"The Paradox of Forgiveness”

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – September 11, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Matthew 18:21-35

    This morning we are going to examine a spiritual tool for living that we call forgiveness. We could immediately begin thinking, “Oh no, not another sermon on how noble it is to become a doormat for someone’s thoughtless, careless, callous and arrogant behavior.”  Perhaps through the years, many of us have thought this way. 

    If we see forgiveness in a different light, it may help us to adjust how we define the meaning of its daily practice.  We will learn that this energy pattern, this potential is within every human being regardless of his or her spiritual awareness. There are rules that govern the lives of every man, woman and child on the earth.  Whether we develop the skill of forgiveness is up to us. 

    Forgiveness as it is featured in our lesson today is a paradox that we will unravel. Peter came to Jesus and said, “If some people keep missing the mark in their relationship with me, how many times should I let it go?  How many times should I act as though their behavior and words do not bother me?  How many times should I continue my journey in life as though I am not irritated by what they are doing?  Is forgiving them seven times enough?”

    At first Jesus appears to suggest that Peter must become the proverbial doormat.  He told Peter, “Not seven times but seventy times seven.”  Jesus was not telling Peter that he should draw the line at 490 times.  He was using this reference as a metaphor indicating that his disciples must learn how to rise above every offensive incident for the rest of their lives.         

    In essence, Jesus was telling Peter, “Allow such people to become your personal tutors teaching you what you need to do to purify your thoughts.  You will never be able to overcome thoughts of smoldering resentment until you are confronted by someone who evokes that kind of response from you.  The other day, I saw a book title that said the same thing – I was a wonderful mother until I had children.  Think about that.  To our thinking our lives are just fine until we connect with the reality of an imperfect world that irritates us.

    Right after he offered these instructions to Peter, Jesus appeared to present his listeners with a paradox when he told them a story.  Jesus told his listeners what the process of forgiveness looks like in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Any time Jesus described what heaven is like, people eagerly listened.  This is what he told them.

    A king had asked his accountant to examine the accounts of his servants.  A discovery was made.  One servant owed his majesty what was equivalent to millions of dollars.  When the king was told that his servant could not repay the debt, he ordered that this servant, his wife and his children be sold as slaves.  The servant threw himself at the king’s feet and pleaded for mercy.  He promised to repay everything.  Sensing that his servant was sincere, he pardoned him.

    That servant went out and began to examine the accounts he had with others. When he found one who had fallen behind in his payments, he grabbed him by the throat and began choking him.  The man pleaded with him, but he showed no mercy.  He placed him into debtor’s prison.

    When the king found out what he had done, he summoned that servant and scolded him for what he had done, particularly after the king had forgiven his debt of millions.  The king placed him in prison until he could repay the debt.

    Jesus concluded his story by saying, “This is how God will treat everyone of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”   Here is the paradox – How can Jesus instruct Peter to forgive every offense for the rest of his life and then tell him that God cannot behave the same way?  Is there a double standard in Jesus parable, one for humankind and another for God?   How can this be?

    First, let us consider what Jesus was asking of Peter.  Love requires more from us than merely overlooking someone’s shortcomings.  We have a number of other choices when we meet someone with few social graces.

    Jesus taught that confrontation can be one of the most loving things we can do for others.   (Matthew 5:21f)  When we spot flaws on the landscape of the personalities of friends and colleagues, we need to tell them about it. Love should never hesitate to confront.  Being polite and courteous does not help them to correct what irritates people.  Jesus did this several times.  On one occasion he said, “How unbelieving and wrong you people are!  How long must I stay with you?  How long do I have to put up with you?”  (Matthew 17:17f) 

    A friend of ours is an office manager for a medical practice of three doctors.  One of the doctors had very few social graces.  He routinely criticized his office staff in a voice that carried out into the waiting room where client-patients were seated.   Many staff members were publicly reprimanded by this physician.  The office environment became so toxic, that after another explosive incident, our friend went into his office, closed the door and told him of the damage he was causing to their practice.

    The doctor sat there stunned as she looked him right in the eye and told him exactly what he had been doing to the staff in recent months by his careless, caustic comments.  She spoke in tones and used words that were methodical and surgically precise. 

    He invited her to sit down.  She thought she might be terminated for insubordination, but that did not happen.  He said, “No one has ever told me these things.  The last thing I want to do is to make the lives of the office staff more difficult.”  He thanked her profusely for bringing this matter to his attention.

    Shortly after that meeting he passed out a menu from a local restaurant to the staff.  They were invited to choose anything they wanted for lunch.  That Friday, the staff ate together in a conference room where he openly apologized to them for his attitude and behavior.   He also told them how much he appreciated all the hard work they do.  Overnight, the atmosphere in the office was healed.

    All of us have to recognize that not everyone is nurtured in an environment where attitudes were corrected and where social graces were taught and practiced.  We are imprinted by what other people teach us or by attitudes that we develop on our own when our world and personal relationships are not unfolding as we would like. 

