How Much Must I Forgive?

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How Much Must I Forgive? Rich Nathan February 20, 2011 Grace: Amazing Grace Series Matthew 18:21-35 If someone was to ask, “What is the central emphasis of Christianity? I mean, boil it down and make it simple for us. Is there one thing that is at the heart of all that Jesus taught and modeled and accomplished?” How would you answer that question? Or let me put it a slightly different way. If someone came up to you and said, “What is the single greatest contribution of the Christian faith to the well-being of the world?” Certainly any unbiased evaluation of the Christian contribution to the world would acknowledge that Christians have been at the forefront of spreading health care. Christians started the world’s first hospitals, relief agencies, and clinics. Christian missionaries have long been known as carrying a Bible in one hand and a bag of medicine in the other. Certainly, we might talk about the Christian contribution to education and literacy. Or the Christian founding of many of the world’s greatest universities such as Harvard, Yale, Oxford, or Cambridge. We could talk about the Christian contribution to the arts, to music, to literature, to the birth of modern science. We could talk about the Christian foundation of modern democracy and especially the Christian foundation of the modern civil rights movement. But, if I were to ask you to point to the one thing that is the single greatest achievement, the most fundamental thing that Christianity has brought to this world, I believe you ought to answer, forgiveness. As Brian Zahnd put it in his book titled Unconditional?: The Call to Radical Forgiveness: If Christianity is about anything, it is about forgiveness. Not forgiveness as a way of escaping punishment, but forgiveness as reconciliation and total restoration. Forgiveness which restores the broken relationship between God and people. And forgiveness which has the capacity to achieve peace and reconciliation among all human relationships whether personal or global. Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer, Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.

© 2010 Rich Nathan |


When Jesus hung on the cross, he said: Father, forgive them… In his first resurrection appearance, Jesus said, If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven… In the Apostles Creed, we’re taught to confess: I believe in the forgiveness of sins… If Christianity is about anything, it is about forgiveness. But, how far do we push this Christian forgiveness thing? I mean, it is great to forgive and all of that, but come on, we live in the real world, not in church. And we know that some people do horrible things. Kids are murdered in this world. Women are raped. There’s child abuse. There’s cheating on marriage vows with close friends. There’s domestic violence and embezzlement. And as a result of the terrible things we have broken hearts and broken lives and broken bodies and broken marriages, and broken psyches. We have relational damage beyond calculation. And so if forgiveness is the heart of the Christian message, how far do we push this forgiveness thing? Certainly, whether in the church or outside the church, we would all acknowledge that we could not live in a world without some level of forgiveness. Every day people say insensitive things to us and we have spouses who forget to pick up the dry cleaning and a neighbor’s dog poops on our lawn. And we have children who put peanut butter sandwiches into our Digital Video Disc (DVD) players. You can’t live without overlooking, or moving past some level of annoyance and inconvenience and insensitivity. But what about the really big things? What about real evil, or real betrayal? In the modern world when we talk about massive evil, the prototype of great evil is, of course, the Holocaust. There was a book written about 40 years ago by Simon Wiesenthal called The Sunflower. Wiesenthal was an Austrian Jew, who was imprisoned in a Nazi Concentration Camp during WWII. He was assigned to a work detail to do cleanup work in a field hospital near the Eastern front. While he was working at the field hospital, a German nurse ordered Wiesenthal to follow her. He was taken into a room where there was one lone soldier of the German Schutzstaffel protection squad (SS), who was dying. The SS soldier was a 21-year old German boy named Karl Seidel. Karl asked the nurse to

