It’s week six of our sermons series on the Lord’s Prayer! We’ve looked at our heavenly father, God’s holy name, God’s kingdom, God’s will for us, and God providing our daily bread. Today, we are going to look at the forgiveness part of the Lord’s Prayer—“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
At a congregation I worked at previously, there was a family who was very involved in the life of the congregation. They came to worship pretty much every week, they were leaders in the congregation, and their children were very involved in our youth program.
Their oldest son, who was in high school, was dating a young woman. He invited her to church, and soon she became very involved in our youth program as well. She invited the rest of her family—and soon her whole family was coming to worship every week as well. Both families became good friends and sat next to each other at worship. Her family met with me to discuss joining the congregation officially, and began getting involved as well.
Both families were excited, I was excited, the congregation was excited. This was a family who clearly saw the Christian faith as a big part of their lives and was on fire for Jesus. Both families had been given lots of gifts and skills by God, and they didn’t hesitate to use those gifts and skills in the congregation and in our community.
Things were going swimmingly and we were planning for the young woman’s family to take the new members class together and join the congregation.
Then it all fell apart.
The two families had a huge falling out. I never knew the details of what actually happened, but it was huge. The families stopped speaking to one another. The young woman’s family, because the other family had been at the congregation first, stopped coming to church and bowed out of the ministries they had been newly involved in. Their kids stopped coming to youth events. It was awful.
I spent many hours talking with members of both families, both on the phone and in person. One family was willing to reconcile. The other was very much not. Because of this, the families were at a standstill.
Needless to say, their teenagers who were dating felt like they were in the middle of it all. Thrust into the middle of this family feud, they kept trying to date but had a hard time of it. This went on for months.
At one point, the teenage son of the original family passed me a note at the end of worship one Sunday, making sure that his family didn’t see him giving it to me. When I had time after everyone had left church that day, I read his letter.
He wrote about how difficult it had been with the families feuding, how he and his siblings had lost their close friends. He wrote about how he and his girlfriend kept trying to get the families to talk to one another, but nothing worked. He talked about how he didn’t understand how one misunderstanding could cost two families such an amazing friendship. It was a heart-breaking read.
And he ended his letter with this one question: “Why is it so hard for my family to FORGIVE?”
This teen asked a question that we all ask at some point in our lives. Why is it so hard to forgive the people who wrong us? Why, as a human race, are we so good at holding grudges and remembering the wrong things that people do? Why can’t we just forgive each other?
In our Gospel reading from Matthew, Peter wants to know about forgiving others too. He wants to know how much he actually has to forgive people. “Lord,” he asks Jesus, “If another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” And Jesus turns to him and says, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
I can just imagine Peter’s face. I have to forgive that annoying dude who does everything wrong SEVENTY-SEVEN TIMES? Why, Jesus, why???
Maybe because of Peter’s facial expression, Jesus tells a story to illustrate his point. So the king wants all the people who owe him money to pay back what they owe. And this one slave owes him ten thousand talents. Just to give you an idea of how much that is— one talent was equal to about 15 years’ worth of wages. 15 YEARS WORTH. So that means this guy owed the king 150,000 years of labor. There is no way on God’s green earth he would have been able to pay that back.
So the king says that in order to pay off this humongous debt, the man and his wife and his children and all their possessions would have to be sold. The man begs for the king to reconsider—and the king is moved and releases the man and forgives his huge debt.
This is a great story of forgiveness—that king forgave probably one of the biggest debts he had ever seen. I wish the story ended there.
But the story doesn’t end there. You would expect that this man, free of his huge debt, would want to pay it forward, would want others to be free and forgiven too, right?
Not so much. Immediately after having his huge debt forgiven and his family saved from being sold, he grabs a fellow slave by the throat, who owes him WAY less money than he owed the king. He insists that he pay him back. And when the man can’t pay him back that instant, he has the man thrown in jail. No forgiveness happening here!
So the king finds out about what happened, and tells the man “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” And then hands the man over to be tortured until he would pay back his original debt to the king. Which we know, is impossible to pay back.
