The Freedom of Forgiveness


Pentecost 16A2023
Matthew 18:21-35

We might have gotten distracted during the reading of the gospel by the latter portion of Jesus’ parable. Where a king hears that a person the king has generously forgiven is now violently assaulting someone who owes him a much smaller debt. To apparently avenge his honor, the king tortures the forgiven but ungenerous person. “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you,” Jesus concludes, “if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” This is the gospel of our Lord? Really? This is not the God we expect—or want, a God who violently avenges their honor and appears to condemn or save based on a person’s works. True, true. But if we can set that aside for a moment, if we can allow a little cognitive dissonance, if we can set this parable alongside whole books of the good news of a gracious God, then, we can hear the substance of the parable and the teaching that precedes it. For Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive. In wild extravagance and striking generosity of spirit, Peter asks: As many as seven times? Jesus responds: Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. Or in other words, forgive endlessly, so often that you cannot keep count.

When I was sixteen, for a reason that I can’t remember, the rest of my family piled into one of our cars, and I drove the other for a short distance to the Dairy Queen at the edge of town. The other car, with my mother in the back seat, led, and I followed. But before I got on the road behind them, I had to back out of our garage, this rickety, narrow structure that barely fit our vehicle. Whenever I backed out of the garage, I routinely bumped the garbage cans standing along the wall. This time, I diligently steered the car away from the garbage cans, aware of my propensity to hit them. Unfortunately, because I steered so clear of the garbage cans, my front passenger side firmly met the garage wall. Still, my family expected me to follow, so I hurriedly made my way to Dairy Queen without checking the damage. When I finally approached my family’s car, I watched my mother turn around in the backseat. Then, as if she were in slow motion, I watched her horrified eyes widen, her mouth open, and her lips move in the words: Oh my god! As she glimpsed the entire front end of our car dragging on the ground. I parked in the Dairy Queen parking lot with fear and trembling. I had never damaged a car before, and I had no idea what my mother would say or do. I walked into Dairy Queen where my parents were standing at the counter. My mother turned to me, hugged me, and said, “I’m so glad you’re okay!”

Three years later while in college, I boarded a shuttle from Decorah, Iowa to Minneapolis so I could attend my grandfather’s funeral. My dad planned to pick me up at the Mall of America at a certain time and place and drive me the final hour to my grandparents’ house in northwest Wisconsin. Easy, right? Here enters my then-lack of street smarts. When I got off the shuttle at Mall of America at the curb where all shuttles let passengers off, I thought to myself: Surely, this can’t be the place my dad meant to meet me. So, I entered the mall and found the front doors. I sat down and waited for my father. I waited and waited. The crowd thinned. Stores closed. I thought: It must be another door, so I walked a lap around the first floor of Mall of America looking for my father at every door. Finally, bright overhead lights were shut off, and only power walkers and folks getting in out of the cold remained. It then occurred to me that I may have made a mistake. I found a pay phone, unearthed my calling card from my wallet, and called my cousins. As soon as my oldest cousin heard my voice on the other end of the line, she sighed mightily and said: Your dad is frantic! Where are you? In the end, I don’t even remember the moment my father and I discovered each other, but I think it was in the exact spot I had gotten off the shuttle. What I do remember was my dad’s exhausted hug and relief when he found me. “I’m so glad you’re alive,” he said.

I could tell story after story of mistakes I’ve made, many of them more serious than the stories I’ve shared here. I could also share a few times I deliberately hurt others in my pursuit of winning or being right or getting my needs met. I’m sure we all could—for life is complex, and we are all of us human. But what I’m struck by this morning and what I was incredibly grateful for then was my parents’ forgiveness. Car repairs are annoying and expensive, and of course, I had some driving lessons after that. Searching for your 19-year-old daughter at 11 pm in the largest mall in the United States—at a time before cell phones—is distressing and angering, and of course, my dad and I had some blunt conversations about paying attention and following instructions after that. Yet my parents moved on and saw the blessings in the situations while also ensuring I learned from my mistakes. So too have others in my life—forgiven me, let go, perhaps set different boundaries, but loved me anyway.

The magnitude of forgiveness I have received, not only from other people but from God, is why, when I served at Grace Lutheran Church in downtown Phoenix and daily encountered people who made life difficult for me personally, for the church, or even for humanity at large, I could forgive. Inundated with behaviors fueled by trauma and poor mental and physical health and a lack of resources, shortly after I started at Grace, I decided I was done being angry or offended by anything people said or did. To be offended, to complain even just inside my own head about the person, to constantly have to struggle to forgive people would have been exhausting. And anger and a desire to punish would not have helped. In fact, holding onto anger would have made me less effective in helping people understand the consequences of their actions and holding them accountable for it in a clear-eyed, calm, respectful way. Eventually, I could articulate this most freeing truth: No matter what anyone says or does to me or to anyone else, I get to choose who I am and what I do. And that means, no matter what anyone says or does, I choose to be a loving person. Other people’s behavior is irrelevant.

From a sturdy platform of being forgiven, practicing forgiveness freed me. Forgiveness freed me, and I want to be free. Today, Jesus’ parable reminds us that God forgives us even our greatest debt, and having been forgiven everything, God calls us to forgive others. It sounds like a command, for sure it does, but in the end, forgiveness is nothing but a gift to the person who practices it.

So, how often should we forgive? Not seven times, not even seventy-seven times, but every time. Just like God does—for us and all of God’s beloved. Thanks be to God! Amen.