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“bring him a Jew” because he was dying and he wanted to make his last confession. He wanted to make his last confession to a Jew. So this SS soldier was wrapped in bandages covering his face and there was Simon Wiesenthal alone with him in a room. Karl said that he was raised in a Christian family; he was raised in church. His parents were not supporters of the Nazis, but he decided on his own to join the Nazis and specifically, at age 18, he decided to join the SS. And then he told Wiesenthal that he joined a group of SS soldiers to round up Jews in a certain city. 300 Jews - men, women, children and infants – were gathered and driven with whips into a three-story house which he then helped to set on fire. Any Jews who tried to escape from the burning house, Karl and the other SS soldiers shot. So Karl said, “Now I am dying and I wanted to confess to a Jew how sorry I am for what I’ve done and for what I’ve become.” Here are his final words: I am left here with my guilt. In the last hours of my life you are here with me. I do not know who you are, I only know that you are a Jew and that is enough…I know that what I have told you is terrible. In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and time again I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. Only I didn’t know if there were any Jews left…I only know what I’m asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace. Simon Wiesenthal believed the man was sincere, that he was truly sorry, but he got up and silently left the room without offering a word. Wiesenthal died in 2005. He was 96 years old and he was a great humanitarian. But in his book, The Sunflower, he posed the question: What should I have done? Should I have offered that young man forgiveness? In the second part of The Sunflower, 53 prominent thinkers – Jews, Christians, atheists, and philosophers responded to Wiesenthal’s question: Should I have offered him forgiveness? Twenty-eight of the 53 said, “Absolutely not. You can’t offer forgiveness in this kind of situation.” 16 of the responders said, “Yes. There is a way that forgiveness could be offered.” Nine weren’t sure. Of the 16 who said yes, 13 of them were Christians and three were Buddhists. All of the Muslims and all of the Jews and all of the atheists said “no.” How far do we push this Christian forgiveness theme? How bad do things have to get before we say, “Enough, no more forgiveness”? I’ve been doing a series that I’ve called Amazing Grace. And today I want to talk about what is at the heart of Jesus’ message, what he modeled, and what he commanded. I’m going to talk about forgiveness. I’ve called today’s talk, “How Much Must I Forgive?” Let’s pray. © 2010 Rich Nathan |


Matthew 18:21-22 21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. How much must I forgive? Peter asked the question, how many times? And before Jesus could answer, Peter said, “seven times” which seems incredibly generous. Seven is a divine number in the Bible, so forgiving seven times would be seen as pretty extreme. How many times do I forgive my teenager’s lies, my spouse’s overspending, my mother’s insensitivity, and my father’s put-downs? Three times? Five times? Seven times? Ten times? The problem with counting the number of times for forgiving is that you are still counting. And so what you are saying by a number – three, five, seven-ten, is that I am just waiting for the time when I can get revenge, because forgiveness has a limit. It is not infinite. Yes, this Christian forgiveness thing is a nice idea, but in the real world, when people really offend, we need to move to move on to something a little more realistic than forgiveness. Now, there is a dispute about what Jesus said in Matthew 18:22. In the New International Version (NIV) and Today’s New International Version we read: Matthew 18:22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. And it could be that Jesus said “Seventy-seven times.” If he did, this might have been a reference back to an obscure person in the book of Genesis to a man by the name of Lamech. Here is what Lamech said in Genesis 4: 23-24: Genesis 4:23-24 23 Lamech said to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. 24 If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.” Now the Lamech approach to doing life is “you don’t get mad; you get even.” We repay. We keep upping the ante. You say something unkind to me; I rip you in an email. You blog about me; I slash your tires. You punch me; I sue you. You bomb my house; I bomb your country. This is what actually ended up happening in this Lamech approach to doing life and it resulted in the massive outbreak of evil that took place in the day of Noah that God had to judge. © 2010 Rich Nathan |


But it may be that Jesus is proposing a very different way of doing life than the Lamech way. Instead of escalating violence, tit for tat, back and forth, Jesus is saying, “There is a way of doing life, of not returning fire, of repeatedly forgiving, repeatedly offering pardon, and repeatedly offering restoration instead of vengeance.” Imagine a world that didn’t follow Lamech with his escalating violence. Imagine a world that put into practice what Jesus is saying. Do you have sufficient imagination, Jesus is asking, to enter the world that I have come to introduce? I am bringing a different kingdom. I’ve come to introduce you to a new world, a new creation. Do you have the imagination, the space in your heart to embrace the new world that I am introducing? Another possible translation of Matthew 18.22 is the one that the old King James Version offered. You see it in a note on the bottom of your NIV Bibles. It says that Jesus said: I say not unto you, until seven times: but until seventy times seven. This seventy times seven may be referring back to the book of Daniel and Daniel’s prophecy regarding the death of the Jewish Messiah. Here is what Daniel said in Daniel 9:24: Daniel 9:24 24 “Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the Most Holy Place. This idea of seventy times seven, or seventy sevens, has to do with God’s way of dealing with sin and transgression and hurt and offense by putting an end to it through atonement and forgiveness. How much must I forgive? How far does this Christian forgiveness thing go? Here is what the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13, a chapter that is read at most weddings and is violated in most marriages. By the way, here is a little bit of marriage and family help. If you really want to help your marriage, or you are experiencing a family breach, at least from your side, why not read 1 Corinthians 13 every day for a month? Listen to what the Apostle Paul says.

