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Jesus & Justice: Is Forgiveness Unjust?
Matthew 18:21 - 18:35
February 27, 2022
Reverend Jason Harris
A basic definition of justice means to give each person what she or he deserves. But if a wrongdoer deserves punishment, then does forgiveness violate justice? By commanding us to forgive, is Jesus calling us to be unjust? In this final sermon of the series, we explore these questions by addressing what forgiveness is and is not, and how we are to follow Jesus’ example when it comes to forgiving others.
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On the evening of June 17, 2015, self-avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof went on a shooting rampage at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, killing nine out of 12 black Christians who had gathered for Bible study. Two days later, family members of those who had died, as well as a few of the survivors, stunned the world by offering forgiveness when they were unexpectedly invited to attend the bond hearing. Nadine Collier, the daughter of Ethel Lance was the first to speak, and none of this was planned. She spoke up and said,
“I just want everybody to know–to you–I forgive you. You took something really precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. May God have mercy on your soul.”
Anthony Thompson, one of the pastors of the church and the husband of Myra Thompson followed,
“Saying the same thing that was just said. You know, I forgive you and my family forgives you. But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters the most. Christ. For he can change you. He can change your ways no matter what happened to you. And you’ll be ok. Do that, and you’ll be better off than you are right now.”
Amazing, amazing words. Few could understand how the victims of such a horrific tragedy could respond so quickly, with such uncommon grace, but not every family member felt the same. Malcolm Graham, the brother of Cynthia Graham Hurd is quoted as saying,
“[W]e had to deal with this whole notion of forgiveness of the shooter two days after the incident, while my sister was still in the morgue. I simply do not forgive. I don’t think you can forgive someone for a hideous act like that two days after it occurred. Forgiveness is a journey. It’s not just granted, especially when they never asked for it.”
Likewise, Waltrina Middleton, whose cousin DePayne (Dep) Middleton was killed, has suggested that the issue of forgiveness is fraught with difficulties because many black Christians feel social pressure to appear pious before other Christians. She's written,
“My family did not offer forgiveness in the courtroom. The words of a few became the headline for all, which became in turn a marketable narrative made for television and for profit, for pulpits and for politics, in order to ease the guilt of white supremacy and remove accountability. In the rush to force this false narrative, our society failed to truly engage in dialogue on race, racism, and racialized violence that targets black and brown bodies.”
There's increasing numbers of people who see forgiveness as not only unrealistic, but unjust because it short circuits our ability to express anger or lament in the face of evil and wrongdoing. Forgiveness, it seems, fails to hold people accountable for the things that they've done, and therefore it perpetuates injustice.
In this sermon, we're going to conclude our series which we have entitled Jesus & Justice. Over the last several weeks, we've been exploring what Jesus has to say about justice in the gospels, and in this sermon, I want to take up a rather tricky question: Is forgiveness unjust? Perhaps I could frame the issue like this. At the most basic level, justice means giving each person what he or she deserves, so the question is: What does a wrongdoer deserve? Most people would answer: Punishment. But if that's the case, then does forgiveness violate justice? Do you see the issue here? By commanding us to forgive, is Jesus calling us to be unjust? I would say: No. But let me show you why by exploring what Jesus has to say about forgiveness in Matthew 18. I'd like us to consider what forgiveness is not, what it is, and how we do it. Let me invite you to open up a Bible to Matthew 18. I'll be reading v.21-35.
21Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
This is God's word. It's trustworthy, and it's true, and it's given to us in love.
What Forgiveness Is Not
The disciple Peter initiates this conversation with Jesus about forgiveness by asking: How many times must I forgive my brother who sins against me? Peter is being generous here when he suggests seven times. The religious leaders of Jesus' day limited forgiveness to three times. Think about this, if somebody did the exact same thing to you, not once, not twice, but three times, after that third time, you would say, Enough is enough. Peter is stretching here by saying, seven times. Is seven times the right number? Jesus says, No, and he alludes, Genesis 4:24. He says, "Not 7 times, but I say 77 times" or a more literal translation might be 70x7—490 times. That's not to suggest that on the 491st time, it's okay to bear a grudge. No, the point is that Jesus is speaking hyperbolically, and saying that our willingness to forgive should be unlimited. There should be no limit to the forgiveness that we extend to others. This has to be one of the most challenging words that Jesus ever spoke, especially when we consider that Jesus concludes this parable, this little story, by suggesting that our ability to forgive others is intertwined with God's forgiveness of us.
