In his book Down from Troy, surgeon Richard Selzer starts out with memories of his youth. He had great admiration and respect for his mother. In a brief aside, he had to admit she was unable to cook anything without lumps. Mashed potatoes, applesauce, oatmeal, all had lumps. "To this day," he said, "I have some problems facing those foods."
I laughed, because my mother was and is the greatest of cooks, but my growing up years were before the days of Cuisinart! I just assumed that a part of the adventure of eating was a few lumps along the way. It got me thinking. We want this homogenized, completely smooth dish to be a part of our thinking and believing, as well. We want things to go down smoothly, and not everything does.
At the heart of the faith, even for believers, there are some lumps. The biggest one for me is Jesus' teaching on forgiveness. In our creed we say, 'we believe in the forgiveness of sins." Every Sunday, we ask not only for forgiveness of our debts, but we pray that we will forgive our debtors. Do we really believe that? Or is that a lump we disguise in different ways?
I remember, years ago, Bill Cosby talking about the lumps in the oatmeal he was served as a kid. He said, "My mother would put in a lot of raisins to try to disguise the fact that the lumps were there." I think we do the same with forgiveness.
Let me tell you three of the ways we try to disguise that. The first is by saying "but look how I serve God in all of these ways." I remember two women in a town that we lived in many years ago. They were pillars of that community. No one did more for the good community than they did. It was only after I had been there awhile that I discovered in addition to that, they had not spoken to each other for twenty years. They would not even look at each other. If they were in the same room, one would leave.
There is a second way of disguising our difficulty with Jesus' teaching on forgiveness. It seems the highest road. People say, "I can no longer be a part of the church," and true to their word, they have left the church. The reason given is they know in their heart that they cannot forgive a certain person. They know what Jesus' teaching is and it is the higher road to leave. Even then, I wonder does that really deal with the pain and the hurt within them?
Then, there is the third way of disguising this lump of having to forgive others. We say that we believe what Jesus said. We are to forgive others, but there are exceptions. The first exception is that if the injustice against us is heinous, who could be asked to forgive such an offense? The second is if somebody does this thing to us or others repeatedly, how can we forgive more than once, because we are simply encouraging the behavior? Thirdly, I would forgive this person, but I know if I went to her she would say, "Forgive me. I haven't done anything wrong. Are you crazy?" This exception could be called the indifference of the perpetrator.
Dr. M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist, says in The Road Less Traveled, that unless we are able to at least move toward the work of forgiving the person, even the person who does not deserve our forgiveness, there will not be mental health. There won't be spiritual health either.
Now look at this Scripture. You perhaps will never read or hear a more important scripture than this one. Peter asks a question that is our question, about the limits of forgiveness. He says, "Lord, how many times should I forgive? Seven?" Peter had done his math. It was the tradition that you could forgive three times, but not four. It came, I think, from the misreading of the first chapter of Amos, where it was understood that God only forgives three times for the same offense. Peter took the three, doubled it and added one. Who could ask more than that? He came up with the number of completeness.
Jesus said to him, "No! Seventy-seven." Or seven times seventy. It was a way of saying infinity. Jesus was using the numbers to say don't put limits on your forgiveness because God has not put limits on forgiveness and mercy toward you. Can this be true? Then Jesus tells a parable. At first, even scholars wince and ask, "Does this belong in this particular passage?" If you read it, you realize it gets at the heart of Christ's understanding of forgiveness.
The image at first seems strange to us: a potentate who is severe, but merciful. This mideastern king is offended by a subject who owes ten thousand talents, which was the largest number used in everyday math and the largest number used in financial dealings. Do we get it? This person owed him everything: the whole ranch. He begged forgiveness and the king forgave the debt.
Then, in the same scene he goes forth from the grace of forgiveness, and sees somebody that is in to him for a hundred, not ten thousand. He will not forgive and comes down hard on him. We reel at the severity of the punishment given by the one who will not forgive, but is lavishly forgiven.
The truth is that we punish ourselves; we cut ourselves off from the free flow of God's grace when we don't forgive. It is not the person who needs our forgiveness who has the most difficult time. We are the ones.
If you forgive a person who has wronged you, even in unspeakable ways, there comes into your life an addition that will come in no other way. It is called mercy and grace. The only people who are able to extend mercy and grace are those who know that mercy and grace has been extended to them. Only those can build productive lives, families, and communities who have had to wrestle with forgiving people they don't want to forgive. If we don't forgive, our life becomes a study in subtraction. We become smaller and smaller.
There is a true story about a man who had a little sliver of land in a downtown area that separated two large parcels of land he did not own. He tried to sell it because he knew it would complete either of the other landholder's property — they had to buy from him. Neither one would buy at a price that he wanted, so he stubbornly built a building about the size of this aisle and he lived in it. Years later, after he died, it was called The House of Spite.
We live a narrower life because we are unwilling to forgive another person. How are we able to forgive? We need to recognize the true hurt and injustice that we have received. C.S. Lewis made an important distinction between excusing and for-giving. If somebody jostles me accidentally and I drop my books, I excuse that — it didn't hurt me that much, and it was unintended. But if a person does something to injure me or my family and the hurt will go on hurting for years, I can't excuse it. I have only the option of forgiving or not forgiving.
It is a process. We have to work at forgiving because true forgiveness is humanly impossible. I don't want to forgive. It is too much about seeing the other person squirm the same way I have. It is too much about justice. "How do you who have caused me pain get off scott-free? I do not want to forgive." It's only by the grace of God that I see how much I have been forgiven and am able to forgive.
There is an epitaph in an Atlanta cemetery that a woman had inscribed on the tomb of her adulterous husband. It said, "Gone, but not forgiven." It is our kind of epitaph. When we do not forgive, we have signed our own death warrant. We become less and less, instead of more and more.
Finally, even if forgiveness is humanly impossible, with God all things are possible. I will never forget the story of Corrie ten Boom, who had heard an unbelievable speech by a person in reconstructed Germany, about how God had forgiven him. He put out his hand to her after the speech and said, "Sister, God has forgiven me." She recognized him as one of the guards in the concentration camp where her sister died. She said, in effect, "I could not raise my hand to shake his, but in that awful moment I realized how much God's mercy and grace had been extended to me. What I could not do by my own strength, I did by the strength of God."
There is a new math that begins when we understand how much God has given to us of mercy and grace, and how much we liberate ourselves and others when we extend that grace even to those who don't deserve it. For do we deserve God's mercy and grace? Amen.

Matthew 18:21-35

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