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SEPTEMBER 13, 2020
Pentecost 15, Proper 19
Have you ever heard someone say be careful what you pray for--you might get it? You just might not want your prayer answered. What do you do when you change your mind after your prayer is answered?
Here's a prayer many of us pray at least once a week "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Is that what we really want? We know we want God's forgiveness. However, I am not so sure about the second part, about the way we forgive others. We know that we are not so quick to forgive others as we hope and pray that God forgives us.
The Psalmist says, "The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness." Boy that sure is good news. We make a mess of something. We ask God for forgiveness. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, and so God forgives us. But...when someone does us wrong, when someone does us dirty, we say, "not so fast." We are not so full of compassion and mercy. We are not so slow to anger and of great kindness. We may be quick to anger and full of...colorful language.
And yet, this is how Our Lord taught us to pray--forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Be careful what you pray for--you just might get it.
In our Gospel lesson, Peter comes to Jesus and asks, "Lord, if someone sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?"
Peter is so eager to do the right thing. He heard Jesus talk about forgiveness, so he wants to know more. There is a rabbinic tradition that says a person should forgive another who has sinned against him as many as four times. So, Peter tries to be even more extravagant than the rabbis, and he adds three more times. He asks, "Should I forgive a person even up to seven times?"
Seven times is a lot. It is a lot of times to forgive someone who has sinned against you. Maybe Peter was expecting Jesus to give His approval for suggesting such extravagant forgiveness. Perhaps Peter was hoping for a pat on the back, a gold star for the day, for an A+ on his forgiveness exam.
This doesn't happen. Jesus turns and says, "No, not seven times, but seventy-seven times." Peter wants a rule, a measurement, so he holds his hands open wide and says, "This much, Lord? Should I forgive even this much?" And Jesus says, "No, much more than that. You are not even using the right scale. As far as the east is from the west, that's how much you should forgive." It is such an enormous amount of forgiveness; it would be senseless to try to calculate how much or how often.
There has been a fair amount of social science research on forgiveness lately. It turns out that forgiveness is good for you. People who forgive have lower levels of anger, anxiety, and they have less depression, they are more agreeable and emotionally stable, and may also have picked up some very desirable health benefits along the way.
Two authors wrote a book "Character Strengths and Virtues". In it they list forgiveness as one of twenty-four character strengths that make for a good life and contribute to a healthy society. It's good to know that there is some scientific evidence that supports the claim that forgiveness is good for us, even though I'm not too sure that was what Jesus had in mind when He did this teaching.
There are tests that can assess our forgiving ability. It is known as the "Forgiveness Likelihood Scale". If you wanted to be tested on your ability to forgive you get asked how you would react to ten life situations and then rate ow likely you are to forgive on a scale from very unlikely to very likely. Here are a few of the questions: (1) You share something embarrassing about yourself to a friend who promises to keep the information confidential. However, the friend breaks his promise and proceeds to tell several people. Would you choose to forgive your friend? Are you likely to forgive, or not likely to forgive? (2) A family member humiliates you in front of others by sharing a story about you that you did not want anyone to know. What is the likelihood that you would choose to forgive the family member? (3) A stranger breaks into your house and steals a substantial sum of money from you. What is the likelihood that you would choose to forgive the stranger?
What is your score so far?
It seems to us that following Jesus ought to make some difference in our lives. He tells us to forgive those who have sinned against us. He tells us to love our enemies. He says our righteousness ought to exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. Okay. We want to follow, and we are trying the best we can. For most of us, sometime in our walk with the Lord, we have probably asked ourselves: How am I doing?"
Unfortunately, that question may be part of the problem. The spiritual danger is that when we focus on our virtues and our successes, we may become a bit too preoccupied with ourselves. And the real danger happens when we start thinking of our character strengths as accomplishments of our noble, virtuous, righteous selves.
Here we can easily forget that, while our character strengths and virtues may indeed glorify God, when it comes to the Gospel, our Lord doesn't just deal with parts of us, the noble bits and pieces that we would like to put on display, but rather God seeks a relationship with whole human beings. He deals with every thought, ,word, and deed, everything that we are and everything we do.
And when we remember this, none of us, saints or sinners, people who are off the charts on the forgiveness scale and those of us who still struggle to forgive, do have a leg to stand on. We are all utterly dependent on the unconditional, unmerited grace and mercy of Jesus, who has removed our sins as far as the east is from the west.
Jesus reframes the whole question about forgiveness. When it comes to forgiveness, we are all like servants who owe our Lord and King more than we can imagine. Try as we may to repay our debt through our character strengths or our virtues or our willingness to forgive as many as seven times, we will never be able to pay back all that we owe to God.
But the good news is that despite our inability to ever give back to God everything we ought, God forgives us anyway, completely. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has taken upon Himself all of our burdens and sins and debts and has forgiven them.
Completely, utterly forgiven and healed by Jesus. God is the God who forgives.
We forgive, then, because God forgives us. The forgiveness that we are to pass on to others is the forgiveness we have in union with Jesus. Not because we are moral heroes or because we seek our own wellbeing, but because we are forgiven sinners.
Forgiveness may very well be a character strength and virtue. It probably does contribute to leading good and happy lives. Saints like Peter probably do score more highly on a Forgiveness Scale.
But, Jesus reminds us, when it comes to our ability and need to forgive, some of us have great character strengths and some do not. But we are all penitents, debtors keeling at the foot of the cross.
Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Be careful what you pray for--you just might get it.