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The Gift of Forgiveness / Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 18:21-35

Peter came up and said to [Jesus], “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.

A man named Joe who decided to take an afternoon walk through the foothills just above a lake where he was fishing. Joe was comfortably dressed in shorts, a T-shirt, and tennis shoes. Suddenly, he felt a sharp pain in his leg as he stepped over a small log. It was then he noticed a large diamondback rattler slithering into the undergrowth beside the log.

He looked down at his leg and saw that he was bleeding from two small puncture wounds in his right calf. He told himself, I must get to a hospital. But first, I’ll find that blankety-blank snake and kill it!

And so, Joe began a frantic search for the rattlesnake that bit him. He spent precious time looking under logs and turning over rocks in search of the snake. Meanwhile the venom quickly coursed through his body with the exertion of the search, leaving Joe dizzy and weak. He turned to go back to his car. But after only a few steps, he collapsed on the path and lay there as the venom traveled to his heart, ending his life.

Hours later the sheriff found Joe’s body and called the paramedics. They concluded that Joe had died of a snakebite, but they couldn’t understand the reason; he had only been five minutes from his car and twenty minutes from the nearest hospital. Joe could’ve survived his encounter with a rattlesnake. It’s simply that, in his anger, he wanted revenge on the rattlesnake more than he cared about the seriousness of the rattlesnake bite.

We’re all familiar with the slogan: I DON’T GET MAD, I GET EVEN. Well, there is a better option. It is to forgive.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus was so persistent that His disciples practice forgiveness in all their relationships? In our text for today Peter came to Jesus and asked, Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?

Peter probably felt like he was being generous when he proposed seven times. After all, most of the rabbis required only three times. It shows that Peter already sensed that Jesus had a bigger heart than any of his contemporaries. But even he was surprised at Jesus’ response.

Jesus answered, I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. Let me stop right there. Some translations of Christ’s words insist He said seventy-seven times not seventy times seven. After all, Jesus loved to use exaggeration to make His point when teaching His disciples. Think about that larger number for a moment. How many times should I forgive someone who does me wrong? Do the arithmetic. Seventy times seven. That’s four hundred and ninety times. Can you forgive someone who’s done you wrong 490 times? Seventy-seven times seems like an impossibility, but 490 times. In other words, Jesus is saying to us there’s no limit to our willingness to forgive.

Doesn’t Jesus realize how difficult that is? Of course, He does. Imagine how difficult it was for Him as He hung on the cross to forgive those who were taunting Him and beating Him. Imagine how difficult it is for Him to forgive everyone who has ever betrayed Him, including you and me. The number of times didn’t matter. He taught unlimited forgiveness; He practiced unlimited forgiveness.

Now let’s get real for a moment. Jesus isn’t saying that we’re to stand passively by while somebody abuses us 490 times. That would be absurd. That wouldn’t be beneficial to the abuser or the one being abused. But there are solid reasons why forgiveness is called for in most of our day-to-day encounters.

We forgive because it’s in our own best interest to do so. Joe acted irrationally when confronted with a rattlesnake bite. But how rational is it to carry around resentments for many years, something many of us are guilty of doing.

Someone has said that harboring resentments is like taking poison and waiting for the other guy to die. Someone else has said that letting hatred simmer within us, eating at our emotions and our body, is like burning down our house to get rid of rats.

  1. S. Lewis once observed that he had finally forgiven a man who had been dead for more than thirty years. Imagine that, carrying around negative feelings toward somebody for thirty years after they died. Meanwhile, like it’s often said, the other person is out dancing. Why would you do that to yourself?

We forgive, in the first place, because it is in our own best interest to do so. A rattlesnake, if cornered, will sometimes become so angry it will bite itself. That’s exactly what the harboring of hate and resentment against others is, biting yourself. We think that we are harming others in holding these negative feelings, but the deeper harm is to ourselves.

Forgiveness and true happiness go hand-in-hand. It’s true. This is a dynamic to forgiveness that is often overlooked.

Forgiveness is the behavior most strongly linked to happiness. You can never be truly happy if part of your heart includes resentment toward someone else.

Unforgiveness will keep us chained to whomever we don’t forgive. When we go to bed at night, the unforgiven person is there to keep us awake. When we go on vacation, the unforgiven person travels with us to our destination. The only way to get unchained is to forgive and release the person who has offended us.

