I’m Still Learning to Forgive.

Matthew 18:15–35 | First Sunday in Lent | February 22, 2015 | Dennis Sanders, preaching

Listen to the Sermon

There is a story told by the Holocaust Survivor and Nazi Hunter Simon Wiesenthal during his time at a concentration camp. Like many European Jews of this time, he was rounded up by the Nazis and taken to Lemberg Concentration camp. One day he is summoned to the bedside of a dying SS soldier named Karl Seidl. Seidl was looking for a Jew to hear out his wrongdoing and forgive him.

Seidl then tells why he is seeking forgiveness. A year earlier, he allowed 300 Jews to die in a house fire. Actually, it was a fire that help start. As people were climbing out of windows to flee, Seidl was there, gunning them down.

Not surprisingly, Seidl was haunted by the experience and looked to Wiesenthal for forgiveness. Wiesenthal says nothing and leaves the room. As far as we know, Seidl dies unforgiven.

This experience stuck with Wiesenthal for years and it was the subject of a book he wrote in the 1990s called the Sunflower. Wiesenthal retells the story and then turns the book over to a number of people of various nationalities and faiths to answer the question: should Simon Wiesenthal forgive Karl Seidl?

This is not an easy question to answer. Some people said yes, other said no. I have not read the Sunflower, but I think I will in the near future. You can’t come up with an easy answer. There are sensible reasons to not forgive as there are to forgive. I don’t know what I would have done in Wiesenthal’s place.

This true story puts the concept of forgiveness in stark focus. We aren’t thinking of this when we say “forgive us our debts” in the Lord’s prayer every Sunday. This story makes forgiveness seem impossible, remote. We aren’t talking about someone who stole an apple from the store, we are talking about a man who was involved in an evil regime and willingly killed 300 people because of their faith. How can on forgive this? Should there be any forgiveness?

Our gospel text for today has Jesus talking about forgiveness and grace. He starts first with how we treat each other within the community. Matthew was written for the early church, so the method of learning to deal with difficulties talked about how to be a community of forgiveness. The whole focus in on reconciliation and restoration.

Then Peter decides to ask Jesus how many times should you forgive someone. Should you forgive them seven times?

But Jesus sets the standard a little higher: Jesus says, not seven times, but seventy times seven. Now Jesus wasn’t saying you have to forgive someone 490 times and not forgive them at 491. Jesus was saying that we should be open to forgive over and over and to make sure the disciples get it, he tells this story.

The story is of a king and one of his servants. This servant owes a rather large debt to the king; owning 10,000 bags of gold. One person figured out how long it would take for the servant to pay off the king. It would take 150,000 years. So Jesus might as well have said he was owed a gazillion dollars, it was a fantastical debt. It could never, ever be paid.

Just as he was going to be imprisioned along with his wife and children, the servant gets down on his knees and asks for mercy. The king had compassion and forgives the debt.

So, now this servant is free. His burden was lifted. But having been forgiven didn’t change the servant’s heart. When he finds a fellow servant who owed him some money he demands payment. This other servant does the same thing, asking for mercy as tried to pay back the loan. But the first servant shows no mercy and the second servant is thrown in to prison.

Word gets to the king and he brings the first servant forward. He is upset that the first servant didn’t show any mercy towards his fellow worker when he was forgiven such a huge debt. The king puts the servant in prison. The king’s act spared the unforgiving servant, but that servant didn’t remember the king’s graceful action and was thrown in the prison.

This passage is telling the young church how they should live and it is also a blueprint for us as well. We are called to be a community focused on reconciliation, restoration and forgiveness. Yes, there is that part about letting the person who offends you to leave the community, but Jesus is focused on healing, not punishment.

But none of this is easy. In fact, it is very hard. I know that in most faith communities there are people who have been abused both physically and sexually. For those people, this tale might seem offensive- being forced to forgive someone that has done so much to harm them. Like Simon Weisenthal, we find it impossible to forgive someone that has left us wounded.

