Forgive and Forget
By Rev. Heidi L. Barham | September 17, 2023
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Read Matthew 18:21 – 35
This morning, our attention is called to a subject that causes no small amount of angst for some people… and that subject is forgiveness.
You have probably heard me say in the past that forgiveness is one of those topics that can lead to some lively discussions and result in some pretty intense debates, particularly within the context of Sunday School or Bible study.
Participants in those exchanges are eager to find the answer to the question that Peter posed in our New Testament lesson this morning:
“Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Now, just to provide a little context, Peter may have thought that forgiving someone up to seven times was rather generous because the Old Testament practice was only to forgive someone up to three times for an offense.
However, that number seven was not a satisfactory answer for Jesus who told Peter, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
And just to add a quick footnote, some versions of the Bible actually say seventy times seven rather than simply seventy-seven times.
Whatever the case may be; however, the point is that we should forgive continuously and generously just as God has forgiven us.
Oh, but how often we look for convincing reasons to withhold forgiveness from others… coming up with what sounds like extremely valid rationale… reciting a long litany of offenses or pointing to the intense degree of egregiousness of the other person’s offense.
However, you may recall the analogy that I shared a while ago as it relates to holding onto unforgiveness… it is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the other person to die.
Holding onto bitterness and unforgiveness is toxic and it is counter to what Jesus would have us to do.
After all, Jesus went to that cross on Calvary to pay the ultimate price that our sins deserved so that we might be forgiven for each and every one of our sins. We are reminded of this in Paul’s letter to the Romans in which he writes, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
But unfortunately, it can be all too easy and convenient for us to forget just how much we have been forgiven as we gloss over Jesus’ reminder to us that we should forgive as we have been forgiven… something we recite each time we say the model prayer which Jesus taught us… “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.”
Now, turning back to the text for this morning, we find Jesus using the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (or the Unforgiving Debtor) to illustrate the concept of what it means to forgive others in contrast to the forgiveness that we have received.
You have likely heard me say before that a parable can be defined as a heavenly story with an earthly meaning. Parables were one of the teaching tools that Jesus used to put things into a relatable context for His disciples and the crowds that would often gather around to hear Him speak.
Putting things into a modern-day framework can help us to grasp the lessons that Jesus taught as well. It is why I refer back to the Message Paraphrase so often in sharing passages of scripture… and today is no exception.
Let’s listen to this Parable of the Unmerciful Servant… or as it is referred to in the Message Paraphrase, “A Story about Forgiveness.”
“The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. He couldn’t pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market.The NIV makes the comparison of ten thousand bags of gold to a hundred silver coins… the difference between what equated to 150,000 years’ worth of wages and what amounted to only 100 days’ worth of wages.
“The poor wretch threw himself at the king’s feet and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt.
“The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, ‘Pay up. Now!’
“The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ But he wouldn’t do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king.
“The king summoned the man and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?’ The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. And that’s exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.”
The Message Paraphrase, however, uses the comparison between one hundred thousand dollars and ten dollars… something this is a little easier for us to wrap our minds around. But, either way, it is quite the contrast no matter how we choose to look it at.
The point that Jesus was making was for us to look at the ENORMITY of what we have been forgiven in contrast to whatever sin or grievance we may be holding against someone else…
No matter how we slice it and dice it… there is absolutely no comparison.
That is why when we talk about forgiveness in Sunday School or Bible Study, I will often pose the question, “What would we willing for God not to forgive us of in order for us to hold onto our unforgiveness of someone else?”
And while that question may give us some pause, there is still this lingering unwillingness or inability to let go of the righteous indignation that has come about as a result of whatever the other person or persons have done…
Which, in turn, often leads to the proposal of a compromise of sorts… “Okay, I can forgive but I will never forget.”
But here again, this is counter to how the Lord would have us to live.
Looking back to the Old Testament in Micah 7 (18-19), we read:
Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.This passage has been used as the basis for the concept of our sins being cast into what some refer to as the sea of forgetfulness.
Although it is not a term that is actually used in the Bible, this idea of a sea of forgetfulness creates a picture of what it means for the Lord to take all our sins and throw them so far away that they will never be remembered or held against us again. And what a glorious notion that is!
It is in line with what the writer of Hebrews (8:11 – 12) quoted from the Prophet Jeremiah (31:34):
No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.
And it follows along with what we find in Isaiah 43:25 (CEV), where we read, “But I wipe away your sins because of who I am. And so, I will forget the wrongs you have done.”
And in Hebrews 10:17 where we read, “Then I will forget about their sins and no longer remember their evil deeds.”
The Lord is the perfect role model for what it means to FORGIVE AND FORGET.
But we are not always so quick to follow the Leader when it comes to that notion of FORGIVE AND FORGET.
That is why Peter issued this warning:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins (2 Peter 1:5 – 9).Looking back at that Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, I think it safe to say he was both nearsighted and blind… two characteristics from which we would do well to steer clear.
Not surprisingly, when I have spoken about forgiveness in the context of the sermon on any given Sunday, someone will usually come up to me afterwards and tell me that they have been struggling with forgiving someone of something.
It is something that we all wrestle with, including me.
That is why I still hold onto the passage of Scripture that the Lord pointed me to one day as I sat in my own seat of righteous indignation… ready to hold someone else’s feet to the fire for an offense that I felt was unforgivable…
That is until I read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians where he wrote, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
It has been many years since the incident occurred that took me to that Scripture. But after reading it, I was able to forgive the person and to this day I honestly cannot remember what it was that they did… I guess it is possible to FORGIVE AND FORGET after all.
There was an illustration that I came across the other day as I was preparing this sermon that sums it all up.
Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, was reminded one day of a vicious deed that someone had done to her years before. But she acted as if she had never even heard of the incident. "Don't you remember it?" her friend asked. "No," came Barton's reply, "I distinctly remember forgetting it." (http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/f/forgive_and_forget.htm)Forgiving others as we have been forgiven, and being able to FORGIVE AND FORGET, is not nearly as impossible as we might think.
After all, Jesus would not have told us to do it if it wasn’t possible… and He would not ask us to do something that He was not willing to do Himself.
And that points us back to something that we find in the Book of Lamentations, where the Prophet Jeremiah writes, “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
Simply put, because of the Lord’s love for us, our slate is wiped clean EVERY morning… We have the assurance that the Lord has not only forgiven our sins, they are forgotten… not because of anything we have done to deserve it but purely because of the Lord’s great and enduring faithfulness toward us.
While the world seems bent on following a path that leads to devastation and destruction, isn’t it good to know that the Lord is faithful and desires to lead us on the path of righteousness for His name’s sake (see Psalm 23:3)?
In this day and time when we are faced with upheaval and uncertainty in the midst of one crisis and disaster after another, isn’t it good to know that God is still faithful and is still a very present help in our times of trouble (see Psalm 46:1)?
And in those times when it feels like all hope is lost and that we have done so much and crossed over the line and gone so far that we have put ourselves beyond the reach of God’s love… isn’t it good to know that God is so incredibly faithful that there is absolutely nothing that can EVER separate us from His love (see Romans 8:38 – 39)?
As we read in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
God is faithful and forgiving even to the point of forgetting our sins… even when we are not.
And that ought to give us all the reason we need to stand and join in singing with great joy in our hearts our Hymn of Discipleship: Great Is Thy Faithfulness #86.