Forgiving As We’ve Been Forgiven: Community Practices for Making Peace.
This book profoundly inspired me through my preparation of this sermon on forgiveness this past week. There I encountered a powerful testimony of Célestin Musekura, who is pastor and theologian working on the mission of forgiveness and reconciliation in Rwanda. As you may know, Rwanda is torn down and apart by the most tragic tribal wars between the Hutu tribe and the Tutsi tribe for a long time. This ethnically motivated violence culminated in a horrible genocide in April 1994. Over a period of one hundred days, nearly one million people were massacred. And three million fled the country. After the genocide, Pastor Musekura deeply felt God’s call to ministry for the survivors. And he started it with teaching people about forgiveness and empowering them to practice it in broken communities.
Meanwhile, in Rwanda, revenge killings still continued. On a Sunday in December 1997, a group of armed forces invaded Pastor Musekura’s village, and killed about seventy people in their homes, on their farms, and even in the church where they were gathering for morning prayer. Pastor Musekura lost his father, many family members, neighbors, friends, and the members of the church he served. Undergoing this tragedy, he found it extremely hard to practice forgiveness in such a situation. Although he was the one who taught people about forgiveness, he confesses that his heart eagerly wanted revenge. But one night, he was praying to God that his pain, sorrow, and grief would not blind him from seeing the unconditional love and redeeming grace he has received from God. Then, he heard God’s simple yet poignant answer, “Forgive as you’ve been forgiven.” Rest of his testimony in the book is about his real struggles in his path of living out this demand of God.
“Forgive, as you’ve been forgive.” This answer from God truly is the core Christian way of forgiveness in a nutshell. We forgive, not because we are righteous or generous enough, not because we are merciful or patient, but because we are forgiven first by God who set us free from the power of sin, but because we are forgiven by Jesus Christ who was condemned and suffered in our place. For Christians, therefore, the foundation of forgiveness is the God who forgives. Renowned theologian Miroslav Volf beautifully sums up this core understanding. Christian forgiveness is never a two-way exchange between the one who forgives and the one who receives forgiveness. For Christians, forgiving always takes place in a triangle, among the one who forgives, the one who receives forgiveness, and God, the source of all our forgiveness. If we take God away, the foundation of forgiveness crumbles. “God is the God who forgives. We forgive as God forgives. We forgive by echoing God’s forgiveness” (Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, 131).
Today’s Gospel reading also reverberates the same answer from God, “Forgive, as we’ve been forgiven.” In the reading, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” And Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22) Here, the Greek word for “seventy-seven times” actually means seventy times seven. Yes, seventy time seven, which is, four hundred ninety. Is it really possible to forgive somebody more than four hundred times? You might be very suspicious about this demand from Jesus. Then, what does Jesus really mean by this? Let us look at the following parable.
After giving his answer to Peter, Jesus tells him a parable, the so-called parable of a wicked slave. In the story, the wicked slave is forgiven a huge debt by his merciful lord. But on his way out, he meets a fellow slave who owes him just a little. The wicked slave strangles the fellow slave asking him to pay everything he owes and throws him into prison. Hearing this nonsense, his lord cancels his merciful pardon for the wicked slave, hands him over to be tortured, and makes him pay his entire debt.
In this story, we shouldn’t miss two things. First, the different amount of debts is important. Jesus tells that the wicked slave’s debt was ten thousand talents while the fellow slave’s debt was only a hundred denarii. In Jesus’ days, one talent was approximately worth 6000 denarii. One denarius was a day wage for a laborer or a solider, so one talent equal to about 16 years’ wage. Therefore, compared to ten thousand talents, a hundred denarii was almost nothing. If we calculate one denarius as a dollar, the wicked slave’s debt was sixty million dollars and the fellow slave’s debt just one hundred dollars. What does this huge difference mean to us? It tells us that we are greatly forgiven by God, and compared to God’s such priceless forgiveness, the forgiveness we give to others is always near to nothing. So if we truly understand the magnitude of our forgiven debt, we should be able to forgive others seventy times seven. Indeed, our foundation of forgiveness is in God’s forgiveness, so we can forgive as we’ve been forgiven.
Second, let’s look at the destiny of the wicked slave. Because he doesn’t forgive his fellow slave, his forgiveness is eventually canceled. Here we see that forgiving is not an option for Christians but a demand and duty of faith. As Jesus teaches, we are only called to forgive others seventy times seven. And if we do not forgive others, we may not be forgiven. Remember also what we pray every Sunday, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Indeed, our foundation of forgiveness is in God’s forgiveness, so we should forgive as we’ve been forgiven.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, we are greatly forgiven by God’s grace. We have a new life in Christ, a new way of living as the children of God, a new hope in the future, without paying any price. As one who received forgiveness, amazing gift of grace, we are able to forgive others and are responsible to forgive others. We have always learned that God is the God of justice. True, for God, the world is sinful enough to be judged and condemned. But we have also learned that God is the God of love. True, God so loves the world that God is holding the due judgment and punishment upon it. Then, what does God do with this double bind, this dilemma? God forgives. God has justified us through Jesus Christ who suffered and was condemned in our place (Volf, 140). Each one of us is a receiver of this enormous grace. So we respond to God’s forgiveness by passing on forgiveness to others. “Forgive, as you’ve been forgiven.” You are forgiven so you can forgive and you should forgive.
Do you have any friend, co-worker, church member, or family member who has offended you? Jesus asks you to forgive seventy times seven today. Forgiveness is hard and costly. Even if we choose to forgive them, our forgiveness may not completely free our hearts from pain and suffering. Our forgiveness may not be able to carry out justice on them. Our forgiveness may not stop them from committing sins against us again. Nonetheless, we know that our foundation of forgiveness is God, so we are able and responsible to forgive. And we know that as we forgive, we join in God’s work of grace that heals, reconciles, unites, and restores the world. Forgive, as you’ve been forgiven. That’s God’s call for us today. Amen.