I am preaching this year on significant words in the bible. This week our word is forgive.
In the dictionary definitions you can see why the word can be tough to put into practice:
“To cease to feel resentment against an offender; to give up resentment; to grant relief from payment.”
“To cease to feel…” emotions can’t be turned on and off at will, so it takes something more to end the resentment we feel when we have been hurt by another.
This week of Thanksgiving, it seems appropriate to explore forgive in the toughest of places, the family. Family relationships most often provide the petri dish for our strongest emotions. Those we are closest to are those we enjoy the most, and all too often, those we hurt the deepest. Families travel from afar to spend a long weekend with one another. And every so often, a long dormant incident, jealousy or resentment rears its ugly head and off they go to the shouting match or the silent simmer
There was a time when my brother moved back home after living on his own for a while. That lead to some serious clashes with mom as they struggled over his sense of independence and her sense of propriety in her home. Doors could slam, shouting was not uncommon, and at times both were exasperated with the other. Eventually my brother called a truce by placing a bumper sticker in his door: “My karma just ran over your dogma!” With that touch of humor they started to mend fences.
Some years ago Dear Abby retold an old story that describes the the emotional turmoil of pride, hurt, anger and resentment that can envelope families when we struggle to forgive.
As he approached his college graduation a fellow admired a sports car in the showroom of a local car dealer. Knowing his father could easily afford it, he told him that was all he wanted for graduation.
As graduation approached the son looked for signs that his father had purchased the car. Finally on the morning of graduation, his father called him into his study. He told him how proud he was of his accomplishment, how excited he was for his son’s future and that he loved him dearly. Then he handed him a beautifully wrapped box.
Curious, but disappointed, the young man opened the box. Inside was a magnificent leather bound bible with his name embossed on it. He was furious. Anger welled inside as he stood and yelled at his father: “With all your money you gave me a bible?” He dropped it on the desk and stormed out.
Years passed, the young man became successful in business, he had a wonderful family and a beautiful home. He realized that his father had grown old and perhaps he should go see him. They had not seen or spoken since that long ago graduation day.
Before he could go, however, word came that his father had died. He had left all of his possessions to his son and he needed to come home and take care of the estate.
When he arrived he was filled with regret and sadness. As he began to go through his father’s papers in the study, he came across the bible, still in the torn, gift wrap box, just as he had left it. As tears of remorse streamed down his face, he read the quotation on the inside cover: “If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him?” MT. 7:11
As he read, a key dropped from the back of the bible. It had a dealer’s tag on it, the same dealer with the sports car. On the tag was his graduation date and the words PAID IN FULL.
Wounded pride had kept both men from seeking forgiveness until it was too late.
Another old newspaper story comes from the November 17, 1930 edition of the Chicago Herald Examiner. The article tells the story of Harry Havens of Indiana who went to bed and stayed there, for seven years with a blindfold to boot! Because he was ticked off at his wife.
It seems Havens liked to help around the house – hanging pictures, doing the dishes and other such things. But one day his wife scolded him for the way he was going about his tasks. He resented it. Reportedly he said, “All right. If that’s how you feel, I’m going to bed. I’m going to stay there the rest of my life. And I never want to see you or anyone else again.” Which explains the blindfold! He said he finally got up when the bed started to feel uncomfortable!
To Forgive someone is tough work.
According to a University of Michigan study of adults:
52% of those surveyed have forgiven others for past transgressions
75% believe they have been forgiven by God for their mistakes
43% have asked others to forgive them of past offenses
63% have let themselves off the hook.
Women are more forgiving than men.
Middle-agers and older adults are more likely to forgive others than younger adults.
Forgiveness may be an antidote to anger, but asking for forgiveness can raise stress levels.
Frederick Buechner notes: “To forgive somebody is to say one way or another, ‘You have done something unspeakable, and by all rights I should call it quits between us. Both my pride and my principles demand no less. However, although I make no guarantees that I will be able to forget what you’ve done and though we may both carry the scars for life, I refuse to let it stand between us.’
To accept forgiveness means to admit that you’ve done something unspeakable that needs to be forgiven, so both parties must swallow the same thing, their pride.
Wounded pride, even in families is hard to heal. The pride which keeps us from forgiving is the same pride that can keep us from asking forgiveness. Yet if we can’t practice such an essential element of our faith with those closest to us, how can we possibly form community with others?
When Peter’s pride seeks the specific formula on forgiveness, Jesus answers with a rip-roaring tale about forgiveness that his listeners had to find tremendously amusing. The fun begins when a king, settling accounts with his slaves discovers one who is on the books with a debt of ten thousand talents. A single talent was worth fifteen years worth of daily wages and a slave was not exactly a high earner, so, this is an outlandish debt. An Egyptian pharaoh could not come up with that amount. The story is like saying a mail clerk at Microsoft owed Bill Gates a bazillion dollars.
When the king realizes that he can’t possibly be repaid, he tries to cut his losses by selling the slave and his family.
Which brings the second laugh in the story. Realizing the desperate predicament he is in, the slave falls to his knees, begs patience and mercy and promises to repay every cent! No the king is amused with this preposterous response. So amused he forgave the debt, and set the slave free. No threats, no recriminations, nothing, just extravagant forgiveness.
Then the story turns dark. As the slave makes his way out the door, the king’s forgiveness still ringing in the air, he bumps into a second slave who owed him 100 denarii. To put it in perspective, this debt is about half a million times less than the first debt. Nevertheless he demands payment in full, immediately. Using practically the same words, the second slave begs for patience. But now there is no mercy and he is thrown into debtor’s prison.
You can imagine the reaction Jesus’ parable provoked at this point. They would be enraged at the massive ingratitude of the first slave. How could that miserable creep come rolling out of the king’s palace on a highway of mercy, fresh from being forgiven the equivalent of the national debt only to shut off the water to his own debtor?
So everyone snickers at the end of the story when the king learns of the first slave’s greed and has him thrown into the torture chamber.
Jolly good ending the disciples thought. Until Jesus turns the parable on them – and on us!
“So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or your sister from your heart.” (MT. 18:35)
When we hold other people to strict accounting, treating them only on the basis of what we think they “owe” or “merit” while forgetting that we ourselves have received unmerited grace and have had all our debts erased by the mercy of God, we are as thankless as the ungrateful slave.
Forgiving may not lead to forgetting, but it lets the hurt and anger at the memory of the offense cease stirring your resentment and bitterness each time you remember.
When somebody you’ve wronged forgives you, you’re spared the dull and self-diminishing throb of a guilty conscience. When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you’re spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded pride.
For both, forgiveness means the freedom again to be at peace inside their own skins and to be glad in each other’s presence.
Peter’s questioned seemed reasonable, “How often should I forgive when I have been victimized?” Yet in reality he is simply counting small change and tallying tiny debts. When even the best disciple asks that question, it is neglecting the gracious, astonishing forgiveness given each of us by our merciful God.