© 2010 Rich Nathan |


1 Corinthians 13:4-7 4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. By the way, if you’re wrestling with hurt and grief from a divorce, Monday night we have a seminar here at Vineyard Columbus, Healing from Divorce. How many times can someone sin against you and you keep forgiving them? Well, if you keep no record of wrongs, I guess an infinite number of times. Let me make one other point before we move on. Sometimes the seventy seven times for forgiveness, or the seventy times seven, sometimes with really big things it is not that the person has done seventy seven different wrongs to us, or seventy times seven different wrongs to us. Sometimes the wrong is one huge thing – your spouse’s infidelity; a rape; an incident of molestation of you or one of your children. I love the way C.S. Lewis talked about the seventy times seven. Here is what Lewis said: There is no use talking as if forgiveness were easy…I could say of a certain man, ‘Have I forgiven him for what he did that day? I’ve forgiven him more times than I can count.’ For we find the work of forgiveness has to be done over and over again. We mortify our resentment; a week later some chain of thought carries us back to the original offence and we discover the old resentment blazing away as if nothing had been done about it at all. We need to forgive our brother seventy times seven, not only for 490 offences, but for one offence. I certainly, friends, have seen this in my own life where layer after layer I’ve had to repeatedly go back to an incident and forgive again what I thought I had forgiven years ago. You say, “Rich, everybody has a limit. I give up. I am not God. My patience gives out. My love gives out. I’m at the end of my rope with this other person.” I share your feelings; and, Jesus understands how we feel. And so he tells a story. Matthew 18:23-27 23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26 “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back © 2010 Rich Nathan |


everything.’27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. How much did Jesus forgive? Jesus, of course, is the King in this story. In this story the servant owes not 10,000 bags of gold, but 10,000 talents. A talent was the currency in the ancient Roman world. It is almost impossible to convert 1st century currency into the modern world, but when you discover that the entire tax bill for all of Galilee, everyone living in Galilee at the time, to the Roman government each year was 200 talents. So they are talking about 50 years of taxes for everyone living in that area. And the Roman tax was really high. 10,000 talents was a lot of money! To put it differently, you realize that a talent was about 20 years of wages for the average worker; we’re talking about 200,000 years of work. What Jesus is saying is that there was a servant who owed the King an absurdly large debt that he could never repay. And yet, the King forgave the debt. When we talk about how much we should forgive, how far does this Christian forgiveness thing go, and Jesus says it goes all the way, no limits, he is not one of those philosophers, who taught one thing and did another. I remember back in the 1970’s Larry Norman, a Christian artist, said, The Beatles wrote all you need is love, and then they broke up. Jesus was not like the governor who recorded an abstinence video while carrying on a secret affair. Jesus is not like that. He didn’t say, “You just need to forgive and forget, but I’m going to do something else. When it is crunch time, when I’m offended, I’m going to get back at people.” The amazing thing about Jesus, our Lord, is that he actually put into practice what he taught us. He was so radical that he actually lived this forgiveness thing. When Jesus hung on a cross, what did he pray? Did he pray, “Father, get them? Consume them?” Did he pray like the Old Testament psalmists, “Smash their babies on a rock. Repay them, God, for everything they’re doing to me?” What did Jesus say to Peter when Peter pulled out his sword on the night Jesus was arrested? Did he say, “good job, Peter, you’re living in the real world, buddy. In the real world, it’s violence in return for violence.” No. He said: Peter, you don’t get it. You are living in the way of Lamech. You are still living in the world of payback. I’ve come to introduce you to a different world. And then he modeled it as he hung bleeding on the cross where he prayed: Father, forgive them…forgive them. Forgive who? Forgive the Roman soldiers, who weren’t just good guys, who were just doing their job, their duty. The Roman soldiers were people who

