The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE POWER TO CHANGE THE PAST

Delivered 9/15/02
Text: Matthew 18:21-35
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

You are no doubt familiar with the name Simon Wiesenthal, the famous Nazi hunter. Wiesenthal was a prisoner in a concentration camp in Poland. One day he was assigned to clean out rubbish from a barn the Germans had improvised into a hospital for wounded soldiers. Toward evening a nurse took Wiesenthal by the hand and led him to a young SS trooper, his face bandaged with filthy rags, eyes tucked behind the gauze. He was perhaps 21 years old. He grabbed Wiesenthal's hand and held on for dear life. He said that he had to talk to a Jew; he could not die before he had confessed the sins he had committed against helpless Jews, and he had to be forgiven by a Jew before he died. So he told Wiesenthal the horrible tale of how his battalion had gunned down Jews, parents and children who were trying to escape from a house set afire by the SS troopers.

Wiesenthal listened to the dying man's tale, first the story of his innocent youth, and then of his participation in any number of foul deeds in the service of Hitler. At the end, Wiesenthal jerked his hand away and walked out of the barn. No word was spoken, no forgiveness was offered. Wiesenthal would not, could not, forgive. But he was not sure he did right.

He ended his story, The Sunflower(1), with a question - "What would you have done?" Thirty-two eminent persons, mostly Jewish, contributed their answers to his hard question. Most said Wiesenthal was right - he should not have forgiven the SS trooper; it would not have been fair. Why should a man who willfully participated in doing monumental evil expect a quick word of forgiveness on his deathbed? What right had Wiesenthal to forgive the man for the crimes he had committed against other Jews? If Wiesenthal forgave the soldier, he would be saying that the Holocaust was not so evil. "Let the SS trooper go to hell," said one respondent.

What would you have answered? Should Wiesenthal have forgiven the young man? Think about it as we hear our lesson (which just happens to be about forgiveness).

Matthew 18:21-35


A fellow went to the hospital to visit his partner who had been taken strangely ill and was near death. Suddenly the dying man began to speak. "John," he said, "before I go I have got to confess some things and get your forgiveness. I want you to know that I robbed the firm of $100,000 several years ago. I sold our secret formula to our competition, and John, I am the one who supplied your wife with the evidence that got her the divorce and cost you a small fortune. Will you forgive me?"

John murmured, "That's okay, old man. I am the one who gave you the poison." Seventy times seven.

In a perverse and extreme way, the partner reflects modern attitudes toward forgiveness. We live in a balance-sheet world that demands justice - bomb Afghanistan after September 11th. Society counsels, "Don't get mad; get even." When things do not go our way, we are advised to "Sue their socks off!" Despite growing up with advice like "Forgive and forget" or being reminded that "To err is human, to forgive divine" and our regular "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors," we do not find much forgiveness out there. Children cannot forgive their parents and parents cannot forgive their children. I know wives who cannot forgive their husbands and husbands who cannot forgive their wives. Arabs have difficulty forgiving Jews; and Jews, Arabs. There is not much forgiveness anywhere.

That is nothing new though. Two-thousand years ago the question was posed, "Lord, how often am I to forgive...seven times?" Peter's question to Jesus was a good one (and his offer more than generous - after all, if someone wrongs you over and over and over again, you will be inclined to call time out before the seventh go-round). It was Rabbinic teaching that a man must forgive his brother three times. As one Rabbi wrote, "If a man commits an offense once, they forgive; if he commits an offense a second time, they forgive him; if he commits an offense a third time, they forgive him; the fourth time they do not forgive."(2) I am sure Peter thought that he was being incredibly charitable, for he takes the Rabbinic teaching, doubles it, adds one for good measure, and suggests (with eager self-satisfaction, no doubt) that it will be enough if he forgives seven times. Peter thought he would be warmly commended, I suspect, but Jesus' answer was that the Christian must forgive, depending on your translation SEVENTY-seven times...or SEVENTY TIMES seven. Hmmm...490? But this is celestial arithmetic. Jesus meant 70 x 7 x 77 x 70 x 7 x 77...on to infinity...forgiveness with no limit at all.

The Lord then told the story of the servant forgiven a humongous debt who went out and dealt mercilessly with a fellow servant who owed him a tiny bit - 1/600,000th of the original amount. No forgiveness here - Debtors' Prison. The king heard about what happened, called the servant in and had HIM imprisoned because he was not willing to show the same forgiveness he himself had been shown. Jesus' conclusion was, "So my heavenly Father will also do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart." Scary.

As you Bible scholars know, there are several places in scripture that indicate a quid pro quo concerning forgiveness - if we don't give it, we won't get it. I know the Lord would not intend for us to build a theology on that emphasis - too much else in the Bible makes plain that God's forgiveness of our sin comes because of what Christ did, not on what we do or fail to do. But the harshness of the story's ending has its inescapable truth - the one who fails to forgive ends up in a prison of his own making, now unable to experience forgiveness for himself.

Why do you suppose Jesus makes such a big deal about a little thing like forgiveness? I believe the answer is that real forgiveness is NOT a little thing - in fact, it is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. It is the only thing in this world that actually has the power to change the past.

Think about it. Forgiveness is a decision about how to deal with what supposedly is beyond our reach - history - the past. One choice we can make about wrongs we have suffered is to seek revenge: poison your partner..."Don't get mad, get even"..."Sue their socks off." The idea behind those options is misconceived justice, that there is a balance owed to you, and somehow you will make the wrongdoer pay. To choose forgiveness is to give up that balance-sheet view. By letting go of our sense of being wronged, we can also let go of bitterness and resentment and open ourselves to much more healthy and wholesome emotions. We take control of how we feel about the past.

