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Do we have to be more forgiving than God?

I have heard a lot of sermons in my life, and I don’t remember the details of very many of them. But there is one sermon I heard when I was a young teenager that is burned into my memory, but not for good reasons.

The sermon was delivered by the charismatic preacher at an Evangelical youth camp and it purported to be about forgiveness, specifically about our Christian obligation to forgive. In the sermon, the preacher dismissed a number of “false excuses” (as he saw them) that might stand in the way of forgiveness, and eventually he got to the question of being hurt by someone we trusted.

He adopted a high, (feminine), mocking tone and whined “Pastor I’m not angry, I’m hurt.” And then he immediately flipped to his own powerful, authoritarian persona, pointed his finger into the crowd of listening teens and boomed “You’re not hurt, you’re bitter!”

The message was clear. No violation, no matter how severe, was an excuse for the ultimate sin of failing to forgive. In other words, he was saying "your forgiveness has to be unconditional, because God’s is not." He said that to a room full of impressionable teenagers – many of whom had suffered deep and painful violations in their short lives – including me.

I sat under that wagging finger and heard those uncompromising words just weeks after I had experienced the most wrenching violation in my young life when I found out my Dad had had an affair and was moving out.

In that time of crisis, I was clinging to God as my only sure and steady lifeline, and this preacher told me that my pain was just a self-justifying screen, and that God would only love me if I forgave the person who had just deeply violated my trust.

But that message was a LIE.

I want that to be crystal clear, because it is too easy to read today’s gospel story…

with the commandment to forgive a symbolically unlimited number of times, and the parable of apparent horrendous consequences for someone who fails to forgive after being forgiven, and the undeniable echo of that uncomfortable line in the Lord’s prayer about “forgive us… as we forgive….”

It is too easy to hear all of that and to interpret it as a warning – to get the false message that "our forgiveness better be unconditional, because God’s is NOT."

When we put it that boldly, we probably squirm a bit. We all know that we are supposed to believe that God loves us unconditionally, and that we can’t earn our salvation. That is what justification by grace through faith means, after all.

But verse 35 still sounds an awful lot like a warning, and that scares us, because we all know how bad we are at forgiving people, don’t we? We know the way that the consciousness of having been wronged clings to our hearts like tar. We know that we can say “I forgive you,” and still not be able to move on. We know that, no matter how much we may want to put anger or pain behind us, sometimes forgiveness just doesn’t feel safe.

I suspect that this fear of vulnerability is part of this question, which one of you wrote for God: "How are we supposed to trust people who have lied to us.” I know that trust and forgiveness are not exactly the same thing, but they are related. Part of the difficulty of forgiveness, is that it takes away our shield, the anger that protects us from being hurt again if we were to open ourselves back up. The call to forgiveness can feel like it requires us to not only let go of our anger, but also to trust again – to make ourselves vulnerable to someone who has proved they are not trustworthy.

Which is why the story of Joseph and his brothers never feels all that helpful to me in grappling with the difficulty of forgiveness. Certainly, the violation that Joseph forgives is monumental, and thus he is an example of incredible emotional strength. His own brothers had thrown him into a pit, sold him into slavery, and told their father that Joseph was dead. That’s painful stuff.

But in the scene that we read today, the power difference had been reversed. Joseph was no longer the defenseless younger brother. He had been through deep trauma, but he had risen to second in command under Pharaoh – In this scene of forgiveness, it was Joseph who held his brothers’ lives in HIS hands. Forgiveness was not risky for Joseph. It was admirable; but it did not require him to trust people who could hurt him in the same way again.

But there is one moment from this scene that speaks powerfully to the task of forgiveness. After his brothers have made their manipulative speech invoking their father’s memory, and thrown themselves at Joseph’s feet, Joseph responds by saying:

“Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God?” (Gen. 50:19)

Joseph WAS in a position of power over his brothers; they had reason to be afraid of him. But Joseph recognized that he was not God. The question for Joseph was not what he had the power to do, nor was it what he had to do (to earn God’s forgiveness), but rather the question was who it is who has the right to condemn and to forgive: God.

