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Forgiveness isn’t fair

By Charles Qualls

I want to ask you two questions. What is the greatest miracle of forgiveness you have ever experienced from God or from someone in your life? Second, what is the toughest act of forgiveness you have ever had to extend?

I think the only way we can get our hearts, our minds and spirits around today’s sermon text is by getting those memories settled in place. Our gospel lesson for this Sunday was Matthew 18:21-35. Maybe you’re living one of these chapters with forgiveness right now! If so, I hope I have good news today.

For years, I have said that the Church owed everyone an apology on the subject of forgiveness. In our zeal to advocate the practice, we’ve made forgiveness out to sound like something it could never be. We should be a people of forgiveness, both for ourselves and for others. But, we’ve made it sound as simple as an oath. “I forgive you.” Poof! It sounds like the flip of a light switch. In real life, we learn it’s not so quick and easy.

We also fail at times to recognize what forgiveness is not. For instance, forgiveness is not acting as though the offense never happened. It did, and nothing will change that. Forgiveness is not an obligation to pretend that what happened is now “OK.” It wasn’t then, and still isn’t. Nor is it an obligation to try to forget, for we are not as good at that as God pledges to be.

Forgiving someone is not an obligation to resume or continue on in a relationship that has been abusive, unhealthy, neglectful or otherwise damaging. Sometimes, despite forgiving, we make the healthful decision to move on in life without a person who is too unhealthy to be with. Forgiveness is not an instant soothing of painful feelings we may have as a result of what happened. Sometimes, that grief and pain management takes a long while!

Today, though, I want us to place Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness within God’s larger economy of grace. Because the math of forgiveness doesn’t seem to add up at first blush. Jesus was introducing a parable here. The question that prompted this was asked by Peter. It was born of the Mosaic Law and the legalistic mindset the people still had. You might hear the question better this way: “Lord … just tell me precisely how many times I am obligated to forgive someone before I get to let loose on them like I really want to!”

You may remember that most of Jesus’ parables contained some exaggeration within them. So, to make his point that forgiveness was a practice of grace rather than one of math, he exaggerated. “Not seven times, but, I tell you, 77 times.” Some translations say “70 x 7,” which equals 490.

Then came the parable to illustrate and teach. Here is one thing Jesus wanted us to remember. To a large extent, the grace we give to others will be the same standard by which we will be treated. If all we do is run around firing off the biggest gun we have in response to everything that happens, this world gets to be a tough place fast.

Jesus was Emmanuel: God with us. God had come to show us how to live. Here, he had some challenging words to Peter. This happened right where our sermon Scripture left off from last week where he had taught about conflict resolution. I am convinced that one of God’s greatest hopes is that we’ll get through life with each other and put the least wear-and-tear on each other that we possibly can.

Grace operates on a different scale of economy than revenge or hatred. What Jesus was asking of Peter was an awful lot. Grace is not always fair in what it asks of us. But there’s also really good news for us at times. Jesus’ teachings demand of us some interactions with each other where sometimes we return to each other better than we just got. Sometimes, what we receive from God, or others, is better than what would’ve been fair and understandable.

Here are those two questions again. What is the greatest miracle of forgiveness you have ever experienced from God, or from someone in your life? Second, what is the toughest act of forgiveness you have ever had to extend? Ponder these things in light of what Jesus told Peter.

THE REV. DR. CHARLES QUALLS is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 562-5135.