There's a lot of confusion when it comes to what forgiveness is and what it isn't. First, let's consider what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not excusing. On the surface, forgiving someone and excusing someone might seem to be identical, but in fact, they're the opposite. When you excuse someone, there's nothing to blame. They might have done something to hurt you, but one way or another, you eventually come to realize that they didn't mean it, or they couldn't help it. There were perhaps extenuating circumstances or they were acting under duress. If there was no one to blame, then there's nothing to forgive so you excuse them. But with forgiveness, someone is to blame. Something has happened that is blameworthy and inexcusable, so forgiving is actually the opposite of excusing someone.
Number two, forgiving is not forgetting. Oftentimes, people say forgive and forget. Let bygones be bygones. That makes a certain degree of sense when it comes to maybe trivial peccadilloes, but not when we're talking about major offenses. How could you ever forget some of the worst things that have ever happened to you in your life? No, forgiving is not forgetting. In fact, in order to forgive, you have to actively remember who has hurt you. What did they do and why was it wrong? So forgiving actually requires remembering. It's true Jeremiah 31:34 says that when God forgives us, he remembers our sins no more. And Isaiah says in Isaiah 38:17, “You have cast all my sins behind your back.” When God forgives us, he casts all of our sins behind his back. He no longer holds them up before his eyes. They're no longer in his view. When God forgives, he forgets, but can we forgive and forget? In this life, it seems hard to imagine that we could ever do what God is capable of doing. It seems hard to imagine that we could ever forget some of the most atrocious things that have happened to us or to others. But it may just be that when God ushers in a whole new world, where somehow someway, all suffering and injustice is healed and made up for in ways that stretch all of our imaginations, then maybe just then it becomes possible that even the greatest tragedies that we have faced in this life might slowly fade into oblivion. It may be possible that in a new day, in a new world, by God's grace, we can forgive and forget. But in this life, that's not the first step. The first step to forgive someone is to remember, not to forget.
Forgiving is not excusing. Forgiving is not forgetting. Forgiving is not feeling. Most people think that you can never forgive someone unless you feel like it, but forgiveness is first and foremost an action. It's a decision. It's a decision of the will. It's a choice rather than a feeling, which means that forgiveness is often granted before it is felt. Forgiveness is a process. Our feelings of anger and outrage are real. When we are being asked to forgive, we're not being asked to suppress those feelings, but rather we're being asked to not act on them. That's why forgiveness is a process. Overtime, we may just find that as we forgive, our feelings of anger and outrage slowly begin to subside. Forgiveness is not excusing. Forgiveness is not forgetting. Forgiveness is not first and foremost a feeling. It's an action, and therefore it's granted before it's felt.
What Forgiveness Is
If that's true, then what does forgiveness actually entail? Perhaps I could break it down in terms of three simple steps. In order to forgive another person, you must first, condemn the wrong, then second, cancel the debt, and then third, that create the possibility to reconcile the relationship.
The first step here is perhaps the most counterintuitive. It may come as a surprise, but in order to forgive, the first step is to name and condemn the act as wrong. Rather than forgetting or excusing, you actually name the act and you condemn it. You condemn that action as wrong. Many people make the mistake of thinking that when you forgive someone, it's the same as condoning what they've done. It's as if you just shrug your shoulders and say, I'll simply accept it or ignore it as if it didn't really matter. If that were the case, then forgiveness would be immoral. Forgiveness would be unjust because you're treating something that is evil as if it were good, or as if it were merely neutral when it's not. So no, you're not saying it's OK. When you forgive someone, you're saying that a wrong has occurred. Someone has been hurt. Something evil has been done, and a done deed cannot be undone. Something has happened that is inexcusable and blameworthy. That's why it takes courage to say the words, ‘I forgive you,’ because you're implying that what that other person did was wrong, and it was unacceptable. By condemning the action, you spare the person. That's the only way to hate the sin while loving the sinner. You name and condemn the action as wrong in order to spare the person.
