Message for Sunday 13 September 2020: “Forgive Me, or Forgive Me Not”

Today’s message from Matthew 18:21-35 addresses forgiveness. The lesson begins with a hypothetical story, known as a parable, which was Jesus’ most common teaching method.

The parable begins with the plight of an anonymous slave, let’s call him “Ralph,” who petitioned his master for forgiveness of tremendous financial obligations. Ralph was remarkably forgiven his huge debt but he refused to forgive another slave who owed him a much small sum of money. When the master found out about this ordeal Ralph was thrown into prison, constituting the spiritual equivalent of going to hell. The moral of this story is that if you want forgiveness from God then you must also forgive others.

Is forgiveness always consistent and simple? The usual way that theologians consider forgiveness invites further discussion. Central to Jesus’ message is forgiveness, yet it is a form requiring a supreme, final sacrifice, namely that of Jesus’ death rather than that of countless animal sacrifices as was true in the ancient Jewish religion. God changed from the Old Testament practice of ordering people to do animal butchering and the sense was that Jesus would be the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. Jesus perceived his mission as teaching this new, universal faith-based model of forgiveness.

The overarching theological claim of forgiveness is that all humans must ask for eternal salvation (forgiveness of sins) by having faith in Jesus’ death and his subsequent resurrection after his crucifixion by the Roman authorities. Forgiveness in this sense is conditional not upon the ethnicity or worthiness of the individual(s) asking for it but upon God’s goodness and the sincerity of those seeking forgiveness.

Aside from God forgiving humans, there’s a second-order of forgiveness involving people forgiving one another. Here, there’s a danger, what some people cite as superficiality or a “fast-food” approach to forgiveness. This odd problem involves people who provide one-sided forgiveness, which means that it wasn’t requested. Does this cheapen forgiveness? Does this rob the person who needs forgiveness of their responsibility to seek it from those they have hurt?

Some folks announce that they have forgiven someone without the guilty person knowing or caring about it. Does true forgiveness require that a perpetrator request forgiveness from those they have harmed? In Jesus’ parable this is the model. But what about situations when a person announces they have forgiven someone who has not asked for it? Is forgiveness still as valid as when the guilty party yearns to receive it?

Psychology suggests that aside from any theological issues, a person who has been wronged needs to move on, and the best way to do that is to let go through some process of grieving and forgiveness. This is why people often announce that they have forgiven someone who hasn’t asked for it. There’s evil in the world, and many criminals and wrongdoers refuse to admit their crimes let alone ask for forgiveness. In many other cases, the evildoer may be dead and can’t request forgiveness. Yet the gold standard for forgiveness suggests that the perpetrator realizes what they have done and comes to the person they’ve harmed and requests forgiveness (and in many legal circumstances may provide restitution or compensation).

Have you experienced harm because of what another person did to you? If you live long enough there will likely be many people who harm you in various ways. Rather than nurse vengeance or a vendetta, which will ultimately harm you, try instead the great sensation of offering forgiveness to those who seek it. God invites you to build spiritual strength through the struggle of asking for, receiving, and extending forgiveness. Make today a time of redemption through forgiving and being forgiven.   –Reverend Larry Hoxey

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