Forgiveness Reps

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: 24 Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 13, 2020
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Jesus wants us to get stronger and healthier by making the decision to forgive. He then challenges us to turn that choice into an ongoing process, based on a willingness to forgive others because God has forgiven us.

A group of Americans were on a short-term mission trip to the city of La Entrada in Honduras. They joined several Hondurans in making visits to the families of schoolchildren. These families were very poor and didn't even have enough money to buy their children school supplies. The Americans sat in the homes of those families, heard about their struggles and made decisions about what kind of financial support they could give them.

A key member of this team was a Honduran man named Kelvin, who taught at a bilingual school and acted as translator for the Americans. At the beginning of the second day of visits, he announced that he would have to leave the team because one of his fellow Hondurans had insulted him. This created a huge problem, since the Americans really needed Kelvin's translating abilities.

One of the Americans tried to mediate this conflict in English, while one of the Hondurans tried to intercede in Spanish. Finally, Kelvin said that he would be willing to continue his work with the group. "I am a Christian," he said. "I must forgive."

What a simple but profound thought: I am a Christian … I must forgive . But for everyone who follows Jesus, this is easier said than done. What we learn from the Gospel of Matthew is that forgiveness begins as a choice and then becomes a process. First, we choose to forgive and then we follow through with it, again and again and again. 1

Choose forgiveness

Jesus urges us to make the choice to forgive when he responds to Peter's question about the number of times we should forgive. "Lord," asks Peter, "if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?" Once … twice … three times … "As many as seven times"? "Not seven times," says Jesus, "but, I tell you, seventy-seven times." Other translations of this verse say "seventy times seven" times … a total of 490 times.

However you count it, Jesus is saying that your forgiveness should be countless. It should go on and on and on. He is like a personal trainer at the gym, urging you to increase your repetitions - your reps - and get stronger every day. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven … 77 … 490.

But Jesus is not a personal trainer. He is a forgiveness trainer. "Forgive a limitless number of times," he seems to be saying. Make the choice to do it, and then turn it into an ongoing process. Jesus knows that we get stronger through forgiveness reps.

So why exactly does Jesus say this? Forgiving can be hard to do, much tougher than lifting a stack of weights at the gym. But Jesus recommends it because he knows that forgiveness is good for us. Not just for the person who needs to be forgiven, but for each one of us. Forgiveness can enable us to regain the personal power that we have lost when someone sins against us. "Always forgive your enemies," said the writer Oscar Wilde. "Nothing annoys them so much." 2 Jesus, of course, wants us to forgive not to annoy the other, but to bring healing.

Forgiveness is a process

Unfortunately, many people fail to forgive. Jesus tells the story of a slave who owes his master several million dollars. The Bible says "ten thousand talents," but since a single talent was worth more than fifteen years of wages for a laborer, the amount here is millions of today's dollars. Since the slave cannot come up with the cash, the master orders him to be sold. In a panic, the slave throws himself on the ground and begs to be given more time. Out of pity, the master releases him and forgives his debt. Now you might think that the story ends here, with a truly happy ending. Right? Not so fast.

As he leaves his master's house, the slave sees a fellow slave who owes him a few bucks. He grabs the man by the throat and says, "Pay what you owe." The second slave drops to his knees and begs for more time to settle his debt. But the first slave refuses and throws him into prison until he can pay. Although the first slave has been forgiven a debt of several million dollars, he cannot find it in his heart to excuse a few dollars. Clearly, the first slave needs to increase his forgiveness reps!

When the man's fellow slaves see what is happening, they are horrified. Reporting to the master what they are seeing, the master summons the first slave and asks him, "Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?"

The answer is yes. Of course he should have had mercy, but he did not. He did not see forgiveness as an ongoing process, one that began with his master and should have continued with him. The master hands him over to be tortured, and so God will do "to every one of you," promises Jesus, "if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

Good for your health

Our forgiveness trainer Jesus is tougher than any coach at the gym, standing over us and barking, "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven." Jesus demands that we forgive other people based on the fact that we have all been forgiven. Yes, that's right: We forgive others because we ourselves have been forgiven. Forgiveness is a process that begins with God, continues with us, and makes us stronger every day. That's what Kelvin in Honduras came to understand, and what we should all grasp as well.

The amazing thing about forgiveness is that it is not just good for our Christian faith. It is also good for our health. A psychologist named Robert Enright has found ways to include forgiveness in his therapy sessions, and to study its benefits. According to Salon magazine, Enright is helping elderly women to forgive people who have wronged them in the past. Some are victims of abuse and incest. He has created two groups: One made up of women undergoing forgiveness therapy, and one made up of women receiving therapy without a focus on forgiveness.

What do you think he has found? The forgiveness therapy group has shown greater improvement in emotional and psychological health than the group that has not focused on forgiveness. Forgiveness helps people to heal themselves and regain their personal power. 3

Forgiveness Training

Similar work is being done by Dr. Frederic Luskin, who is teaching forgiveness to a variety of groups around the world, including war-ravaged populations in Northern Ireland and Sierra Leone. He is discovering that anyone - from betrayed spouses to terrorism victims - can find healing through a process of forgiveness.

Luskin offers programs in "forgiveness training." In those programs, he leads exercises that are helpful to people like the unforgiving slave in the parable of Jesus. He invites people to tell their "grievance story," and he listens as they vent about their friends borrowing money without paying it back. "You are right," Luskin would say to the slave, "and there is nothing wrong with holding others accountable. But remember that plenty of people fall into debt - didn't you owe your master several million dollars?"

How differently the parable would have ended if the servant had realized that he was both a debtor and a person who was owed money. A sinner and a person who had been sinned against. If he had done so, he would not have seen himself as an isolated victim. Forgiveness training would have helped him to see himself clearly, let go of the pain and the blame and find a way to forgive the fellow slave who owed him a few dollars.

Healing ourselves and others

Jesus urges us to "forgive your brother or sister from your heart." Forgiveness is good for us, says Luskin, because it counteracts the stress that makes us feel like helpless victims. "When you forgive," he says, "you wipe all of that clean." 4 Forgiveness does not mean that what the offender did was right, but it does mean that the victim is moving beyond that past. Forgiveness is both a choice and a process.

Recall what took place in 2006 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, when a group of Amish men and women took a stand for forgiveness after a gunman slaughtered five young girls at an Amish schoolhouse. Most impressive was the way that these peace-loving Christians reached out with support to the gunman's widow and children. "Such exemplary acts of witness stir the imaginations of the larger world," said L. Gregory Jones of Duke Divinity School. "We need our imagination to be set on fire by stories that show that what we think is impossible or unrealistic is indeed possible." The Amish were able to forgive fully because they had spent their entire lives in a spiritual tradition that included forgiveness reps. 5

Jesus wants us to get stronger and healthier by making the decision to forgive. He then challenges us to turn that choice into an ongoing process, based on a willingness to forgive others because God has forgiven us. Jesus acts as our trainer, challenging us to do forgiveness reps until the practice becomes part of who we are.

We can wipe the slate clean by forgiving our brothers and sisters. That's a choice that lowers our stress and increases our personal power. It also heals us and the people around us.