And that’s the point of that fantasic number that the servant owed the king. The servant could never, ever pay back that amount. It was only because the king cancelled the debt. So it is with us. We are forgiven by God. But the ability to forgive others only can happen through God. It is with God’s help that we can forgive someone.

In preparing for this sermon, I heard somewhere that forgiveness is about dealing the past to be open to the future.

As the new multiracial government took power in South Africa, an issue had to be dealt with. During the years of apartheid, there were a number of crimes committed on both sides of the conflict. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up to learn fully about the past in order to face the future. People could apply for amnesty if they shared what sins were committed to the public. Only about 10 percent of those who applied for amnesty were granted that pardon, but the real story is not how many people got amnesty as much as how victims and perpetrators came forward.

But there even something more amazing that happened. The Commission also made space for those who may have never committed human rights violations, but may have not done anything to bring about change. I went to the website and you can see a number of people coming forward to ask for forgiveness. I want to read a few of those comments:

I am an Afrikaner who has been grossly misled by my peers of the time. I was led to believe that all was well both in the Christian and worldly sense. I now realise that this was not so and will do all in my power to make amends for the wrongs of the past and ensure that those who follow me will be exposed differently. Therefore they will act differently as I and my family shall now do.

Ulrich Swart, Rivonia, Sandton, SA

It is with deep regret that I reflect on my past.

It is with deep sorrow that I acknowledge my complicity as a white South African.

And it is with immeasurable guilt that I assume responsibility for my role in our shameful past.

I cannot say “I did not know”.

I can only say I chose not to know.

I chose the safety of my own family over my moral duty to my compatriots.

I chose my own comfort over the pain of knowing and the imperative to risk that this knowledge would bring.

I raised and educated my children with privilege, whilst those around me were deprived.

I am so deeply sorry!

And the opportunity to express this regret and offer apology does not unburden me.

This privilege allows me to reach even further into my soul to express the remorse that I feel.

It impels me to continue to seek in my own small way to help repair the damage to our people and our land caused not only by “perpetrators”, but also by us, the bystanders, in the tragedy of our past.

It impels me also to rejoice in the present freedom to build a new and great South Africa

Dr Merle Friedman, Johannesburg, SA

Because South Africa was able to take a long hard look at the past, it has a brighter future. No, it’s not all sunshine and happiness, but it is a more united nation because of this.

The theme for Lent is a Bright Sadness. The term comes from the Eastern Orthodox tradition and talks about the mixture of sadness and happiness in our world. Forgiveness and reconciliation is a bright sadness. We all face hurts and we are tempted to just live in the sadness. But the brightness is that God has forgiven us and gives us the power to forgive others. We can’t forgive on our own, but only through Christ can we forgive.

I want to end with one more story. It’s about Corrie Ten Boom. She was a Dutch Christian woman whose family decided to hide Jews from the Nazis. They were caught and sent to Ravensbruck Concentration camp. Corrie lost her sister and her father at that camp.

A few years later, she was in Germany giving a talk when a man came forward. He didn’t remember her, but Ten Boom remembered him- he was guard at the Ravensbruck. The man told her that in the intervening years he had become a Christian. “I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out — ’will you forgive me?’

Ten Boom froze. Here was someone who had committed great evil, who had a part in killing her sister and father. Could she forgive this man? Should she?

Here’s what she said:

“For I had to do it — I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. ‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses,’ Jesus says, ‘neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’

“I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.

“And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion — I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’

“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

“ ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’

All that she could do at that moment was to lift her hand. She couldn’t forgive him. She rested on God’s mercy and everything changed.

By the Way, this story was published in Guideposts magazine in the early 70s and you want to know the title? “I’m Still Learning to Forgive.” May it be so with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

A middle-aged pastor living in Minneapolis. I write about politics, religion, sexuality, and autism. https://www.dennislsanders.net/

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