© 2010 Rich Nathan |


enjoyed kicking Jesus in the face and spitting on him. They were a bunch of thugs. Forgive them? Forgive who? Forgive the Sanhedrin, Father, the religious authorities who deliberately lied and manipulated a trial, perjured themselves, broke their own laws. Forgive them? Forgive who? Pontius Pilate, the ultimate conscience-less-ness political animal. Which way is the wind blowing? That’s where I’m going. Forgive them? Forgive who? Forgive the soldiers, forgive the Sanhedrin, forgive Pontius Pilate, forgive you and me. What does Jesus forgive us for? We read the Prayer of General Confession during communion today. During that prayer we said: We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We’ve offended against thy holy laws. We’ve left undone those things we ought to have done and we’ve done those things which we ought not to have done and there is no health in us. You say, “I have reached my limit with this other person.” Jesus says, “I understand that; so, I want to help you to go beyond your limits.” Here’s the way you go beyond your limits in forgiving. Don’t start with the other person’s sins. Get down on your knees and begin with your own sins. List them all, everything – everything God is aware of that passes through your heart and mind, everything you’ve done, everything you failed to do, every law of God you’ve broken – your attitudes, your pride, your self-centeredness, your meanness and judgments. Go through those things in detail. And then, friend, from the ocean of grace that God has given you, pass along a cup of water to this other person. You say, “I can’t do what Jesus is asking me to do in this forgiveness thing. I can’t do it – not with that person; not with that wound. Friend, you need a bigger source than your own heart. You’ve got to tap into the infinite heart of Jesus. You’ve got to drill down to the geyser of forgiveness, who is Jesus.” Well, how much do we understand forgiveness? How much do we understand forgiveness? Matthew 18:26-31 26 “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver © 2010 Rich Nathan |


coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. 29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ 30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. The man in this story doesn’t understand forgiveness. He lives in the old world, the world of Lamech, the world of payback, the world of law, the world of retribution. He doesn’t live in the world that Jesus came to introduce, this kingdom world of mercy and forgiveness. He can’t imagine a world like that. So even when he is confronted with his own debt, listen to what he says: Matthew 18:26 26 “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ We want to say, “do you have any idea how big your debt is? You will pay it back? In what? 200,000 years? Do you have any idea how deep the hole is that you’ve fallen into?” The servant lives in a world of law and performance, and that’s the way many so-called Christians are in their relationship before God. We’re on a treadmill; I will pay you back, Lord. I don’t understand the grace of God – no strings attached. We don’t understand this world that Jesus came to bring. And that’s why so many of God’s people are so burned out and so angry. It is because we’ve never experienced mercy for ourselves and so we have no place to draw from in offering mercy to another. And so this man turns to his fellow servant, who owes him a much smaller debt and living in his world of law and retribution, in Lamech’s world, he demands justice. Brian Zahnd, in the book that I mentioned to you before titled Unconditional?: The Call of Jesus to Radical Forgiveness…offered this observation. He said: You can become a Christian in a moment. But to become Christian is another matter. In our evangelical churches we are very adept at teaching people how to become a Christian – how to receive the forgiveness available in Christ. We’ve not been nearly so adept at teaching people how to become Christian – how to become Christ-like in a way that helps flood a world hell-bent on vengeance with the grace of forgiveness. Every once in a while we hear a story of a person who is not just a Christian, but is actually Christ-like. Every once in a while we hear about a person or a group of people who don’t only go to church and do a few nice things, but who have the imagination to believe in the world that Jesus came to introduce, a world of © 2010 Rich Nathan |


forgiveness and who actually choose to put Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness into practice. And when they do, the world sits up and takes notice. Back on October 2, 2006 a man by the name of Charles Roberts walked into a little Amish schoolhouse near Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, carrying a bunch of guns. He murdered five Amish school girls that day and seriously wounded five others. Charles Roberts was a 32-year old dairy truck driver in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Amy, had three young children. They went to church. But Roberts was a man who didn’t know grace. He was a bitter man because nine years earlier, his firstborn child, a daughter, died 20 minutes after her birth. And he allowed his grief over the death of his daughter to turn into bitterness. And then the bitterness consumed him so badly that he lost every shred of his humanity. And entering Lamech’s world, a world of payback and revenge, he decided, “Somebody is going to pay for the death of my daughter. And since I can’t get at God and make him pay, I’m going to punish some Christian girls to get even with God.” So at about 11:00 a.m. on October 2, 2006 Charles Roberts broke into an Amish schoolhouse with a 9 mm handgun, a 12-gauge shotgun, a 30.06 rifle, two knives, 600 rounds of ammo and he yelled out, “I’m going to make you pay for my daughter.” While he was murdering these little girls, his wife, Amy, was at a Moms-In-Touch prayer meeting praying for children at the local school. But the massacre wasn’t the end of the story. Within hours of the killing, a group of men from the Amish community went to Amy Roberts’ house to express forgiveness. They brought gifts of food to Amy and her children. They told Amy that they hoped she and her family would stay in the community and that they had forgiven her husband. In the following days Roberts’ parents had a stream of Amish people knock on their door offering their condolences for their loss of Roberts, who committed suicide, and expressing forgiveness. In fact, 40 Amish people when to Roberts’ funeral. Some of them were the parents of the murdered girls. The funeral director, who watched these Amish people console Roberts’ family and console Roberts’ widow said this: “I was lucky enough to be at the cemetery when the Amish families of the children who had been killed came to greet Amy Roberts and offer her their forgiveness. And that is something I will never forget, not ever. I knew that I was witnessing a miracle.” There are a few people who believe Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said, “There is a better way for us to live. It is the way of forgiveness.” There are some people who not only believe good news of forgiveness. They are good news and put this message into practice.

