March 10, 2019
As We Forgive Our Debtors
Matthew 18:21-35 (The Message)
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.
“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 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 season of Lent is for letting go of everything that gets in the way of God shining through us. Which is to say, we’re getting ready for the resurrection. What God wants for us is new life; that’s what God offers us. It’s not that we have to do anything to earn it – it’s all grace. This parable makes that abundantly clear! But we do have to be ready to receive it – and let it change our lives, for good.
One of the hardest things Jesus asks us to let go of is the bitterness and resentment we hold against others; the grudges, the account of hurts and slights and unfairness, the habit of keeping score. That process of letting go is what he calls, ‘forgiveness.’
We know this is part of following Jesus. He taught us to pray it: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” We pray it Sunday after Sunday after Sunday – and hopefully some days in between. But doing it? That’s another story. I mean, I know I’m supposed to be forgiving – we all know that. I know I’m supposed to be forgiving because God has forgiven me – and keeps forgiving me.
But this passage raises some serious questions. What happens if I don’t forgive someone? Will God rescind the forgiveness I’ve been given, take it back? If I don’t forgive others’ debts, will I be stuck with my own debt? Does my own freedom depend on my ability to set others free?
That makes it sound like God’s forgiveness contingent, conditional. Somehow that doesn’t seem right.
That doesn’t sound like grace.
But what if it’s not so much conditional, as connected? What if our ability to offer and receive forgiveness are part and parcel of the same thing? That they are inherently linked? How would that change us?
How might it change the world around us?
In 2008, a documentary came out called, “The Power of Forgiveness.” As director Martin Doblmeier described,
The word 'forgiveness' may be the most provocative word in our culture today. There is an underlying anger in our country that we see regularly in our movies, in the news, even on our highways. For some, that anger is acceptable - while others are calling for a new direction in our thinking and the way we interact with others. Forgiveness proves itself not only to be good for our health, but it offers a solid first step in that new direction."[i]
In other words, forgiveness is not only freeing for us personally, it can change the climate in which we live.
That’s what happened with Patton Oswalt and Michael Beatty.
Patton Oswalt is a comedian and actor, and like many comedians, he regularly takes aim at public figures. Like politicians. In late January he tweeted something about President Trump. And, predictably, one of his followers “did a knee-jerk reaction” and blasted him.
"I enjoyed seeing your character in [the movie] Blade: Trinity die so horribly," he wrote. In another tweet he poked fun at the actor's height.
Oswalt was ready to blast him right back – but then he saw the man’s Timeline.
The guy’s name was Michael Beatty, and it turns out he was dealing with some major health issues and huge medical bills. Instead of blasting back, Oswalt decided to donate $2000 to Beatty’s GoFundMe page – and then he “encouraged his millions of followers to follow his lead.” He wrote,
This dude just attacked me on Twitter and I joked back but then I looked at his timeline and he’s in a lot of trouble health-wise… I’d be [ticked-off] too. He’s been dealt some [bad] cards – let’s deal him some good ones.
And they did. To the tune of $50,000. With lots and lots of loving messages. The empathy was utterly unexpected – and life-changing for Michael Beatty. His anger started fading away. No more road-rage. No more angry posts. He sees people differently – not as his enemies, but as “caring, generous, helpful.”
That experience is changing his life. It’s giving him freedom. Real freedom. Life-changing freedom.[ii]
“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Let. It. Go.
Now, you could argue that’s low-hanging fruit. It’s easy to forgive someone you barely know. It’s easy to let someone off the hook and disengage when you don’t have much skin in the game. But what about when it hits close to home? What if it’s persistent, and personal? What if it’s something that’s really wrecked your life? What then? How are you supposed to forgive somebody then?
Of course that’s a lot harder. Maybe almost impossible. But what’s the alternative? And maybe more to the point, who are we hurting when we hold onto the anger, the pain, the resentment, the hurt?
Desmond Tutu served as Archbishop in the Anglican Church in South Africa, a nation that has spent decades dealing with the legacy of Apartheid and the generational wounds it inflicted. He firmly believes that “forgiveness is the only way to heal ourselves and to be free from the past.”
Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us. We are bound to the chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped. Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness, that person will be our jailor. When we forgive, we take back control of our own fate and our feelings. We become our own liberator.[iii]
Brad Sachs is a Clinical Psychologist who has seen this first-hand – both how hard it is for people to free themselves from the shackles of the pain they’ve endured – and how much forgiveness can play a role in their own freedom.
Like the twenty-two-year-old he worked with named Russell. Russell’s whole narrative was one of victimhood and abandonment. “He clung to this narrative like a drowning man clings to a piece of driftwood,” Sachs writes.
It was true that terrible things had happened to him – it was painfully and appallingly true. But Russell lived as if this were the only truth about his life, and there could be no other. So everything he experienced was filtered and shaped by that lens. Everything. Inevitably, that’s what he experienced again and again and again – victimhood and abandonment.
As Sachs describes,
“Somehow, every story he told about an abortive love affair ended with his being suddenly jilted without good reason.
“When it came to his disappointing work life, he was always the victim of someone else’s unfairness, inefficiency, or poor judgment.
“When he didn’t get a job that he was applying for, it was because the interviewer hadn’t taken enough time to get to know him….
“He absolved himself of responsibility for every disappointment that occurred, because that was what it took to maintain the consistency of his narrative.”
But Russell wanted life, a real life, a good life. Over time he was able to see how he was trapped by the chains of bitterness, jailed by his anger, shackled to the person who had harmed him long ago. Holding onto this pain was serving no one, least of all himself.
Slowly, slowly, he began to see his life with a wider lens. He could see his own courage and strength, his resilience and power. He saw that he wasn’t alone; that others in his life had been loyal and true. He started to tell his own story differently, so that the hurt did not define him. It was still a fact – nothing would change that. He couldn’t forget – that just wasn’t possible. But Russell became his own liberator.
And that freedom was priceless.[iv]
I am not telling you that you should forgive others. That’s not mine to say. That is a deeply personal decision, and one only you can make. Only you can know if it’s something you’re ready to do. What I want to say is that you can forgive. That’s the gift God offers us. That is part and parcel of God’s grace.
It is possible.
Difficult, of course. Almost certainly not once-and-for-all, but a process.
But it’s possible.
And profoundly, deeply healing.
As one author writes,
All the spiritual traditions raise up the value of forgiveness, but many people still find it to be a nearly impossible ideal. Just start somewhere. Look truthfully at one hurt you have not been able to forgive. Identify any associated feelings you might have, such as anger, denial, guilt, shame, or embarrassment. Imagine what it would be like to live without feeling this offense. Then let it go.
Other steps may be necessary for healing — a confession of your contribution to the conflict, making amends, changing behavior, a commitment to the community — but giving up your claims for, and sometimes against, yourself is where you have to begin.[v]
It’s where we begin.
“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
[i] “The Power of Forgiveness,” Film Review by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality & Practice, https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/films/reviews/view/17996
[ii] Allison Aubrey, “Anger Can Be Contagious – Here’s How to Stop the Spread,” npr, February 25, 2019. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/02/25/697052006/anger-can-be-contagious-heres-how-to-stop-the-spread
[iii] The Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, (New York: Avery, 2016), 234-35.
[iv] Brad E. Sachs, Emptying the Nest: Launching Your Young Adult Toward Success and Self-Reliance (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010), 44-46.