Pentecost 13  2011

Matthew 18:21-35

Marian Free

In the name of God whose forgiveness of us knows no bounds. Amen.

During the second world war, a Dutch woman. Corrie ten Boom. was complicit in hiding Jews from the Nazis. When her family’s action was discovered, she and her sister Betsie were sent off to the concentration camps, and at the end of the war they found themselves in Ravensbruck. Their story is remarkable, in particular the way in which they managed to maintain and share their faith – and even remain thankful in what were horrendous circumstances. During their time in the camps they made a plan. When the war was over, they were determined to establish places of forgiveness where those from both sides of the conflict could meet and find ways to set the past behind them. It was their wish that the enmity created by the war not be extended by a failure to forgive and to move into the future.

Unfortunately Betsie died before the war ended, but Corrie was determined that their vision be brought to fruition. One of the ways in which she achieved this goal was to travel the world to spread the message of forgiveness. In theory it seems that it was relatively easy to share with others a message she passionately believed. However, one evening Corrie was called to put into practice what she had been preaching. At the conclusion of an evening’s lecture a man approached her. She recognised him at once as one of the most cruel guards from Ravensbruck and one who had been guilty of humiliating her beloved sister. He walked up to her and as he reached her he said: “A fine message, Fraulein! How good it is to know that, as your say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea! I have become a Christian, I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did at Ravensbruck, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein – will you forgive me?”

Corrie reports that she was frozen. Nothing could make her extend her hand to meet his, or to say the words that he longed to hear. (Could he erase Betsie’s slow and terrible suffering just for the asking?)  She says: “I stood there with coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion – I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will.” Corrie’s only recourse was to pray, “Jesus help me!” She forced herself to raise her hand and as she reached out to take the hand of the guard, she felt a current flow down into her hand, and felt a healing warmth flood her whole body. “I forgive you brother with all my heart![1]

I tell this story, not only because it is so powerful, but also because it demonstrates that forgiveness is not an action that comes easily. Sometimes it depends on an act of will that requires supernatural power to put into effect. Forgiveness is not an easy facile thing. It is often a difficult, powerful act that requires, as Corrie reminds us, not only an act of will but divine intervention. Those who have experienced abuse, oppression or violence at the hand of another need to find an extraordinary strength to hold out the hand of forgiveness to the perpetrator. If and when they do, they will experience the amazing healing that forgiveness can bring to themselves and to the other.

“Forgiving and forgetting” is not an easy thing to do as we are sometimes made to feel by the way the phrase is bandied about so lightly[2].

Today’s parable makes this clear. In the parable, a slave who is forgiven a huge debt, refuses to forgiven the infinitely smaller debt of another slave. For some reason, the former slave has not seen how like the other he is. He is unable to equate his failure and the failure of his fellow slave. His indebtedness to his master had exposed his own weakness. Instead of feeling gratitude, instead of grasping the power of forgiveness, he feels embarrassed and humiliated. To restore his sense of self he exercises his power over someone weaker than himself.

Jesus’ parable aptly sums up the problem for many of us – we see too clearly the faults of others and are blind to our own faults. Because we don’t understand that we too need forgiveness, we are often unwilling to extend that forgiveness to others. It is only when we truly understand our own frailties and acknowledge our own weakness and sinfulness that we come to understand that we share with all humankind the failure to live as the people whom God created in his image. It is only when we understand how far short we fall from the glory of God, that we see that however, “good” we are, we are far, far from perfect. It is only when we fully comprehend our own shortcomings, that it becomes a little easier to accept and overlook the shortcomings of others.

What is more, it is only when we truly understand that not only are we not perfect, but that we will not – in this life – ever be perfect,  that we will be overwhelmed by the enormity of God’s grace, that we will understand how little we have done to deserve God’s love for us, and that we will be completely astounded that God has forgiven and will continue to forgive us.

Once we know how little we ourselves have done to deserve God’s forgiveness, we will find it a little easier to extend that forgiveness to others whom we might previously have believed did not deserve it.

At the centre of our faith is the cross – an act of love and forgiveness freely given to an undeserving and uncaring world. To truly grasp the message of the gospel is to accept the message of unconditional love demonstrated by the cross, and having truly accepted that love we will find it impossible not to extend it to others. In a million lifetimes we could not do enough to earn such love, why then should we expect others to earn it in one?

[1] Corrie ten Boom’s story is called The Hiding Place, published with other memoirs by Inspirational Press, New York, 1995.

[2] (In fact nowhere in the Bible does it say that we should forget acts of cruelty or neglect.)



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