But there’s a third reason for us to practice forgiveness that’s even more compelling. It’s part of our commitment to Christ to forgive. Jesus taught us to pray, Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, (Matthew 6:12). We forgive because we have been forgiven.

The Bible is very clear here. If we don’t forgive others their trespasses against us, neither will our Heavenly Father forgive our trespasses against Him. We must forgive because we’ve been forgiven. There’s a good reason for this. The love of God can’t enter an unforgiving heart, and if we don’t allow God’s forgiveness to first enter us, we can’t pass on what we haven’t yet received. However, once we genuinely experience it, we can’t help but forgive others. Being unforgiving has the effect of locking the door of the heart from the inside; since God never forces His way in or kicks down the door, we must first open it from the inside.

Forgiveness is a gift from God. We’ve been forgiven, and so we’e able to forgive others. Jesus followed His answer to Simon Peter with a delightful parable of a man who owed his king ten thousand talents. We’re told that this was an amount equivalent to 15 years of wages to a laborer of that day. The king forgave the man his debt. This same man, however, had an someone who owed him the small sum of 100 denarii, about a single day’s wage. The man who had this enormous debt forgiven by the king couldn’t find it in his heart to forgive the tiny debt owed by a neighbor. The king was furious when he heard that. He had the man who wouldn’t forgive the tiny debt thrown into jail. He was forgiven for an amount equivalent to 15 years labor, but he couldn’t forgive an amount equivalent to one day’s labor. In the same way we have been given an enormous debt by God; so, we’re to forgive others as we’ve been forgiven. Forgiveness of others is part of our Christian responsibility.

Forgiveness also makes it possible for relationships to be maintained. It’s sad when relationships are broken because people can’t or won’t forgive. Relationships are what life is all about.

A girl received on her 16th birthday, a refurbished ’69 Chevy Malibu convertible. It was cherry red with chrome accents and a V8 engine. It was a true classic, the perfect car for Jamie and her best friend Hannah to go cruising around their hometown of Tucson, Arizona with the top down.

Jamie’s friend Hannah was a very attractive young lady. She was a year younger than Jamie and she had stunning good looks. Though she was still in high school, Hannah had already signed with a modeling agency and was doing some catalogue work.

A month after Jamie’s birthday, she and Hannah went out for a drive. Taking a curve too fast, they hit a patch of dirt and fishtailed. Plowing through a neighbor’s landscape wall, they drove into a full-grown palm tree. The front wheels of the car came to rest halfway up the tree trunk.

Damage to the car was the least of their troubles. Jamie and Hannah were both wearing seat belts, but in the classic Malibu, there were no shoulder harnesses. As a result, Jamie cracked her cheekbone on the steering wheel; Hannah’s forehead had split wide open on the dash. Both girls survived but both would need the services of a plastic surgeon. Particularly Hannah.

When her mother came into Jamie’s room at the hospital, Jamie began to cry as she braced herself against mom’s anger. Instead, she took Jamie’s hand and told her that she had rear-ended her best friend when she was her age. She totaled both cars.

Jamie said, I’m so sorry. Mom said, you’re both alive. The rest is window dressing. Jamie started to protest. mom stopped her. I forgive you, mom said to her. Then she added, Hannah will, too. And she did.

Even though the finest plastic surgeon in Tucson operated on Hannah’s forehead, she never modeled again. Yet mom’s forgiveness allowed Hannah and Jamie to continue their close friendship throughout high school and college, and to be in each other’s weddings.

Jamie says this about this episode in her life: I think of mom’s gift of forgiveness every time I’m tempted to resent someone for a perceived wrong. And [also] whenever I see Hannah. The scars are so faded, no one else would notice, but in the sun light I can still see the faint shimmer just below her hairline, for me, after all these years, an imprint of grace.

Jamie enjoyed the beautiful convertible she received on her 16th birthday, but she will be the first to tell you that the greatest gift she ever received was the gift of  forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a gift. It’s a gift God has given us; it’s a gift that we’re to pass on to others. Is there resentment in your heart toward someone you were once close to, perhaps someone in your own family? Or a close friend? Why not free yourself from that anger, that bitterness, with God’s help today? Take the weight off of your shoulders and be set free.