© 2010 Rich Nathan |


So, here is the last question Jesus poses to us: How much will I suffer if I don’t forgive? Matthew 18:32-35 32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. 35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive a brother or sister from your heart.” When we don’t forgive, Jesus tells us, we are chained to the injustice we suffered in the past forever. You don’t forgive, Jesus says, and then you are going to be imprisoned forever by what has been done to you or what was done to your family member. If you don’t forgive you live in a permanent bent and twisted response to your past – forever in reaction, forever an echo. The evil that was done to you or to your family member wins because it forever shapes you. When you don’t forgive, you never move on. You stop living. And if you don’t forgive, you can’t receive forgiveness. Listen to Jesus’ words: Matthew 18:35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive a brother or sister from your heart.” Tom Wright, in his commentary, gave a wonderful illustration of what Jesus meant when he said, “this is how your heavenly Father will treat you, if you don’t forgive from your heart.” Wright said what Jesus is not saying is what a parent might say to a stingy child, “Son, you didn’t share your sandwich with a hungry man today. Therefore, you get no dinner tonight.” That’s not what he’s saying. Rather, forgiveness is like air in your lungs. If you don’t let the air out, you have no ability to inhale any more of the air of forgiveness. You have to give forgiveness away in order to be able to receive forgiveness for yourself. Let me close with a couple of thoughts. You know, forgiveness is not a cheap thing. And for places where we’ve been really wounded, or where someone we love has been really wounded, forgiveness is not just words that we quickly speak: Oh, I forgive them; I forgive them in Jesus. So often, what I see in myself and I see in people who talk with me in my office about hurts that they’ve suffered is that the kind of quick words only, head only forgiveness that we offer is like cutting a weed down at the stem. But we don’t take the time to dig out the roots and so the weed grows back. But down in the heart we have all of these fantasies of revenge and we’re happy when harm comes to the person who has hurt us or has hurt our loved ones. They’re getting what they deserve. We’re

© 2010 Rich Nathan |


happy at bad news about this person. We’re happy when others criticize them, or join in our hate. Jesus is teaching us a different way to live. He says you need to dig out the root, go all the way down in your heart, come before God, tell God what this other person did, tell God what this other person stole from you – they stole your virginity, they stole your innocence, they stole your respect, they stole your trust, they stabbed you in the back – tell God what this person did, what this person took from you. Tell God all the consequences that happened as a result. And then before God, tear up the bill. Father, this person owes me so much. They’ve wounded me so deeply. But I’m going to tear up their bill. I’m going to turn this over to you. I can’t have this root in me or it will kill me. Father, I want to enter the new world that Jesus came to bring – a world of forgiveness and mercy. Sometimes, friends, you need to do that multiple times – seventy times seven – right foot; left foot; right foot; left foot. I choose turn this person over to you. Let me live in your world of forgiveness. Let’s pray.

© 2010 Rich Nathan |


How Much Must I Forgive? Rich Nathan February 20, 2011 Grace: Amazing Grace Series Matthew 18:21-35


How much must I forgive? (Mt. 18.21-22)


How much did Jesus forgive? (Mt. 18.23-27)


How much do we understand forgiveness? (Mt. 18.26-31)


How much will I suffer if I don’t forgive? (Mt. 18.32-35)

© 2010 Rich Nathan |