It's important to note here that everything Jesus is telling us about forgiveness in this passage relates to how we respond to someone who has wronged us on a personal or on a relational level. He is not denying that wrongdoers should be held accountable for their actions, nor that we should seek legal redress if that is warranted, nor is he suggesting that you should continue to put yourself in the exact same position to get hurt all over again. In fact, let me say that if you, in this very moment, find yourself in life in trouble, if you are being mistreated in some way, then please reach out to us. That is why we're here. We are here as a church to help. When we forgive, we condemn the action as wrong, but that doesn't mean that the wrongdoer shouldn't be held responsible for their actions, nor that we should continue to put ourselves in harm's way.
Once we condemn the action as wrong, it leads to this second step, which is to cancel the debt. Whenever someone wrongs you, it creates a kind of debt. There's a real sense in which they owe you, and that's why it's fitting that in this story that Jesus tells he uses the language of debts to describe forgiveness. When someone owes you a debt, there's two ways that you can respond. You either make the other person pay, or you pay it yourself. Those are the only two options. On the one hand, you make the other person pay, and there's a variety of ways in which you can make someone pay for what they've done to you. You can act cold and distant. You can insult them. You can disparage them. You can sabotage their reputation. You can tear them down in the eyes of other people, or with more serious matters, you can seek vengeance or retaliation. You try to get even with them by doing to them something equivalent to what they have done to you. You give them a little taste of what it feels like. The reason why we often do this, why we seek revenge or retaliation, is because at least in the short term, it kind of works. It kind of works when you try to pay another person back. It makes you feel a little bit better. It makes you feel like they owe you maybe just a little bit less. But the problem is that over the long haul, when you take revenge, when you seek retaliation, then the evil passes into your own heart. Your anger begins to control you. It changes the way you see. It might even create prejudices towards the kinds of people that hurt you. The evil passes into your own heart.
The only other option from making the other person pay is you pay the debt yourself. You cancel the debt by absorbing it into yourself. Like a financial debt when someone has wronged you, it's not as if the debt simply floats into thin air when you cancel it. No, someone always has to eat it. When you cancel the debt that another person has incurred against you, then you eat it because you were absorbing it into yourself. That is why forgiveness is so hard because when you forgive, you're refusing to seek the way of retaliation. You choose to cancel the debt by absorbing it into yourself. When you forgive, you make a promise that you're not going to hold it against the other person anymore. You're not going to hang it over their heads. You're going to make a promise not to bring it up with other people, and not to even dwell on it yourself. But if you've ever been wronged, deeply wronged, then you know how hard it is to do this. You know that every time you refuse to be cold, every time you refuse to be distant, every time you refuse to criticize, every time you refuse to replay in your mind what that other person did, every time you refuse to cut that person down, it hurts. It hurts. It hurts to forgive and it makes sense. Why? Because you're absorbing the pain and the loss yourself rather than dishing it back. It hurts because you're eating it rather than making the other person pay, but it's the only thing that stops the cycle. Leo Tolstoy once said that when you forgive, you swallow evil and prevent it from spreading any further.
When you forgive you condemn the wrong and then you cancel the debt, and that at least creates the possibility to reconcile the relationship. When people are hurt, they typically say, I don't need to forgive the other person unless they repent, unless they confess what they've done, unless they ask for my forgiveness. But that's not actually how God forgives us. Jesus didn't wait for us to repent before he went to the cross. No, he went to the cross first, and from the cross, he says not only of his tormentors, but of all of us, “Father, forgive them.” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The forgiveness of God, not only precedes, but enables our repentance. He goes to the cross first, and it is his act of forgiveness that enables our repentance. That's what so transforms our hearts that we cultivate the desire to want to repent and to make amends. He offers his forgiveness as a gift, free of charge, without conditions or strings attached, and that's how we're called to forgive as well.
People say how can you possibly do that? I could never forgive someone who doesn't deserve it. That's the whole point. Nobody deserves forgiveness. No one deserves forgiveness. Forgiveness is undeserved. Forgiveness is a gift. That is why forgiveness doesn't necessarily lead to reconciliation, but it creates the possibility to reconcile the relationship. It creates the possibility for it.
