Forgiveness and letting go Matthew 18:21-35
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Last week’s gospel gave some practical advice about how to handle conflict within the church, starting by talking directly to the one who has offended you, then including a widening circle of others in the community, if needed.
Today’s gospel continues with the next verses in Matthew chapter 18, with more advice about conflict in the church. It deals with forgiveness, which is a natural follow-up. Because after we’ve dealt with the immediacy of conflict – whether or not it has had a positive outcome – there is, for people of faith, this call to go further, to forgive from the heart.
We also heard one of the Old Testament’s greatest stories about forgiveness. Joseph, one of the patriarchs of Israel, was in Egypt, because years earlier his brothers had stuffed him down a well in the desert, then sold him to some Bedouins as a slave. The brothers now came begging for help during a famine in Israel. In a remarkably forgiving response, Joseph assures his brothers that he is in no position to judge them, and gives them plenty of food and money for the people back home.
Then in the gospel, Jesus tells Peter to forgive his brother not just 7 times, but 77 times, and illustrates this with the parable that convicts us all. A slave is forgiven a huge amount of money by his master, and then turns around and refuses to forgive another slave a very small amount. He ends up in prison, in debt, tortured.
I think this parable is not really about God punishing us for not forgiving. It’s about what happens when we hold on to resentment. We end up imprisoned by hurt and anger, deeply in debt and unable to pay the price, tortured by what we cannot forgive.
Perhaps more than any other religion, we stress the importance of forgiveness. We pray it in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus grants it in countless gospel stories, we regularly confess and receive absolution from God, and it is proclaimed by our most central symbol, the cross. But as we all know, forgiveness is not easy, and we often find that we’re blocked from moving into it.
Now I could say many things about forgiveness today, about how first we need to do our best to right what has been done wrong, how we need to fully experience our anger and hurt as long as necessary, or how we need to try to understand the other person and also our own part in the conflict between us. All of this is in the background – it’s the necessary homework we do before we can really forgive, and it can take a very long time. But what I want to speak about today are the grace-filled moments of letting go.
One of my favorite stories from the Desert Fathers, that collection of eccentric wisdom from the Christian monks of 4th-century North Africa, goes like this. Two monks were walking through the desert, approaching a river. A woman stood by the banks, afraid of crossing. Now the celibate monks in that day were forbidden to touch a woman. But one of the monks, seeing her dilemma, offered to carry her across to the other side. He hoisted her up, waded across, and set her down on dry land.
The monks continued to walk along in silence. After an hour, the other monk spoke angrily to the one who had carried the woman, saying “What kind of monk do you think you are, touching that woman? Don’t you remember your vows?” His brother turned to him and said “I set that woman down an hour ago. You are still carrying her.”
When we hold on to resentment and refuse to forgive, we keep ourselves locked inside a
spiritual and emotional prison. It eats us up. We might feel temporarily better once in awhile when we vent about the other person, but this doesn’t do any good. Because every time we see that person, every time we hear their name, every time we think of them, a dark cloud passes over our soul, and our mind begins to race, thinking about why they’re wrong and we’re right. It eats away at us. We’re locked up, tortured, until we forgive.
But what does it take to forgive our brother or sister from our heart?
Someone I know wrote in a book of hers, Forgiveness is giving up on having had a different past. I would add to that Forgiveness is giving up on someone being different than they are.
Many years ago I had a dramatic experience of this giving-up. I keep going back to it as a touchstone, because it is where I learned to forgive. It was in a time when our church was filled with nasty division, and I often stood in for everything that some people thought was reprehensible about the modern church. And I was also tortured by my own resentment and sense of having been wronged. Over several years, I had dealt with this in spiritual direction and other means. Then one night after a particularly ugly session at a clergy conference, I tossed and turned, until finally I got up and began to pray and meditate.
In the course of that hour before dawn, something shifted inside. I let go of the whole silly conflict; or, perhaps to put it more accurately, it just dropped away, by the grace of God. The division and bitterness just didn’t seem to matter anymore. It became only so much noise in the wind. I walked out of my prison that morning, back into the gathering, able to let others be who they were, free of the grip of resentment and fear. I had given up on them being different than they were. They hadn’t changed a bit. The conflict was still there. We didn’t become buddies, or even start trusting one another. But I had forgiven them, and I was never the same. I was free, and I could be kind again.
Just the other day I was talking with my mother about how she managed to forgive someone in her life from whom she was temporarily estranged. She said that after doing a lot of work around it, she got to the point where she stopped expecting the other person to understand her, to appreciate and respect her point of view. She even stopped expecting to be close to the other person, to be able to share in an intimate way. She accepted the limitations of the relationship, and surprisingly, it opened up in new ways. They share what they can, and they’re free of the burden of constantly unfulfilled expectations.
Another way of saying this is that we can get to the point where we don’t judge the other any more. For what is judgment but the demand that another person should be different than they are? When we are able to let go of this, we leave the judging to God.
This was what Joseph realized, probably after many years of bitter resentment towards his brothers who had sold him into slavery, when he was finally able to say to them Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God, to judge what you have done [to me]? Paul asked the same thing to the church in Rome, in our second reading today: Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. This is what the 1st-century Philo of Alexandria put so compassionately: Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.
When we are able to finally let go of having had a different past, when we let go of someone being different than they are, we stop judging them. We are able to be kind, knowing that they, like us, are fighting some great, unseen battle. Judgment is left to God, and replaced with understanding.
I think this is key to the process of forgiveness. But it doesn’t happen quickly, or right when we want it to. We have to go through a journey of trying to change the way things are so that justice might be served, letting our emotions out for as long as necessary, working to understand our own part in the conflict, trying to make ourselves feel forgiving and failing miserably at that, and finally falling back on the grace of God to do what we cannot do.
Once we are able to do this, something shifts. It just doesn’t matter anymore, because God has taken back from us something we never had any business assuming in the first place: the judgment of another person. We gently put down on the riverbank the woman we’ve been carrying, and move on. We step out of our self-imposed prison, our torture-chamber, and find ourselves free of debt. No one owes us anything, and we owe nothing to another. We forgive our brother and our sister from the heart.