Practicing the Complexity of Forgiveness

Practicing the Complexity of Forgiveness

Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

September 17, 2023

Practicing the Complexity of Forgiveness

Homily for Sunday,September 17, 2023
The Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Matthew 18:21-35

There is much that has been written about forgiveness.  For example, there is:

The Miracle of Forgiveness:  Three Steps to Transforming Suffering into Peace, by Sean Pi

The Book of Forgiving:  The Four fold Path to Healing Ourselves and Our World, by Desmond Tutu and his daughter,Mpho Tutu

Radical Forgiveness:  A Revolutionary, Five-Stage Process to Heal Relationships, Let Go of Anger and Blame, and Find Peace in Any Situation, by Colin Tipping

Six Steps on the Path to Forgiveness,” an article by Max Lucado (Relevant, May 15, 2023)

Finding Forgiveness:  A 7-StepProgram for Letting Go of Anger and Bitterness, by the Dalai Lama

Eight Keys to Forgiveness, by Robert Enright

Forgiveness, the Passionate Journey:  Nine Steps of Forgiving, by Flora Wuellner

The Ignatian Guide to Forgiveness:  Ten Steps to Healing, by Boston College Professor, Marina McCoy

Or – if you really want to goal-out – there is Robert Enright’s Twenty-Step“Process Model of Forgiving”

So, which is it?  Does forgiveness have three steps or ten? Does it have five stages, or it eight keys?  Is forgiveness a “path” or a “program;” is ita “journey” or a “process?”  I want to know because in today’s Gospel lesson Jesus tells us to forgive, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Forgiveness is important; I want to know how best to do it!

The above books are too many to read.  Yet given Jesus’ words, it seems that forgiveness is important to being a Christian.  If wedon’t have time to read books on forgiveness, but if we are to take seriously Jesus’ command to forgive, what can the well-intentioned Christian do?

In short, the sheer number of books about forgivenes ssuggests that forgiveness is not straightforward but rather is complex.  Forgiveness is complex because – as occasions for forgiveness tend to arise out of circumstances in which we have been hurt –[forgiveness is complex because] of the emotions we feel surrounding those situations in which we might be called to forgive.  Forgiveness is complex, too, because – as the sheer number of titles suggests, their authors disagreeing whether forgiveness requires three, seven or ten steps – [forgivenessis complex, too, because] there usually is no clear-cut path to forgiveness.  And forgiveness is complex because forgiveness often takes time.  I remember as a child at my Lutheran parochial school, the teachers would require on the spot offending children to say “I’m sorry” and those whom they had offended to say, “I forgive you,” as if that ended it right there.  But my feelings of anger or hurt could not be so easily dismissed; it could take a while before I truly was ready to forgive the classmate who had, say, broken the lead on my pencil or who did not invite me to the sleepover.  Forgiveness is not straightforward, but rather is complex. Forgiveness comes with emotions, takes time, and often lacks a clearpath.

In just a moment I will say that the best we perhaps can do,and what we as Christians are called to do, is to practice forgiveness.  But first, 1) a definition of forgiveness, 2) why might we want to forgive, and 3) forgiveness does not mean we cannot set boundaries.  

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said that “when we forgive, we jettison our right to retribution.” Forgiveness, then, is a forfeiture, a casting aside, of our right to retribution.  Second, why we might want to forgive.  In his parable in today’s Gospel Jesus describes unforgiveness as a kind of torture.  The slave whom the king forgave did not in turn forgive his fellow slave, and “in anger,” Matthew writes, “his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.”  To not forgive is to be tortured by our own anger, grief and shame.  And lastly, forgiveness does not mean that we cannot set boundaries.  Recall last week’s Gospel in which Jesus said:  

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone…. If you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you…. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

To forgive does not mean that we cannot set boundaries.

Having said all this, I wonder if the most helpful thing we can do in regards to forgiveness is to practice forgiveness.  Nearly every day offers opportunities to “jettison our right to retribution,” be it from fresh offenses or old offenses that still “torture” us. Practicing forgiveness is difficult, because there is nothing straightforward about forgiveness – forgiveness is complex, forgiveness is laden with emotions, forgiveness requires time, and forgiveness has no clear-cut path.  But with God’s help we can improve in our practice of forgiveness such that perhaps someday we will indeed be able to forgive as Jesus commanded, “not seven but, I tell you,seventy-seven times.”

To support us in our practice of forgiveness, I encourage us to come here each Sunday week by week where, in the sacrament we shortly will celebrate, Jesus offers us an example of his forgiveness, of his “jettisoning the right to retribution,” and of the joy, peace and freedom that results.  And where he offers us the strength – when we are ready – to do the same.  



More Sermons