receiving therapy without a focus on forgiveness.

What do you think he has found? The forgiveness therapy group has shown greater improvement in emotional and psychological health than the group that has not focused on forgiveness. Forgiveness helps people to heal themselves and regain their personal power.

Similar work is being done by Dr. Frederic Luskin, the cofounder of the Stanford Forgiveness Project. Luskin is teaching forgiveness to a variety of groups around the world, including war-ravaged populations in Northern Ireland and Sierra Leone. He is discovering that anyone — from betrayed spouses to terrorism victims — can heal themselves through a process of forgiveness.

Dr. Luskin offers programs in “forgiveness training.” In it, he leads exercises that are helpful to people like the unforgiving servant in the parable of Jesus. Let’s imagine that this slave is sitting down with a group of people to reflect on his relationship with his master and his fellow slaves. At the start of the training, Luskin challenges him to tell his “grievance story.” The man vents about the fellow slave who had caused problems for him by owing him money. Then Luskin says to him, “Slave, why are you taking the debt of your fellow slave so personally? It’s just a few dollars. Why are you seeing yourself as a victim?”

The slave replies, “But he owes me money. I need it.” Like most of us, this slave sees the world through the lens of his own self-interest.

“You are right,” says the doctor, “and there is nothing wrong with holding him accountable. Give him the time he needs to make things right. Remember that plenty of people fall into debt — didn’t you owe your master several million dollars?”

Well, yes. That’s true. But unfortunately the slave is blind to this truth about himself. How differently the parable would have ended if he had realized that he was both a debtor and a person who was owed money. A sinner and a person who had been sinned against. If he had done so, he would not have seen himself as an isolated victim. The slave would have realized that many people face similar offenses and disappointments. By seeing himself clearly, he could have let go of the pain and the blame, and found a way to forgive the slave who owed him a few dollars.

But he didn’t. Because he failed to forgive, the slave remained stuck. He threw his fellow slave into debtor’s prison and continued to feel miserable (v. 30). This is true for us all: Our failure to forgive leaves us feeling stressed, resentful, powerless, and stuck in the role of a victim. As Angie Ninde said this summer, in an excellent sermon about trying to forgive her abusive stepfather, “Resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

So, what is the solution? Jesus captures it well: “forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (v. 35). Dr. Luskin says that when you forgive, you counteract the stress that makes you feel like a helpless victim. “When you forgive,” he says, “you wipe all of that clean.” At the end of her sermon, Angie said that if she forgives her stepfather, it doesn’t mean that what he did was right. It doesn’t mean the past is suddenly erased. It means that she is moving on beyond that past. Angie knows that forgiveness is both a choice and a process.

Jesus wants us to get stronger and healthier by making the decision to forgive. He then wants us to turn that choice into an ongoing process, based on the fact that we forgive others because God forgives us. Jesus acts as our forgiveness trainer, challenging us to make that choice repeatedly, until it becomes a part of who we are.

Yes, forgiveness is difficult, but so is seeing ourselves as sinners who have received forgiveness from our loving Lord. It is much easier to hold grudges than to feel compassion toward the people who have hurt us.

But Jesus knows that forgiveness is good for us — body, mind and spirit — which is why he commands us to offer it to our brothers and sisters. Sometimes we need to be challenged to forgive, just as we need to be pushed by our trainers at the gym, rep after rep after rep.

We can wipe the slate clean by forgiving our brothers and sisters. That’s a choice that lowers our stress and increases our personal power. It also heals ourselves and the people around us. Amen.

Sources:

Bettencourt, Megan Feldman. “The science of forgiveness: ‘When you don’t forgive you release all the chemicals of the stress response.’” Salon, August 23, 2015, www.salon.com.

Lewis, Scarlett. The Forgiveness Project, August 2, 2015, http://theforgivenessproject.com.

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