Joseph recognized that the way we engage with forgiveness reveals the way we engage with God – because condemnation and forgiveness is God-business.

That understanding offers a new challenge for Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18. If we take our eyes off of ourselves (and the question of “what happens to me if I fail to forgive”), we realize that this parable gives us an even bigger problem… because of what it seems to say about God.

If we take this parable at face value, it describes a God of inconsistent mercy. A God who is prepared to forgive extravagantly, but who cannot be trusted to keep that promise if we mess up. A God who feigns unconditional forgiveness, only to yank it away when the imperfect servant fails to learn the lesson the first time.

Is this really the God that Jesus came to reveal? A capricious God whose supposedly free gift of grace is only secure if we need forgiveness only once? That is the logical implication of an interpretation that concludes “so my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you….” So, is that what Jesus is really saying?

No. I don’t think it is. For two reasons.

First: the way the parable is set-up.

In most of his kingdom parables[1] Jesus uses the same formulaic opening: “The kingdom of heaven is like…” It is an unequivocal opening. He is describing a kingdom reality.

But in THIS parable, Jesus uses as passive voice. Literally the Greek should be translated “the kingdom of heaven was likened to...”. In other words, “People have said, that the kingdom of heaven is like this.”[2] Jesus is not endorsing this view – he is reporting it.

And that report is in the context of his instruction to forgive seventy-seven times, as many times as it takes. In that context, does it really make sense for Jesus to say we have to forgive without limit, but God will only do it once?

Second, good parable interpretation recognizes that the story is not finished until it is applied in the lives of the hearer.[3]

We always have to ask of the parable story, “so what?” “What does this mean for my life?” “How should I apply this teaching?” THAT is when the parable is completed. There’s no “moral at the end of the story” in parables, because the story isn’t done yet.

So, if Jesus’s summary statement isn’t the moral, then why does it sound like one?

Jesus is exposing the logical implication of the kingdom vision he is reporting. Peter asks for an equation to define his obligation to forgive, so Jesus tells a story about a transactional kingdom: a Kingdom where forgiveness is about debts, and everything has to even out.

And then Jesus reveals the consequences of that kind of model: and they aren’t good. When you use an equation model of forgiveness, you are going to end up in debt.

But that’s not the END of the parable, because we have to apply it to our lives to get to the end. Which leaves us to ask, how do we apply it? What does this story teach us about forgiveness? If forgiveness is not about balancing out, or minimum requirements, or a transactional model of community, then what IS it about?

I think that Jesus is trying to teach his disciples that forgiveness is about transformation.

Last week we talked about Christ’s church as an alternative community that doesn’t play by the world’s rules. And today we see why the world’s rules are so destructive. They leave us forever vulnerable, forever afraid, forever unsure who we can trust.

But there is ONE whom we can trust, the God whose love and forgiveness IS unconditional. And that God calls us to forgive not as a payment for our own forgiveness, but rather because forgiveness is God’s nature, and when we forgive we are freed because we drawn closer to God.

Forgiveness is not an obligation, it is an opportunity. An opportunity to have our hearts transformed by the ever-loving God; the God whom we can trust EVEN WHEN we may not be able to trust others.

In the context of that trust and love, we are safe. We will sometimes find the freedom of forgiving, and sometimes fail, but we get to keep figuring out the forgiveness through which God wants to set us free.

In closing, I want to remind you of the absolution I pronounced at the beginning of our service today:

God hears our cry and sends the Spirit to change us and to empower our lives in the world. Our sins are forgiven. God’s love is unconditional, and we are raised up as God’s people who will always be made new, in the name of Jesus Christ.


[1] See Matt. 13:31; 13:33; 13:44; 13:45; 13:47; 20:1

[2] Greek translation discussed in D. Mark David’s translation and commentary on this passage at:

[3] See Frederick H. Borsch, Many Things in Parables.

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