Steven McDonald was a New York City Police Officer. On July 12, 1986, while patrolling in Central Park, McDonald stopped to question three teenagers. While questioning them, a fifteen-year-old took out a gun and shot me him the head and neck. Thanks to the quick action of his fellow police officers, McDonald was rushed to a hospital. The good news was that he survived. The bad news was that he would be paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of my life. McDonald was just married, and his twenty-three years old wife, Patti Ann, was three months pregnant. When they heard the news, Patti Ann began crying uncontrollably. McDonald says, “I cried too. I was locked in my body, unable to move or to reach out to her.”
A week after the shooting, the media asked to speak to my Patti Ann. Though still in shock, she bravely told everybody that she would trust God to do what was best for her family. McDonald spent the next eighteen months in the hospital. Patti Ann gave birth to their son. At his baptism, McDonald told everyone that he forgave the young teen that shot him. He wanted to free myself of all the negative, destructive emotions that this act of violence awoke in him -- the anger, the bitterness, the hatred. He needed to free himself so he could be free to love his wife and his child. Years later, McDonald wrote, “I often tell people that the only thing worse than a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart. Such an attitude would have extended my tragic injury into my soul, hurting my wife, son, and others even more. It is bad enough that the physical effects are permanent, but at least I can choose to prevent spiritual injury. Before I was shot, I had not been very committed to my faith. The shooting changed that. I feel close to heaven today in a way I never knew before, and it makes me very happy. I know it may be hard to understand, but I would rather be like this and feel the way I do, than go on living like I was before. Months and years have come and gone and I’ve never regretted forgiving the [teen who shot me.]”
A year or two later, the assailant called the McDonalds from prison and apologized to the entire McDonald family. In 1995, the young man was released from prison. Three days later, he died in a motorcycle accident.
Think about how much courage it took Steven McDonald to forgive the person who attacked him and paralyzed him for life. Now think about the times you have felt insulted or hurt or overlooked by another person and you harbored anger and dislike in your heart. Think about the time that someone said something innocent but you took it as a personal attack. Think about the times when you feel that a certain detestable person intentionally stirs you to anger, or the times you’ve exploded irrationally at something minor and let the situation control you.
And then, every Sunday, we come to church and pray “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” If you are like me, you are good at praying the first part of the prayer. But when it comes to forgiving others just as God forgives us, that’s a completely different story. This morning we are going to look at forgiveness through the lens of one of Jesus’ parables. Turn with me to Matthew 18:21.
The Apostle Peter asks one of his famously reckless questions: “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times.” I have to give Peter some credit. Seven times is a lot. Have you ever had the opportunity to forgive a person seven times? If you offended me or I bailed you out of trouble three or four times, I doubt that I’d want to be anywhere near you. Even the Rabbis in Jesus’ day taught that the limit on forgiveness was three times. Peter takes the Rabbi’s three times, doubles it, adds one for good measure, and suggests with eager satisfaction that it will be enough if he forgives seven times.
Jesus says, “Peter, you don’t have to forgive seven times.” I can imagine a satisfying smile beginning to stretch across Peter’s face. Perhaps there’s a split second of gratification gleaming in Peter’s eyes. And then Jesus says, “You need to forgive seventy times seven times,” or depending on some translations, “Seventy seven times.” Either way, it’s a lot! Christ’s answer is that there are no limits to forgiveness.
Lets give Peter a break. We all want to feel good about how good natured and forgiving we are. We also know that most of us have at least one person who knows every button to push to upset us. The mere sight of the person causes us to make up excuses to leave the same room. The German philosopher Schopenhauer compared the human race to a bunch of porcupines huddling together on a cold winter’s night. He said, “The colder it gets outside, the more we huddle together for warmth; but the closer we get to one another, the more we hurt one another with our sharp quills. And in the lonely night of earth’s winter eventually we begin to drift apart and wander out on our own and freeze to death in our loneliness.”
It always amazes me how unwilling we are to forgive others, especially after we know how willing God is to forgive us. I once read a quote from a biography of German poet Heinrich Heine that said, “Forgiveness was not Heine’s business or specialty.” Heine used to say, “My nature is the most peaceful in the world. All I ask is a simple cottage, a decent bed, good food, some flowers in front of my window, and a few trees beside my door. Then, if God wanted to make me completely happy, he would let me enjoy the spectacle of six or seven of my enemies dangling from those trees. I would forgive them of all the wrongs they have done to me -- forgive them from the bottom of my heart, for we must forgive our enemies. But not until they are hanged.” Humans tend to hold grudges. It’s hard to let go of the past.
I can imagine what might happen if we appointed a committee of angry people to write the Lord’s prayer. It may have come out like this:
Call in the debts, O God. Avenge the sinner who ruined my life, O Lord. See the injustice and strike down the wrongdoer. You know the tormentors of our tortured world. Break them in pieces and cast them away. Get rid of that one competitor, the one associate, the one person who has shattered my life. And if it’s your will, use me as your instrument of revenge.But, Jesus teaches no such thing. He refuses to be the representative of our natural instinct for payback. Instead, he teaches us to say: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. “I tell you to forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven times.”