It's important to see that forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing. There's no reconciliation without forgiveness, but forgiveness doesn't always lead to reconciliation. Why? Because forgiveness only takes one. You're in control of forgiveness. You can choose to forgive regardless of how the other person responds, but reconciliation takes two. Forgiveness is not complete until it is received, and if it is received, if the other person acknowledges their fault, receives your forgiveness, apologizes for what they've done, admits the wrong, and then seeks to make amends to take proactive steps to change and to make up for what has happened in the past, then the relationship can be restored. A person who admits no guilt can accept no forgiveness. That relationship can't be restored until the other person receives the forgiveness you offer. But if they do, then things can at least begin the process of going back to perhaps the way they once were. You can begin the process of rebuilding trust.
How Do We Forgive?
If that is what forgiveness is, and what it's not, how do we actually do it? I think that this is a pressing issue for us. When I was growing up, moral relativism was the rule of the day. People said that they didn't believe in God, and they didn't believe in absolute truth and therefore you have to create your own truth. I have my truth. You have yours. What's true for me may not necessarily be true for you. Everybody was not only allowed but expected to find their own truth and to do their own thing. But at least back then people were relatively consistent, and they realized that if there is no absolute truth, there's also no absolute judgment. So if there was any rule that everybody could agree to live by, it was, ‘thou shalt not judge.’ I would say that everything has changed in the last 20 or 30 years now, because now we live in an incredibly judgmental culture. Today, people continue to reject a Christian view of the world, but they cling to their own truth with cult-like devotion. They believe that it is not just their right, but their duty, their duty, to punish all those who transgress their own chosen values, even if the values that they have chosen to live by are somewhat arbitrary. The irony is that in our day and age, by giving up religion, we have become far more moralistic, and yet far less merciful, than even the worst Pharisee in Jesus' day. The literary critic, Alan Jacobs, who teaches at Baylor writes this,
“When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness.”
The great moral crisis of our time is vindictiveness. No society can last for long if there is not some common understanding of that which is good, and true, and beautiful—if there's no way for us to forgive one another, and pursue reconciled relationships with each other when we wrong one another, which we inevitably will. That's why leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Desmond Tutu grounded their appeals for social change, not in their own personal preferences of what they thought was true, but rather they grounded their appeals for social change in the sacred order. They understood that there is no future, there's no future for any of us without forgiveness. That's why Dr. King famously said that, “You cannot drive out the dark with darkness. Only light can do that. You cannot drive out hate with hate. Only love can do that.” There's no way to love other people, there's certainly no way to love your enemies, apart from forgiveness. How do we actually do it?
What does it take to forgive? It takes courage, but it also takes humility. The only way to forgive is to be forgiven. The only way that you can extend forgiveness to another person is to first acknowledge your need for it yourself. That's why Jesus tells this whole parable. He explains that our ability to forgive is tied to our ability to receive it for ourselves.
Look again at the parable, the story that Jesus tells. He asks us to imagine a servant who owes a king 10,000 talents, and he can't pay it. The king orders that this man be sold, together with his wife and family, until the last penny has been paid, but the servant drops down to his knees and pleads with this king for more time. Give me a little bit more time, and I'll pay off everything I owe. He asks for patience. The word patience literally means long suffering. It's the opposite of being quick tempered. He's asking the king to refuse the way of anger, and to forgive the debt. That sounds reasonable enough until you realize what kind of a debt we're talking about. A talent was the highest unit of currency in Jesus' day, and 10,000 was the highest numeral. Jesus is using the biggest number that he can think of—this would be a number beyond what would be in circulation within that economy. It would be the equivalent of something like $10 billion dollars today. That's how much he owes. It's laughable to think that he could pay it off with just a little bit more time. He could never pay off that debt in a million years! But amazingly, the king has compassion. His heart goes out to the servant. He has pity on him, and so he releases him. Rather than making him pay, he cancels the debt. Of course, the debt doesn't just disappear into thin air. For the king to cancel that debt means that he absorbs it himself. He suffers the pain. He suffers the loss. It's simply staggering.
