September 17, 2017
Genesis 50:15-21, Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35
In the 1986 movie The Mission: Rodrigo Mendoza, played by Robert De Niro, is a former slave trader and mercenary, who spends years capturing the native Guarani people of Brazil and selling them into slavery. He kills his brother in a duel over a woman and is thrown in prison where he is visited by Jesuit Father Gabriel who hears Mendoza’s confession. Rodrigo goes with Father Gabriel to start a mission to the Guarani in the remote Jungle. As his penance Rodrigo puts his armor and weapons into a large bag attached to a thick rope that he puts over his neck and shoulder and drags behind him on this mission into the mountainous jungle.
This is an image of the human condition: we go through life pulling behind us a large bag full of our sins, offenses, worries, and fears. By the time we reach middle-age the bag weighs a ton, but we keep on pulling it behind us, adding new sins and situations to the bag—no wonder we slow down and slump over.
But Rodrigo is not going just anywhere—he is going to face the people he enslaved and killed.
After climbing a cliff with his weight banging along beneath him, he comes face to face with a group of Guarani men. One of the Guarani recognizes Rodrigo and runs to him with a knife: is he going to cut his throat? So it seems, until he shifts the knife and starts cutting the thick rope around Rodrigo’s neck. It takes a minute but then the rope is cut and the armor falls away down the cliff.
It slowly dawns on Rodrigo that his weight is gone and that he’s received forgiveness. He sobs deeply and then a radiant smile appears. Rodrigo is a new man, born again, given a chance to live a different life.
But there is someone else worth looking at in this scene: the one who cuts loose the weight from Rodrigo’s neck, the one who forgives him.
This is the person Jesus is asking Peter to become in today’s gospel. “Become the kind of man, Peter, who can cut loose the weight from someone who has done terrible things to you. Do this Peter—not 7 times, but 77 times, which means forever.”
But how in the world could Peter, or you and I, become a person capable of such forgiveness?
Can preachers stand in pulpits ordering their people in Christ’s name to act this way and expect it to work?
Can people in the pews find enough will power to forgive those who have hurt them?
Of course not! Our default setting isn’t forgiveness but resentment and retaliation. We are not trained to let go, but to hold on. After all, we’ve been deeply hurt and we want the cause of our suffering to suffer too!
And what kind of world would it be if we went around forgiving those who have hurt us. Surely that would just encourage them to keep on hurting us and others.
Where could such power come from to transform us into men and women who could practice forgiveness?
Jesus points to the source of this transforming power in the parable of the unforgiving servant:
The servant owes an impossibly large sum to his master, so much money that it would take several lifetimes to repay. Yet, his master has mercy on the servant, and forgives the debt.
This could have been a transforming moment for the servant! His master’s unlimited generosity has given him a brand new life. He can start over—he can now save a little money and maybe buy a house or pay for his kids to go to a good school. He can buy his wife a birthday present; he can put some money into the offering plate at the Temple.
His master’s generosity and mercy has made all things new.
But the unforgiving servant chooses not to step into this new reality. Instead, he chooses to act as if his debt is still hanging around his neck as he throws a fellow servant in jail for not paying the tiny debt he owes him.
Here’s the deal: we only learn to forgive our brother and sister from the heart when we remember every day that God forgives us first.
C.S. Lewis puts it this way: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
The moment we forget God’s forgiveness, we become unforgiving.
That’s why we must keep two events firmly in our minds: The first is when Jesus cries from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!”
The second is when the Risen Jesus, still carrying his wounds, appears in the upper room and breathes on us and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
We have been forgiven so we can forgive others.
It’s why Jesus teaches us to pray: forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Jesus breathes this power into us, but we have to choose to breathe this power into others. The unforgiving servant chooses to hold his breath and lapses into spiritual death.
When we choose to withhold our forgiveness we are choosing to remain attached to the person and situation that caused us pain. We think we are getting even with the one who hurt us, but what is 100% certain is we are only hurting ourselves. Instead of moving toward healing each morning we once again rip off the scab—on our own soul. We remain locked in that painful story, even though it may have happened 20 years ago.
As Warren Wiersbe puts it: “The most miserable prison in the world is the prison we make for ourselves when we refuse to show mercy”.
I encourage you to watch the 4 minute scene from “The Mission” to see one example of what forgiveness looks like.
And ask yourself what weight from your past are you dragging through life? What are those things you did that continue to haunt your life? People you hurt, mistakes you made.
Now imagine the Risen Christ comes to you and cuts the rope and you watch your sins fall into oblivion. What does it feel like to no longer be carrying that weight! How light and joyful do you feel?
Stay with that feeling of new birth. With every breath you take, inhale the forgiveness and mercy of the Crucified God and exhale that forgiveness and mercy onto others.
Then we will find, as Bernard Meltzer says: “When you forgive, you in no way change the past—but you sure do change the future.”