And then Jesus says to Peter and his disciples, “So my heavenly father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
EEK. This is definitely a convicting story. We all can think of someone who wronged us, that we weren’t able to forgive. You may still have to deal with this person on a regular basis. Maybe your life paths went different ways, and you don’t see them anymore. Maybe it’s someone you had to cut out of your life.
Now we have to remember-- forgiveness doesn’t mean that we let people back in our lives who are toxic or abusive, the people in that last category. But it does mean that we no longer hold the pain that they caused us inside of us anymore. It means that we don’t hold on to that grudge, or those bad feelings about what they did. Because, honestly, holding onto that pain hurts us more than it hurts them. Holding on to a grudge is damaging to our wellbeing—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
So how are we able to forgive people? How do we forgive seventy-seven times, as Jesus said?
The answer lies in what God has done for us.
We read in Psalm 103: “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.”
As high as the heavens are high above the earth…as far as east is from the west. What shape does that get us…? A cross.
God’s love and forgiveness is in the shape of the cross. The cross that Jesus died on, for us. When he died, he took all our sins—those things we say, think, or do wrong-- on himself, so that those sins died with him. So everything you have done, are doing, and will do wrong died with Jesus. ALL of those sins. He died so that you could be forgiven. You could be free.
You could say that Jesus died to pay our debt. We’re like that slave in the story—our debt is so huge, there is no way we could repay God. But Jesus did it for us. And the king, our amazing God, remembers our sins no more. Even if you keep messing up, you are still forgiven. Because of Jesus, we have this amazing gift of forgiveness that can never go away.
And are only able to forgive others because God forgives us first. We can’t do it alone. That slave wasn’t able to forgive the debts of the other slave, because he was doing it all himself. Jesus wants us to live with one another, forgiving each other when we mess us up, and he helps us do it. We can only forgive because Jesus helps us forgive.
Richard Wurmbrand tells the story of when he was in a Communist prison in Romania. He was lying in a prison cell reserved for those who were dying. In the cot on his right was a pastor who had been beaten so badly that he was about to die. On his left was the very man who had beaten him, a Communist, who was later betrayed and tortured by his comrades.
One night the Communist awakened in the middle of a nightmare and cried out, “Please, pastor, say a prayer for me. I have committed such crimes, I cannot die.” The pastor feebly got up, stumbled past Wurmbrand’s cot, and sat at the bedside of his enemy.
As he watched, Wurmbrand saw the pastor caress the hair of the man who had tortured him and speak these amazing words: “I have forgiven you with all of my heart, and I love you. If I who am only a sinner can love and forgive you, more so can Jesus who is the Son of God and who is love incarnate. Return to Him. He longs for you much more than you long for Him. He wishes to forgive you much more than you wish to be forgiven. You just repent.” There, in the prison cell, the Communist began to confess all his murders and tortures. When he had finished, the two men prayed together, embraced, and then returned to their beds, where each died that very night.
That pastor was only able to forgive the man who tortured him and beat him and ultimately killed him because of Jesus’ forgiveness. He himself knew Jesus’ forgiveness, and Jesus helped him to forgive that man, and to help that man to know Jesus before he died. He would never have been able to do that without Jesus’ help.
Praying that God forgive us as we forgive others is dangerous, because forgiveness is powerful. Through forgiveness in Jesus Christ, people who have murdered, people who have raped, people who lie, who cheat, who steal, who treat other people badly, people who WE would say don’t deserve forgiveness—they are forgiven. Through Jesus’ forgiveness, all sins are forgiven. All YOUR sins are forgiven. And all the sins of that person who wronged you—those sins are forgiven too. And because those sins are forgiven, we are able to forgive those sins ourselves—both our own sins and those sins of other people.
Hear the Good News today—Jesus died for you and forgives you. He loves you, no matter what. Nothing you can do will make him love you less. Nothing you can do will make him love you more. He loves you and forgives you, unconditionally, and helps you to forgive others, in his name.
So we pray that part of the Lord’s Prayer —“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Amen?