That's why it's so shocking that no sooner is this man forgiven of his debt when he runs into a fellow servant, one of his colleagues who owes him 100 denarii, which would have been the equivalent of something like $10,000. That's still a lot of money, but it's nothing compared to $10 billion. Yet, he has no sense of proportion or perspective. When he sees this colleague, he grabs him by the throat and begins to choke him, demanding that he pay what he owes. His colleague follows the same pattern. He drops down to his knees, and he pleads with him for patience, for more time, and he'll pay back everything that he owes, but the servant refuses. He refuses, and he throws him in a prison until he should pay his debt. When others find out, they are rightly horrified. They are horrified that someone who had been forgiven so much, was unwilling to forgive so little. When the king finds out about it, what does he do? He summons the servant to him and says, “‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers,” literally the word is "torturers," “until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
The question is, is forgiveness unjust? No. If we understood how much God has forgiven us, then we would understand that it is our unwillingness to forgive one another that is unjust and unfair. If only we had the eyes to see. The problem for us is that we don't see how much God has already forgiven us through the gospel. Remember, Jesus didn't tell this story for no reason. He told this story because he understands that this is who we are. This is what we're like. Christians should be the most compassionate, the most gracious, the most patient, the most long suffering, the most forgiving people on the planet, yet we're not. Why not? Because we have no appreciation for what Jesus has done for us. We know that we're not perfect, but we don't think that we've done anything all that wrong. We don't think that we've really done anything to offend God, and therefore there's nothing for God to forgive. But that's not true.
Let me give you a little illustration that I've borrowed from another pastor. Imagine a woman whose husband dies and leaves her with nothing, and she's got a young son. She raises him well. She teaches him to tell the truth, to work hard, to give back to the community. She doesn't have much money, but she scrapes enough together by working multiple jobs in order to put him through college. He does well in school. He graduates. He gets a great job, and he becomes everything that his mother had ever dreamed of. He's honest. He's hardworking. He's generous. There's just one little problem. He doesn't care anything about his mom. He sends her a card maybe once a year on her birthday, but he never visits. He doesn't even return her phone calls. He's a fine, upstanding citizen, right? He hasn't broken any laws. Most other people would consider him to be a good guy, but everything within us cries out that that is wrong. It's unjust. It's wrong because he owes her a debt of love and gratitude. Everything he has is the result of her labor and sacrifice. And don't you see, that's who we are. We are that son. We have racked up an insurmountable debt against God, not only because of the things that we've done, but also because of the things that we have failed to do. Everything we have, everything we are, is a gift from his hand. We would be nothing apart from him, yet we scorn his love. We fail to give him the honor of our lives. We have racked up a debt that we could never repay, not in a million years, yet God has canceled the debt held against us.
Jesus is the king who took the place of the servant. Jesus was handed over to the jailers who tortured him. They threw him up on a cross, and on the cross, Jesus pays not his debt, but yours. He eats it. He cancels the debt against you by absorbing it into himself, but forgiveness is not complete until it is received. You have to acknowledge you're wrong. You have to admit your fault. You have to receive the forgiveness that he offers. Then you have to take proactive steps to live in light of the promise that he has now extended to you. Don't you see? That is what God has done for us and if we only had eyes to see it, then we would become the kind of forgiving people that Jesus calls us to be.
God is so just, and you really are so guilty that Jesus had to die. There was no other way. There was no other way for Jesus to condemn the wrong of our actions without condemning us. Yet at the very same time, God is so loving, and you are so valuable in his eyes that Jesus was willing to die for you. He would have done it if you were the only one. That was the only way to hate the sin, yet love the sinner. At the cross, we see God's perfect justice and his perfect love come together. That's the place where his justice and his love meet. God's justice and love are not incompatible with one another. No, they are inseparable from one another, and if you only had the slightest sense in your heart of how much God has forgiven you in and through Jesus, then you would stun the world, you would stun the world, with your ability to extend forgiveness to others from your heart.
Let me pray for us.
Father God, we recognize that we live in a vindictive, judgmental culture, and there is no future without forgiveness. Help us to understand what forgiveness is not and what it is and how to do it. Help us to see that our ability to forgive others is intertwined with your forgiveness of us. Help us to see, to understand, to feel, to sense how much you have forgiven us so that we might learn to forgive others from the heart. We ask this in Jesus' name and for his sake. Amen.