To drive the point home, Jesus tells a parable about a king and his servant. The servant owes the king an amount nearing national debt -- 10,000 talents. Just to put it that into perspective, King Herod annual tax revenues were about 900 talents, so 10,000 talents would have been equal to the national revenue for more than eleven years. The desperate debtor asks to be released from his daunting debt, and the king forgives the financial obligation. The king just writes it off when the servant pleads for mercy. A debt is something that we owe and have not paid. When we fail to do what we should, God has every right to demand payment from us. We become debtors to God. But instead of punishment, God cancels our debt. God offers total forgiveness to all who come want it. We stand before God as debtors who deserve punishment. Through Christ, we are set free.
How do we respond to grace like this? We should fall on our faces in thanks. We should commit our lives to showing the same mercy to others and doing everything God wants us to do. Jesus knows that this is not always the case. He continues his parable by noting that the forgiven servant walks arrogantly away from the king. After being forgiven for a mind-boggling debt worth hundreds of millions of dollars, the foolish servant goes to one of his co-workers who owes him the equivalent of $16.00. The coworker pleads for mercy, but the servant will hear none of it and has him thrown into jail. The rest of the servants can’t believe what’s happened, so they tattle to the king. The result is not pretty.
A person must forgive in order to be forgiven. The one who can’t forgive a fellow human being, especially for a trifling offense, cannot expect to be forgiven the great debt we owe God.
What is your reaction to forgiveness? Is it grateful thanks or repeat offense? Do you forgive others, or continue to hold grudges? A devout Christian man named Chet has a whole lot of trouble offering total forgiveness. In 1991 his son was shot and slain during a robbery. So far as he knows, the killers have not sought his forgiveness. From what he knows of them, he doesn’t think it’s likely, either. So, he does not feel obliged to forgive them now. Chet says, “Don’t try to tell me I should feel guilty, because I have no intention at this point to forgive the animals . . . who viciously murdered my son. And anyone who disagrees has never walked in my shoes.”
John Plummer might tell you differently. If you’ve seen any pictures of the Vietnam War, you may remember the image of a nine-year-old Vietnamese girl -- her clothes burned off by napalm as she flees an American-led assault on her village. She runs toward the camera, her mouth open wide in terror and pain.
For John Plummer, that picture is forever a part of him. He was the American chopper pilot responsible for raining fire on the village of Trang Bang. The next day when that picture hit the front pages, John Plummer was devastated by it. For 24 years he carried the image of that burned and terrified girl in his mind. Three marriages, two divorces, a severe drinking problem -- and then the TV newscast that night that showed that girl’s picture again - and then showed that woman today, now living in Toronto. That was the first time John Plummer even knew the girl who had haunted his conscience for so long still lived. He learned her name was Kim, now 33 years old. He watched and saw the thick white scars the splashing napalm had left on her neck and arm and back. He learned she had 17 operations but still lives with pain.
Not long before, John’s long struggle led him to surrender his life to God. He had become a Methodist minister. Now he wanted to face Kim. He got the opportunity at a Veterans Day observance at the Vietnam War Memorial. Kim was the speaker. When she finished, John Plummer fought his way through the crowd to try to reach her. When they met, no photographers were there to take the picture - but it was an unforgettable moment. John told Kim who he was . . . and she just opened her arms to him. He fell into her arms sobbing. All he could say was, “I’m so sorry. I’m just so sorry.” And the woman, bearing the scars from what he had done, also saw the scars og John Plummer’s pain and sorrow. She held him, patted his back and said these words, “It’s all right. I forgive. I forgive.”
I wish it was easy to forgive like this. The truth is it’s easier to be like Chet -consumed with pain and searching for understanding. Forgiveness is supernatural. We just can’t seem to muster it up on our own power. Jesus can show us the way, because he knows the freedom of forgiving. He knew it on those last awful moments on the cross when he cried out, Father, forgive them . . .” Is there someone you need to forgive? Someone you’ve been avoiding? Is there an offense from the past . . . an insult . . . a cold-shoulder . . . perhaps a travesty that lingers on and needs to be pardoned? Forgive, the debt. Do it today. Because no matter what has happened, it’s nothing in comparison with the freedom God offers when we forgive other’s debts, just as God has forgiven ours.
David Leininger, “The Freedom of Forgiveness” ( 1/15/96), www. sermoncentral.com, and William Barclay,
Matthew II (Louisville: WJKP, 1975), 193.
Fresh Illustrations for Preaching, 135.
John Story via Presbynet, “Jokes” #3543
Helmut Thielike, Our Heavenly Father (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960), 104.