This past weekend as part of our Lenten Sermon Series on Idolatry, Counterfeit Gods, I taught from Matthew 18. That’s the chapter where you’ll find Jesus’ double-dog dare command that we should forgive not once, not twice, not even seven times but just shy of 500 times.
Which is Jesus’ Jewish way of saying: Forgive all the time.
And, because he’s the Christ of the perpetual offense, Jesus follows up that turd of a teaching with this parable, in which a servant- who’s obviously meant to be our doppleganger- receives grace and forgiveness from the King (ie, God, in case you’re terrible at reading stories).
Because the forgiven servant can’t extend forgiveness to to others, he’s thrown in Hell to be tortured for a debt whose math works out to about 64 million days.
Of course, we did kill Jesus for telling stories like this.
Unexpectedly, the sermon’s subject elicited several dozen questions from folks who heard it or who’ve since read it online.
Questions about forgiveness.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. We all live life, to some degree or another, with other people. Bumping into people. Rubbing and getting rubbed the wrong way. Like milk and bread in a snow storm, conflict and forgiveness are just staples of weathering life with other people.
I’ll try to answer some of the questions in posts this week.
Here’s one question I got:
‘Does forgiveness mean that we have to stay friends with people or is it enough to let go of our anger/resentment and decide to no longer keep a score/ledger of their transgression?
Short answer: no.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to remain friends, and forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to restore a broken relationship.
I think we can all probably name people and situations where to do so would be naive, at best, and dangerous, at worst. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to stay married to someone who repeatedly breaks their vows. Forgiveness doesn’t mean someone should continue to suffer at the hands of an abuser. And forgiveness doesn’t mean you’re obligated to play the fool to a friend who’s shown they’re not actually a friend.
So if the answer’s no, then exactly what are Christians talking about when we talk about forgiveness?
I hate it when people pedantically cite Webster’s dictionary definitions but that’s exactly what I’m going to do. The clarity is helpful in this case:
Forgiveness = the action or process of remitting a debt
While I think some people overemphasize debt language as it pertains to the cross, the imagery can be helpful in thinking about our own relationships.
Forgiveness is forgoing what another person owes you. It’s declaring a pardon. It’s eating the cost of what was done to you rather than making the other person pay. Forgiveness is sacrificing what you deserve for the sake of the other. Forgiveness is you no longer needing what the other person has coming to them to come to them. It’s letting go of the (righteous) anger, and putting down the score card.
Forgiveness can be a form of suffering. It usually is, but it’s the only way to stop the cycle of retribution.
Now, all that is different than:
Reconciliation = the action of process of restoring a broken relationship
Though we often merge them together so they become incoherent, forgiveness and reconciliation are two related, but distinct, terms. Forgiveness and reconciliation name two different poles in the process of healing. Reconciliation is the fruit of which forgiveness is a necessary first seed.
You can’t have a reconciled relationship without forgiveness.
But, in a fallen world, you can have forgiveness- and sometimes you must- without reconciliation.
Think of the servant in Jesus’ parable.
He’s been forgiven. His debt to the King was canceled. But the rest of the story shows that he was not in a reconciled relationship with the King because his heart remain unchanged.
Think of us.
Jesus declares us pardoned from the cross. We’re forgiven. The debt, for all time, has been paid. But that does not mean every person- or even every Christian- enjoys a reconciled relationship with God.
To answer the question behind the question:
The hard, scary work of humility, I think, comes in discerning whether you refuse to seek reconciliation with your former friend/spouse/whatever because to do so would be unwise (ie, they’ve hurt you too many times) or if instead you refuse the possibility of reconciliation because you haven’t truly let go of the debt.
You’ve forgiven them in name only.
Which means you haven’t really forgiven at all.
And that, Jesus says, has scary stakes.