If there is one word that defines Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Matthew, it is the word, “Forgiveness.”
- In Matthew 6:12, Jesus teaches his followers to pray for forgiveness by asking God “to forgive our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
- In Matthew 6:14-15, Jesus preaches about forgiveness as he says, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
In today’s scripture reading, Peter, aware of what Jesus has taught and preached about forgiveness, asked Jesus a question for which he believed he already had the answer, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I shall forgive him? As many as seven times?”
To understand Peter’s question, it is important to be aware of two Old Testament stories that are found in the fourth chapter of Genesis. The first story is about the first two sons of Adam and Eve who were Cain and Abel. Abel was a keeper of sheep and Cain was a tiller of the ground. Both presented offerings to God. Abel’s offering was from the firstlings of his flock. Cain’s offering was of the fruit of the ground. God accepted Abel’s offering and rejected Cain’s offering. Cain became incensed by anger and killed his brother, Abel. As a result, God condemned Cain to a life of wandering as a fugitive. Genesis 4:13-14 records a conversation between Cain and God about the reality Cain is facing because he killed his brother. Cain tells God, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.”
The second story is from Genesis 4:23-24 and is a sign of the intensification of violence as Lamech, Cain’s great-great-great-grandson, boasts to his two wives about killing a man who had struck him and exulting that he suffered no consequences for his action as he claimed the protection God extended to Cain as he said, “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” The reality that Lamech’s statement reveals is that within a matter of five generations, the biblical account of humanity has deteriorated from the goodness of God’s creation of life to Lamech’s casual claim for unlimited blood revenge. It is in this reality that the Jewish religious law of restorative justice was developed. Laws such an eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth became the norm as a thief was expected to make restoration up to seven times the value of what was stolen.
When Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I shall forgive him,” I believe Peter was defining forgiveness through the Jewish teaching about legal restitution. Jesus was teaching about a different understanding of forgiveness as he told Peter, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Jesus’ understanding of forgiveness was not defined by the restitution of the law. Jesus’ forgiveness was defined by the redemption of relationships.
In 1944, during the Nazi occupation of Holland, the Ten Boom family, including an elderly watchmaker, becomes actively involved in the Dutch Underground, hiding Jewish people in a secret room of their home. However, their secret is eventually discovered, leading to the arrest and death of the watchmaker and the tragic demise of his daughter Betsie in a Nazi concentration camp. Corrie Ten Boom, the youngest daughter, survives the horrors of Ravensbruck, a brutal death camp, with the sustaining power of her faith in God.
Two years after the war, Corrie spoke at a church in Munich, Germany, where she encountered a former Nazi SS officer. This man, who had been a guard at Ravensbruck approaches her, expressing remorse and seeking forgiveness as a Christian. Corrie was faced with a faith defining moment as she decided how she should respond to this man who had caused so much pain and suffering for her family and for her. Realizing the necessity for forgiveness, Corrie prayed for strength to offer forgiveness. As the man offered his hand, Corrie experienced a transformative moment made possible through the power of forgiveness. Corrie said it was like a current passing from her to him accompanied by an overwhelming love for this stranger. It is in this realization that Corrie understood forgiveness is a two-way street in which relationships are redeemed by the power of forgiveness.
Witnessing to the redeeming power of forgives, Jesus told the parable about the ungrateful servant who, after having his debt forgiven by the king, refused to forgive the debt owed to him by a fellow servant. The consequences of the ungrateful servant’s action were that he walked down the dead-end street of unforgiveness as Jesus told his disciples, “So my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
In 1994, there was an uprising in Rwanda where the Hutus engaged in ethnic cleansing against the Tutsis. Both groups historically have been the two main ethnic groups of Rwanda. In 1923, Belgian colonialists created an elite ruling class of Tutsis. Like the yellow star of the Holocaust, every Rwandan was forced to carry an identity card. The division bred bitter animosity that resulted with Hutus butchering their neighbors, their friends, even their family members. Their aim was to kill 1,000 people every 20 minutes.
The killing lasted 100 days. Seventy-five percent of all Tutsis were murdered. …
More than a million corpses covered the land of a thousand hills. In the reality of this devastation, there “reconciliation villages” in Rwanda where both Tutsi and Hutu refugees live together.
The revolutionary idea for reconciliation villages came from a young priest, who himself is a Tutsi survivor. The priest identifies himself as Bishop Deo. He asked himself, “How can we be ever be happy again in this country?” After reflecting on this question, he knew there was only one answer: forgiveness. With trembling knees, he went to a prison to meet the men who had killed members of his family. They were Hutus who, in the meantime, had been sentenced to prison terms by the new government. When he thinks back on that situation, he remembers the shouts of the prisoners that rang in his ears:
“Why is he still alive?” they yelled. “He is a Tutsi! We should kill him.”
“I’m not here to accuse you of anything,” the Bishop Deo called out.
“Let him talk,” they agreed. “We can always kill him after that.”
Every two weeks, Bishop Deo went back to the prison and talked to the men about their crimes, about God and his faith, and he read the Bible with them. He says, “I saw them as people, not as animals. They learned to trust me.”
Bishop Deo wanted to create a place where Hutus and Tutsis could extend a peaceful hand to one another as they walked on the two-way street to forgiveness. A place of reconciliation, fifty-four families, both Tutsi and Hutu, live in this village called Mbyo. There is a school, children play together, and in the evenings, they all sit together and sing Rwandan folk songs. Corn and wheat are growing in the village fields again. If you ask the villagers whether they are Tutsi or Hutu, the answer comes quickly, almost mechanically: “We are Rwandans.” Whether they are Tutsi or Hutu no longer matters, they say.
When the village was founded, Bishop Deo reports that the residents could not even sit together. The mistrust and fear were too strong on both sides. Many of them lost everything during the genocide. Working alongside psychologists, Bishop Deo supported the families whose relatives had been killed during the genocide, as well as the perpetrators returning from prison. Together, they rebuilt the houses in Mbyo. Working together to create something was important, Deo says. On the weekends, the residents hold active discussions. There is a soccer team where children and adults play, and they all till the fields together as they walk with each other on the two-way street of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a Two-Way Street
by Pastor Marc Brown
September 17, 2023
Accompanying Scriptures: Matthew 18:21-35
Fort Hill United Methodist Church
Order of Worship for September 17, 2023
Scripture Lesson Matthew 18:21-35
The Good News “Forgiveness is a Two-Way Street”
Music “Grace Alone” by Scott Brown
Closing Music “Canzona” by F. Mendelssohn