Phil’s sermon on Total Forgiveness
Total forgiveness! This is the heart of Jesus’ teaching here and it comes about because Peter has once again opened his big mouth.
On hearing Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness and how we need to treat each other with love, Peter asks “Well how many times should I forgive my brother or sister then? Would 7 times cover it?!”
In saying 7 times Peter is expecting to be praised for his generosity here. You see the Rabbinic teaching of the day stated that you should forgive a person 3 times for the same offence; but on the 4th occasion there was to be no more forgiveness. And so, Peter doubles that number and adds 1 for good measure.
In other words, Peter’s offer to forgive 7 times would be considered extremely generous, going above and beyond the call of the day.
Jesus’ response must have shattered their expectations, because rather than praising Peter he instead say: No Peter not 7 times but 70×7 times or 77 times depending on which bible translation you read. The point here is not the number. The point is not that you should forgive someone 77 times or even 490 times and then on the 78th time or 491st stop forgiving them.
NO, what Jesus is saying is far more radical. He is stating that the spirit of genuine forgiveness recognises no boundaries. One of the commentators states “one might as well ask, ‘How often must I love my wife, my husband, my children?’ as to ask, ‘How often shall I forgive?”
To illustrate this point Jesus goes onto tell the parable of the unmerciful servant or we might call it the parable of the very generous King. In it we see the king discovering the debt of one of his servants, and yet despite the extravagant size of the debt, we are talking more than a lifetime of earnings debt here, he cancels it. He completely wipes it out!
And so, the listeners would expect when this now debtless servant meets his fellow servant who owes him pittance an equally forgiving response. You can imagine their horror then when instead of forgiving him, the servant grabs the other by the throat and has him thrown in jail when he is unable to pay.
The contrast between the two debts is staggering. The debt the first servant owed the King was impossible to pay back whereas the second servant owed pocket change to the first, but instead of being equally generous he shows contempt to the one owing him so little in comparison.
There are two points I want us to focus on today from this parable.
Firstly, the parable reminds us of how great God is!
It reminds us that God is far bigger, grander, deeper and more amazing than we can possibly imagine. And in doing so, this parable helps us to see how God gives to us extravagantly even though we do not deserve it and despite the fact we can never hope to pay back our debts to Him. God in his great mercy sent His Son so that we would never ever have to pay the penalty for our sin. Instead Jesus bore our sins on the cross and we are set free. And then God adopts us into His forever family as he welcomes us into his Kingdom. The whole parable speaks to us of the extraordinary grace God offers us.
The second point of the parable follows directly on from the extraordinary grace of God. As we recognise all God has done for us, it encourages us to ask the question: How should I respond to this generosity?
We have two choices:
- We can choose to be like the servant in the story who accepts the wiping of his debt but whose attitude is not changed as he reacts without mercy towards another
- we can choose to demonstrate an extravagant love and total forgiveness in all our relationships, as God has demonstrated to us.
In the parable, as we hear how the first servant acted towards the second servant we are supposed to gasp in horror. We are supposed to shout out that’s not right! How can you do this after all that happened to you!
This is how we ought to react when we recognising our own forgiveness. We ought to be filled with so much gratitude that we never even consider holding forgiveness back from another, because we owe God far more than anyone can ever owe us.
But what does this sort of love and mercy look like for us. I came across this account from the South African apartheid forgiveness project which illustrates the type of love and mercy Jesus asks of us:
The scene is of a courtroom trial in South Africa.
A frail elderly black woman rises slowly to her feet. Facing across the room are several white security police officers, one of who, Mr van der Broek, has just been tried and found implicated in the murders of both the woman’s son and her husband some years before. He had come to the woman’s home, taken her son, shot him and then set the young man’s body on fire while he and his officers partied nearby.
Several years later, van der Broek and his cohorts had returned to take away her husband as well. For many months she had heard nothing about his whereabouts. Then almost two years after her husband’s disappearance, van der Broek came back to fetch the woman herself.
How vividly she remembers that evening, going to a place beside the river where she was shown her husband bound and beaten, but still strong in spirit, lying on a pile of wood. The last words she heard from his lips as they poured gasoline over his body and set him aflame were, “Father forgive them…”.
Now the woman stands in the courtroom and listens to the confessions offered by Mr van der Broek. A member of the South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission turns to her and asks, “SO what do you want? How should justice be done to this man who has so brutally destroyed your family?”
“I want three things,” begins the old woman calmly, but confidently. “I want first to be taken to the place where my husband’s body was burned so that I can gather up the dust and give his remains a decent burial.”
She pauses, then continues. “My husband and son were my only family, I want secondly, therefore, for Mr van der Broek to become my son. I would like for him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a day with me so that I can pour out on him whatever love I still have remaining in me.
“And finally,” she says, “I want a third thing. This is also the wish of my husband. And so, I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take Mr van der Broek in my arms and embrace him and let him know that he is truly forgiven.”
As the court assistants come to lead the elderly woman across the room, Mr van der Broek, overwhelmed by what he has just heard, faints. As he does, those in the courtroom, family, friends, neighbours – all victims of decades of oppression and injustice – begin to sing, softly but assuredly. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”
This is what the total forgiveness Jesus speaks of in the parable looks like.
In our own stories we may never have to forgive someone who has murdered a family member, but there will be many other incidents that occur that cause us hurt and leave us with the choice of utterly forgiving someone.
But as R.T. Kendal states in his book Total Forgiveness:
Total forgiveness is painful. It hurts when we kiss revenge goodbye. It hurts to think of that person getting away with what they did and nobody knowing. But when I know fully what they did, and accept it in my heart they will be blessed without any consequences for their wrong, I have crossed over into the supernatural. This means I have begun to be a bit more like Jesus.
Ultimately it means asking God to set the individual free as if they had done nothing and it is asking God to bless them and to let them prosper.
But it is worth it. According to research forgiveness is far more beneficial to the one who is forgiving than to the one receiving the forgiveness. According to scientific research forgiving others leads to:
- Healthier relationships.
- Improved mental health.
- Lessanxiety, stress and hostility.
- Lower blood pressure.
- Fewer symptoms of
- A stronger immune system.
- Improved heart health.
- Improved self-esteem
If non-Christians are acknowledging the benefits of forgiveness, and are finding peace in their lives through it, how much more should you and I – who want to please God and honour the Holy Spirit – grasp this teaching with all our hearts.
We are all as Christ’s followers called to forgive one another. We read in Col 3:13:
Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
And yet despite this call to forgive and the benefits of forgiving, it is not easy because it is rarely instantaneous. It requires us on a daily basis, choosing not to seek revenge or to punish those who have wronged us and that hurts.
Can I encourage you this week to thank God for his generosity toward you and ask God for his help in identifying anyone in your life that you need to forgive.
And pray for that person, or group of people, ask God to forgive them to bless them and prosper them so that we might begin to mirror Christ more in our lives.