Matthew 18:21-35

Forgiveness: Letting off. Letting go. Letting in.

“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Is a well done phrase from a well known prayer. We will pray it ourselves in a little while. This theme comes up repeatedly in Jesus’ teaching to his followers, that the forgiveness we receive is dependent on the forgiveness that we give to others. So, this afternoon we’re going to think about what it means to forgive others, and how we can do it.

Before we do, though, there is something else we need to mention, that always comes before forgiveness, and that is repentance. To repent means to acknowledge we’re in the wrong, to be sorry, and to turn away from it. All the way through the accounts of Jesus life, and of the early church that we find in the Bible, repenting and believing are the non-negotiable conditions for receiving forgiveness and friendship with God.

Having got the foundation of repentance in place, I’d like to suggest that complete forgiveness involves letting off, letting go, and letting in. Complete forgiveness involves letting off, letting go and letting in.

First of all, let’s think about being let off. In the parable that Jesus told we have a contrast between the two slaves. The first one is let off by the king, and not just let off a little amount, but a huge amount – the equivalent of millions and millions of pounds. There is no way that the slave could have ever have paid it back, and he is let off. The debt is written off, he does not have to pay it. He is let off. This had a cost for the King – he was down that amount of money – he bore the cost of letting the slave off.

In the same way God lets us off, if we repent. And that can be the barrier sometimes. Maybe we don’t think we’ve got much to repent for, we don’t think we’re that bad, so we’re not really sorry and we aren’t determined in turning away from it. But the reality that the Bible teaches us is that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. There is no one who is right before God, not even one. In those times when we are most honest with ourselves, we look at our lives, our thoughts, our actions and we know that we haven’t even lived up to our own hopes and expectations of ourselves, never mind God’s perfection. And God lets us off. Our sin separates us from God, from the source of our life, and so we die, unless God lets us off- which has a cost for God.

Jesus bore that cost when he came to earth to live as a creature, as a human, to empty himself, and to die on a cross, a shameful, tortured death – the ultimate consequence of sins that he had never committed. Jesus bore the cost of our sins so that we don’t need to, so that we could be let off. If we ever doubt the seriousness of our sin, of the things that we do wrong, then maybe a few moments contemplating the lengths that Jesus went to might give us a better appreciation for the gravity of sin.

And so, we are to let others off when they hurt us, when they damage us, when they owe us. The first slave refused to do this for the second slave in the story, and discovered the painful consequences. What might this look like in practice? It might mean writing off a financial debt. It might mean writing a letter asking for clemency in a court case where you have been the injured party. It might mean not grounding your son for as long as you said you would when you discovered the broken window.

Of course, there are complications here. No good parent ever lets their child off all the time – they would never learn anything. No society ever lets off criminals for all their sentence – it would be unsafe and unjust to do so. However, the basic principle holds that when there is true repentance our stance is to be one of clemency, of mercy, of letting people off.

Letting go is about the emotions involved in forgiveness. We aren’t told about what the King felt towards the first slave at the beginning of the story, but we do know that as the slave begged, the King was moved to compassion and pity. By contrast we are shown what the first slave felt towards his unfortunate debtor – he grabbed him by the throat – anger and bitterness finding physical expression. The King let go of whatever emotions he did have, and found compassion and mercy. By contrast, the slave wouldn’t let go of his anger, and found himself back in jail.

Sin angers God. When people starve because the world’s resources are distributed unequally, that angers God. When a child is killed in unjust wars, that angers God. When I lose my temper with my kids, that angers God. When I lie to get myself out of an uncomfortable situation, that angers God. When I say unkind or critical things about someone else behind their back, that angers God. But greater is God’s compassion and mercy. God lets go of that anger so that we can be forgiven.

What about us, what does it look like for us to let go? I was walking through Telford Town Park yesterday morning, and as I did I started thinking about something someone had done that had upset me. I could feel the anger, the bitterness, the pain bubbling up inside me. Before I caught myself I was feeding the fire by thinking about other things they’d done, what I’d like to say to them. And then I noticed what was happening. And I took my hand to my heart, and I pictured those feelings flowing into my hand and I took them away in my fist, and then I gave them to God. Then I prayed a blessing on that person, and I continued my walk, thinking about something else entirely. That isn’t the first time I’ve had to go through that process with thoughts about that person and that situation, and I doubt it will be the last. Every time those thoughts come back I have to choose again to live out the forgiveness I have already given them. My experience over the years when I’ve been through this process in other situations is that it does get easier. Those thoughts came back less frequently, and less strongly. Sometimes it takes years to let go completely.

This process is made easier if the other person has repented, has said sorry to us and changed their ways, but actually it is necessary even if they haven’t – otherwise the negative emotions eat us up from the inside. It is about choosing an open stance that releases these emotions, rather than a closed in one that holds on to them.

That’s the internal stuff – but what about the external stuff. How are we to relate to those that we have forgiven? This is where the concept of letting in might be useful.

Here we go a bit beyond the scope of the parable, but bear with me a moment. What if the first slave had forgiven the second slave his debt, and they had gone on living happily in the palace. Six months down the line the first slave comes back to the King and asks for another loan. What do we think he would have said? We don’t know. All the indications in the story are that the King was quite happy for the slave to continue as part of the household, he was let in to that extent, but was he let in all the way to his trust? We don’t know.

What about God? What happens when God forgives us? We know that we are let in to the family, and not just let in, but welcomed in as children, heirs, full members of the household. We also have a worked example in Jesus’ life. Peter was one of Jesus’ closest friends and followers – they went everywhere together. At the end of Jesus’ life, when he was most alone, Peter abandoned Jesus and denied that he even knew him. After Jesus was raised to life, he forgave Peter and entrusted him again with the leadership of the church. Jesus let Peter in to his trust completely.

What about us, what are we to do? For me this is where this gets really difficult. If someone has hurt me in the past, to what extent am I willing to allow them in to a place where they might hurt me again? I don’t have a complete answer for this, but it seems to me that going back to the idea of repentance is key here.

Repentance involves acknowledging wrong doing, being sorry, and turning away from that behaviour. If someone’s repentance is genuine then they will not repeat the same sin again, and we can safely let them in. Unfortunately we are not God, and cannot see into people’s hearts and see how genuine their repentance is. But there are clues we can look for. Is this part of a pattern of behaviour that has not changed, despite previous apologies? Is the person still making excuses for previous failures? In our best judgement is what they are asking for going to be good for them or do them (or others) damage?

I think that where I end up with on this is that it is about our stance towards someone – do we turn towards them, aiming to include them, whilst maintaining a godly wisdom, or do we turn our back on them, excluding them from our love? God’s stance towards us is always one of invitation, of inclusion, of letting off, letting go, and letting in – of forgiveness.

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