Lew Smedes is a teacher of Theology and Ethics. He describes three stages in every act of forgiveness - suffering, spiritual surgery, and starting over.(3) The first stage, suffering, creates the conditions that require forgiveness. At the second stage, we do the essential business of forgiveness - the forgiver performs spiritual surgery in his or her own memory. We complete the action at the third stage when the forgiveness starts a new relationship with the forgiven person.

Take them one at a time. First, suffering. One of the hardest things about forgiveness is simply acknowledging the pain we have experienced. Someone has written that the first step in forgiveness is "swallowing your pride, admitting that you are hurt, admitting that someone or something got to you, admitting that you were not as impervious to rudeness, thoughtlessness, criticism, rejection, neglect, or ingratitude as you thought you were. And it means admitting that you are unable to snap out of it as quickly as those around you would like."(4) No one really forgives (or needs to) unless he or she has been hurt.

The second stage of forgiving involves your inner response to the one who wronged you. Here you perform what Dr. Smedes calls spiritual surgery within your own memory - you slice away the wrong from the person who did it. You disengage that person from the hurtful act. You recreate him. At one moment you identify him forever as the one who did you wrong - the next moment you change that identity. He is remade in your memory.

God does it this way too. The Bible says God separates us from our sin "as far as the east is from the west." God releases us from sin as a mother washes dirt from a child's face. No longer are we a filthy ragamuffin, but now a spotless little angel dressed in our spiritual best.

Sometimes this spiritual surgery stage is as far as we can go. Sometimes we need to forgive people who are dead and gone. Sometimes we need to forgive people who do not want our forgiveness. Sometimes our forgiving has to end with what happens inside our own heart and mind.

The third stage of forgiveness is starting over...when possible. The miracle of forgiveness is completed when two alienated people begin again. That does not mean to say that we understand what happened. Loose ends may well remain untied. Nasty questions may still be unanswered. The future is uncertain, as always. We could easily have more hurts and more forgiving ahead of us. But we start over where we are.

Three steps - suffering, spiritual surgery, starting over. Forgiveness is not easy. In fact, it can be very costly. Ask Jesus. Forgiveness cost Christ his blood as the nails pierced His hands, the spear His side. Forgiveness cost Christ incredible pain as for six hours he hung suspended between earth and sky. Forgiveness cost Christ his life as He was finally laid in a borrowed tomb. But the risk is one about which we have no choice, not if we take our Christianity seriously.

Do you recall the way Jesus began the story He told in our lesson? He has just finished giving his 70 x 7 (or 77) instruction when He says, "For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who... etc., etc., etc." His message is we will genuinely be able to experience God's rule in our lives when, and only when, we are willing to be as forgiving as God, no matter what the cost.

Are there people in your life who need your forgiveness? What are you willing to do about it? Make a phone call? Write a letter? Drop by for a visit? In our Creed we say "I believe in the forgiveness of sins," and that forgiveness is not simply limited to the marvelous grace GOD shows to you and me. If we genuinely believe in the forgiveness of sins, we will make that forgiveness real to those who have sinned against us.

As 9/11 approached last week, I read of some comments from Lisa Beamer. Lisa says she may some day be able to forgive the hijackers who were responsible for the deaths of her husband, Todd, and the 39 other passengers and crew members who lost their lives aboard United Airlines Flight 93. She says she works at keeping debilitating emotions like resentment to a minimum as she strives to create a normal home life for her three small children.

"Forgiveness is a process," she says. "It's not something where all of a sudden you wake up one day and say: 'OK, I forgive them.' You need time. You need perspective and growth. It's too early to say definitively that I have forgiven them. But it's something that over the course of time I feel confident will be resolved," she added. "I can say I don't hold a lot of bitterness or anger. Those things would be detrimental to me and my family, and the terrorists have certainly taken enough from us. I'm not going to let them take any more."(5)

Good for you, Lisa. Good for you.

What about Simon Wiesenthal and that young trooper? Should Wiesenthal have forgiven him? I do not think he could have. After all, true forgiveness is only available from the party that has been injured. Even the king in Jesus' parable was only able to forgive the debt owed to HIM. Lisa Beamer WAS personally hurt in the death of her husband; Simon Wiesenthal had NOT been personally injured by the young soldier. The only ones who could have offered forgiveness to that boy were the ones he murdered and the God whose law was so viciously broken. Simon Wiesenthal would have turned the miracle of genuine forgiveness into some cheap indulgence by pretending to forgive someone who had never directly hurt him.

Forgiveness is power. The trooper knew that. Forgiveness is the power to renew and be renewed, to clean and feel cleansed. Forgiveness is the power to restore to favor and wholeness. It is not a negative power at all, but a positive power - in fact, the most positive power in all the world. Nothing else can rebuild a life the way forgiveness can. Nothing else can so change an individual the way forgiveness can. Nothing else can change the relationship between nations the way forgiveness can. When you pull it off, you do the one thing, the only thing, that has the power to change the past. The grace to do it is from God. The decision to do it is our own.

Amen!


1. Shocken, 1976

2. Quoted by William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. II, Daily Study Bible Series, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), p.193

3. Lewis Smedes, "Forgiving: The Power to Change the Past," Christianity Today, 1/7/83, pp. 22-26

4. Doris Donnelly, Putting Forgiveness into Practice, quoted by Kenneth Gibble, "She Washed Jesus' Feet," The Christian Ministry, Sept.-Oct., 1990, p. 29

5. Reuters News Service, 9/4/02

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