15th Sunday after Pentecost
September 17 2017
Exodus 14.19-31; Psalm 103.1-5; Romans 14.1-12; Matthew 18.21-35
Rev Anita Venter, Bethlehem Bible College
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
This morning we are going to talk about one of the hardest things to do in life. Doing this is hard, yet unbelievable freedom can come from it.
When I first looked at the lectionary readings for this Sunday, I found myself smiling. My imagination began painting a picture of the spectacular Red Sea crossing. I spent a lot of time reading different commentaries and even watched the latest documentary on the Exodus, posted on YouTube a year ago.
But then God intervened and messed up my thoughts. God often does that. I was not to take the easy way out and preach up a storm on the Exodus.
This has been a tough week for many people I know.
Last Saturday week, my American friends remembered the dreadful events of 9/11. It was evident that some of them still suffer a great deal of pain and harbour a lot of anger in their hearts. Sixteen years down the line, forgiveness and peacemaking are not yet on their minds. All terrorists have to die – all of them – even if this means war where innocent people pay with their lives or become refugees who are unwelcome elsewhere in the world.
Throughout the week I met more people who have been wronged by others and are hurting to a point where talking about forgiveness is pointless, as it just stirs up more anger.
I was reminded of extremely hurtful events in my own life. It was as if somebody disturbed a beehive, and all the angry bees came out to sting me.
On top of all this, I missed two nights of sleep due to Israeli night raids in Bethlehem, where kids were captured to be put in jail. Afterwards I sat with mothers crying out in anguish for their young ones who are imprisoned for reasons unknown.
Hatred just oozed out of their hearts. They have faced this kind of oppression for so many years.
The second night of the raids, I found myself just sitting on the carpet in the middle of my living room. As one sound-bomb after the other exploded just outside my window, flashes of light revealed my terrified cat, and the screams of teenagers, dragged out of their houses at 2.30 in the morning, filled my room, I had a hard time to fight the anger and hatred that flooded my own heart.
How do I encourage people whose hearts are ripped in pieces and therefore cannot forgive in this sick world where injustice, violence, betrayal, physical and emotional abuse, rejection, and war are our lot? My heart is burdened with their pain and inability to forgive.
On Friday I ended up sitting in my kitchen just thinking about all these hurting people while the gospel lesson on the unforgiving servant rolled around in my head.
What an awful week to try and write a sermon when the pain is so close to home. When the images of towers crumbling, innocent people being killed without mercy, friends, men, women and children being in misery are not exactly conducive to thoughts about mercy and forgiveness. I did not want to preach anymore.
I read the parable over and over again. At the end I just gave up. I did not want to argue with Jesus anymore.
I called a friend, and he told me something I never thought of before. Jesus was willing to die for his beliefs about compassion, mercy, justice and forgiveness. While being bruised, beaten, bleeding and dying, Jesus remembered the only one who above all, and in all, and through all is the one who can forgive.
He cried out: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!”
I had heard these words over and over again, but with the help of my friend I heard them like never before.
If you analyse this text in the Greek Bible and look up the verbs in the dictionary, the verb in question is what is called an aorist imperative. It is a direct and definite command: Jesus did not merely ask God to forgive, he commanded God to forgive.
Some theologians emphasize that Jesus never said: “I forgive you, for you do not know what it is that you are doing.” From the cross Jesus did not offer forgiveness. During that extreme moment of anguish and pain, bearing the sins of the world, actually becoming sin to such a point that God could no longer look at him, Jesus cried out: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”
Could it be that Jesus himself was unable to forgive?
I don’t know. If so, if even for only a fleeting moment, before God strengthened him, it somehow makes Jesus all the more human.
Knowing that even Jesus in his worst suffering had to call out to God to accomplish mercy gives us hope, strength and wisdom on what to do in our own positions of unforgiveness.
After talking to my friend I looked at the lectionary again and it suddenly made more sense. At first I wondered how the Exodus story ended up with the parable of the unforgiving servant. But then it became clear.
Slaves are oppressed people who live in bondage. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt for perhaps 400 years, enough to make even the strongest people cry out to God. God hears their cry and sets them free.
When Peter questions Jesus about forgiveness, Jesus stuns him by going beyond any reasonable human standard: “Don’t keep score!” Jesus wants us to keep on forgiving, even when the offenses are too many to count.
Then Jesus tells the parable of the unforgiving servant. He paints the picture of a slave, someone in bondage, who has been set free, forgiven of an immense debt. In response, the slave chooses death over life by not forgiving the debt of a fellow slave and instantly looses his freedom. He paid a tremendous price for not forgiving that person. In essence he became a prisoner to unforgiveness.
We have the same choice. If we do not forgive those who offend and hurt us, we put ourselves in bondage. Opening the door to inner torment we lie awake at night, replaying scenes in our minds, staring at the ceiling, rehearsing actions of revenge, thinking, worrying and allowing anger and unforgiveness to enslave us. And so we short-circuit God’s blessings of love and joy in our lives.
Nelson Mandela once said: “Hating those who hurt us is like taking poison hoping they will die.” Keeping the offense in our hearts we hurt ourselves while the offender continues to live his or her life, whether aware or unaware of our hurt. It is as if we allow a spiritual cancer into our bodies to kill us slowly.
God sets before us life and death, blessings and curses. He urges us to choose life, so that our children and we may live (Deuteronomy 30.19). What we choose can make the difference between living a better and blessed life, and struggling to keep our head above the water in a sea of disappointment, resentment, bitterness, anger, hatred and revenge. The sooner we understand that there is no good whatsoever in hanging on to bitterness, the sooner we are set free.
Choosing a life of forgiveness is not always easy. But when we reach the point where the offense and hurt is so overwhelming that we just cannot forgive anymore, there is still hope. When we are stuck between a rock and a hard place, between the offender and our own inability to forgive, we can lift our hearts to God and cry out for help, for he is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.
Jesus promised in John 14 that he would send us a helper. The Holy Spirit is given to us to remind and convince us of all truth and to strengthen us to walk in God’s ways. If we believe and confess our sin of being unable to forgive, he is faithful to keep his promise to give us a new heart and a new spirit. He will take our hearts of stone, our hearts of unforgiveness, and give us hearts of flesh, full of compassion, love and mercy.
God loves us unconditionally. God forgives us freely. May we allow him to touch our hearts to show this same kind of love and forgiveness towards the people around us and thereby walk in freedom, knowing God’s love and joy in our lives.