Preachers tend to tell big forgiveness stories about people who wrestle with the devastating effects of war, murder, and stupendous acts of unfaithfulness. I am more comfortable talking about penny-ante examples of forgiveness. Jesus covered the entire spectrum with one story. When Peter asked Jesus to define the limits of forgiveness, Jesus told a tale about settling accounts. It’s easy to find ourselves in Jesus’ stories. Jesus never said, “I’m going to tell you a story about two builders, but it’s really about you.” He didn’t have to. In a good story we recognize ourselves instantly. Jesus’ parables are mirrors into which we are invited to take a hard look.
There was a king who wanted to straighten out the books. He called in his debts. One servant owed him big money—something like five tons of pure silver—equivalent to the gross national product of Ethiopia, or about enough to pay Donald Trump’s security detail for a month. Big money. There was no way for him to repay such a fortune, so he fell at the feet of the king, sniveling and whining about his poor children and how his dog would starve if anything happened to him and how if the master would be patient he’d pay back everything, with interest, given 400 years or so. The king took pity on the man and forgave the whole wad…even returned his ATM card no questions asked.
The servant could hardly believe his good fortune. He waltzed out of that meeting only to find a fellow who owed him a sizable chunk of change. Remembering how great a debt he had just been forgiven, the servant stopped the man on the street, planted a big wet kiss on his cheek and released him from his debt too. Get real! He grabbed the poor guy by his skinny little neck, and had him thrown in the slammer.
Word quickly filtered back to the boss. The king called the man in and said, “You little weasel. Look how much I forgave you! No mercy then?” And he handed the guy over to the Knuckles and Bugsy Collection Agency until the debt was paid in full.
Forgiveness is hard work. We resonate with the poet Heinrich Heine, who wrote:
Mine is a most peaceable disposition. My wishes are: a humble cottage with a thatched roof, a good bed, good food, the freshest milk and butter, flowers before my window, and a few fine trees before my door; and if God wants to make my happiness complete, he will grant me the joy of seeing some six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees. Before death I shall, moved in my heart, forgive them all the wrong they did me in their lifetime. One must, it is true, forgive one’s enemies– but not before they have been hanged.
Forgiveness is hard, but make no mistake, forgiveness is what Jesus expects. If we are to live like Jesus, for Jesus, we have to forgive. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). The Lord said plainly, “…if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15). Why? Because if we won’t forgive, we can’t go where God wants to take us. If we don’t get this right, our growth will be forever stunted.
In his book Jesus and Non-violence Walter Wink tells a story about a crowd of worshipers and activists packed into a church in Selma, Alabama in 1965. A messenger arrived with news of bloodshed in Montgomery at which non-violent marchers were beaten, some nearly to death, by Sheriff Jim Clark’s troops. Clark was known by his military-style uniform, by the button he wore which read “Never,” and by the cattle prods his deputies used to clear the streets of protestors. The gathered crowd listened to the report that ambulances sent to help the wounded had been delayed for several hours, leaving victims bleeding in the streets.
The tension in the room was off the charts when a young minister took to the microphone and began to lead a call and response song popular at the time. He sang: “Do you love Martin King?” and the crowd sang back: “Certainly, Lord!” “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, Lord!” “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, certainly, certainly Lord!” The minister inserted the names of other black leaders, asking the crowd if their love extended to them. The congregation shouted back: “Certainly, certainly, certainly Lord!”
Then came the unexpected. The young man sang out, “Do you love Jim Clark?” At first the crowd faltered, but the question came again: “Do you love Jim Clark?” And the crowd responded: “Certainly, Lord,” stronger this time. “Do you love Jim Clark?” and all the people sang out: “Certainly, certainly, certainly Lord!” The people of God remembered who they were and what Jesus expected of them.
The Church is a workshop where the world gets to see what kind of people Jesus is capable of producing. Here is where it happens. You’re not going to find it anywhere else. We are the model on display for the world. If grace doesn’t break out here, among us, between us, then none of this stuff is real, and none of it is going anywhere.
When we forgive, Jesus allows us to participate as he recreates his world. When we forgive, he allows us to redeem, remake, reshape the mess we’ve made of our little corner of creation. When we forgive, we say to the whole world, “This is what our king looks like. This is the life that he inspires.” This week, in your friendships, in your marriage, in your work relationships, in your family…show people what God is like. Forgive from your heart. In doing that, we learn to sing, “Certainly, certainly, certainly Lord!”