In 1948 the country of South Africa was plunged into an oppressive time known as Apartheid. During this time the ruling, white, class oppressed the people of other races all across the country. Plunging most of the South African society into a racially segregated society that allowed white people to thrive and punished people of color who tried to speak out against it. In 1962 a man named Nelson Mandela was punished, arrested, tried, and jailed because he spoke out against this oppressive system. Mandela served 27 years in three different prisons across South Africa. However, in 1990 South Africa turned a new leaf by releasing Mandela and beginning talks of ending the oppressive apartheid system. In 1994 they had their first open election in which Mandela was elected President. However, Mandela knew this would be no easy task to lead the country out of this time in which the majority of the country lived under an oppressive white minority. Mandela knew this could only occur through redemptive forgiveness and both parties working together for the good of South Africa.
This ideal was nothing new. Mandela was not conceiving a new idea. In fact, for Mandela, it was in his religious upbringing going to a Methodist school and being baptized in a Methodist church that he probably first learned the Christian understanding of forgiveness. While there is nothing specifically attributing those formative experiences in the church to his manner of redemptive forgiveness I like to believe it played a big role in who he was later in his life.
Forgiveness is one of the many major themes of Christianity. We see that it is something that Christ talks about a number of times in the Gospels, and many other prophets and disciples talk about as well throughout the bulk of scripture.
In our scripture lesson today Jesus is asked about forgiveness, and we get a murky-ish response. Our opening verses to the scripture today include a back and forth between Jesus and Peter, “Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’” (Matthew 15:21-22)
I believe Peter genuinely wants to know how many times he should forgive, but Jesus’ answer is less than helpful because it makes no sense. It makes no sense because we are trying to bring literal meaning into where Christ did not mean it to be. Christ is meaning for forgiveness to be infinite. Peter gives Jesus a number and Jesus multiplies it. Jesus doesn’t want us to sit there with a pad of paper keeping track of the number of times we have forgiven someone and stop at 77 or 490 (depending on your interpretation of the scripture). No Jesus is trying to show how ridiculous the question of how often should I forgive truly is, and that is explained even more in the parable he gives to explain his cryptic sort of answer.
Jesus tells this story of a King. This king is trying to settle the debts of those who owe him, and when confronting a slave who owes a large debt forgives the large debt when the slave asks for forgiveness. However, when this slave returns to society from being forgiven he encounters one who owes him he is less forgiving of the situation, and the king who forgave him rescinds his forgiveness of the slave.
In this story the King is God, and we are the slaves. God graciously and lovingly forgives all of our short-comings. No matter how big they are. That slave owes 10,000 talents. That would have been equivalent to 15 years wages, but the king forgives the debt none-the-less. However, when the slave approaches a fellow slave he is unable to forgive the debts, and the forgiven slave is then punished for not doing as has been done to him.
Jesus tells this story because Jesus is trying to teach the people about forgiveness. Forgiveness is a two-sided coin. Yes we are forgiven by God, and that is supposed to make us better people. God’s grace inherently perfects us in its reception. As we continue to be sanctified through God’s grace we are made perfect in love, but we must want to be sanctified. Therefore, in order to acknowledge the sanctification that is happening within us we give the same grace that God gives us.
We as Christians think forgiveness is such an important part of our faith that it is included in our creeds. We believe in the forgiveness of sins, and if we believe our sins are forgiven then we also believe that others wrongs against us should be forgiven as well.
Because forgiveness is redemptive.
Lets look at that parable Jesus tells us again. Lets see what happens to the man who has forgiven. Once he is forgiven of his debt he is redeemed from his slavery and is allowed to go free. However, his unwillingness to forgiven his fellow slave hinders the redemption of that slave. It hinders that slave from also experiencing true freedom.
God has forgiven us and given us the redemption that we deserve through Christ. However, while we are here on Earth we have prevented redemption for persons by continuing to hold grudges and even persecuting to the point of death of others. We bring out the worst in people by withholding forgiveness and labeling them in certain respects, and for that we are preventing the Kingdom of Heaven from spreading by holding grudges by withholding forgiveness. It can be as simple as minor disagreement that has led to years of silence in communication or it can be something as tangible as real anger geared towards another person. Being unwilling to forgive someone hinders our own presence within the Kingdom of Heaven.
Forgiveness, no matter how tough for the forgiver, is necessary as a part of our faith. The amount of money the fellow slave owed the forgiven slave does not matter. What matters is that the slave was not willing to forgive as he had been forgiven.
CS Lewis writes, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” (https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/103229-to-be-a-christian-means-to-forgive-the-inexcusable-because)
No matter the heinousness of what happens we are called to forgive, but I can look out on the world and say we have not done that. We hold our grudges, we harbor anger, we even kill people because we feel retributive justice is the way in which we repay violence. Repaying violence with more violence…that is what our society has resorted to. If we want to lift high and mighty the name of Jesus we are told right here by Jesus himself that we must forgive. That we must be on the side of peace no matter how deep the cuts may be.
You want to know the greatest part of the Nelson Mandela story???
He had to forgive his captors, the government that oppressed him, and even let those people who had done many of these acts to him advise him as President. Mandela knew that forgiveness was redemptive. He could not redeem South Africa in the multi-racial manner and have harmony occur without forgiving his captors and those who harmed him. I imagine it was one of the toughest things he ever had to do, but he did it nonetheless because it is the manner in which we spread the peace of Christ.
Forgiveness may seem impossible. I imagine the things that many people on this earth have done. Many people are probably terrible people who have committed terrible atrocities, but if we are living out the faith we believe we need to forgive.
I want you to think of someone who needs your forgiveness. They may be sitting here in this sanctuary, they may sit near you at work, they may be someone you see on a regular basis. And I want you to forgive them. Allow redemption to occur. Jesus lets us know that there is no place in the Kingdom of Heaven for those who are unwilling to forgive whether big or small.
So be forgiven and go and forgive others.