    God knows this about each of us.  We do not possess equal skills in anything.  How can we be held accountable for attitudes and values we were never taught?  The answer is that the results of our behavior always point to what we need to learn.  It is up to us to understand the cues and make a course-correction just as the doctor did.

    Members of our extended family decided to take a road trip to Mt. Snow in Vermont and have a weekend of skiing.  This 633 acre site has 135 trails and 26 lifts.  We rented our gear and I took the lift to the top of the mountain.  Lois’ sister sat next to me as we were heading up the mountain.  She said, “When we get to the top, we will be faced with a large rock.  Ski off to the left and I’ll go to the right.”  We each did that. 

    I saw a gradual slope and started down the mountain.  In no time I gathered enormous speed and I could not slow down.  The snow plow technique did not work.  I saw the tips of tall pine trees on either side of me as I looked over steep cliffs.  I panicked and flopped on the snow. I must have slid for one hundred feet and sailed over small ramps before stopping against an outcropping of rocks.  It took me an hour to get down that slope. 

    The problem was that out of the 135 trails, I selected the expert slope and I had only been on skis one other time.  I saw no signage and I missed all the symbols that might have suggested that I was headed for trouble.  One hint was that there was no one else skiing on that slope.  The results of that experience pointed me toward the kiddy slopes.  Even there I was humbled by the ten-year olds who enjoyed seeing an adult on his back half the time.  Many of us have no problem forgiving someone of their ignorance. Such moments offer us a teachable moment.

    Let us turn our attention to God and ratchet up the quality of the crimes.  It is one thing to forgive people when we realize that many of them simply did not possess the skills that others have mastered.  It may be quite another thing when people engage in behavior deliberately to hurt people.  Does God really show no mercy when people use their skills to commit fraud or to commandeer airlines for the purpose of committing suicide for some cause the perpetrators believe was somehow sanctioned by Allah? 

    A man that lives in the city where my former church is located was the chief financial officer for the National City Christian Church in Washington, D.C.  This is the parent church of the Disciples of Christ denomination.  He was just convicted of embezzling a half million dollars from the church. Evidence was presented at his trial that he used the money to purchase expensive jewelry, lavish vacations, multiple luxury vehicles and to finance his mortgage.  This happened over a five-year period. 

    We could list crimes that are so heinous that we might conclude that even the death penalty is not a sufficient punishment.  Again, what is God’s ultimate plan for such jaded people?  What was Jesus communicating about God’s Kingdom in his parable?

    At another time, Jesus taught his listeners something that he never thoroughly explained. He simply wanted his disciples to trust his words. He said, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.  I would not tell you this if it were not so.”  (John 14:2f) The term mansions identifies afterlife as a physical reality. 

    What would happen to our life-priorities if we really understood that when we leave the earth absolutely nothing physical exists?  There are no bodies to care for, no material wealth to protect and no way to hurt anyone.  In other words, so many things that demand our loyalties here have no existence there.  What is there that God needs to forgive? 

    Suppose such a thing as forgiveness does not exist for spirit beings?  To forgive, one must first be offended.  When our spirits leave our bodies there is nothing that can offend anyone.  Everyone has already determined their level of awareness at the moment they leave their physical form.  Forgiveness, then, is a response that becomes a learning tool for humankind in our practice of love. 

    Here we can become emotionally devastated by the deeds of others.  In the next world we only have love for others who squandered their experience here.  For God, love is and will always be a one-way street that forever surrounds every individual regardless of how low they have sunk on the scale of values honored by millions of people. 

    A wealthy developer drove his chief foreman around his estate of thousands of acres in British Columbia.  He came to a magnificent knoll overlooking a lake with winding streams and rolling hills.  He said:

    My wife and I are going to be out of the country for the next eight months.  We would like you to design and build a four bedroom home with a three car garage on this knoll.  Landscape it beautifully and link the driveway to the road.  Spare no expense!  Use number one lumber throughout the house.  I want this to be your best work.  I am building this home for some friends of ours.

    In spite of his flawless career, the foreman looked upon this request as an opportunity to make some real money.  He designed and built the house.  He used the cheapest materials he could find, knowing that veneer and brick hide a multitude of sins.  Switch plates hide cheap receptacles.  The house, however, looked spectacular. The foreman profited about ninety thousand dollars above his substantial salary. 

    When the developer returned, the two of them drove out to the site.  The home was magnificent, perfectly situated to maximize the many remarkable views.  He said to his foreman, “You are the best designer and builder I have ever known.  My wife and I want you to have this home as our gift to you and your family.  This is our way of saying thank you for your years of faithful service.”  

    This is what it is like in the Kingdom of God.  We take with us the spirit we used while creating every thought and feeling as well as their resulting attitudes.   God allows each soul to find its own way just like in the parable of the Prodigal Son.  Somewhere in God’s design, each of us will be given seventy times seven, or an infinite number of opportunities to learn to love as God loves.   The joy is that we are always one choice away from living that way now.