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By: Pastor Nate Mason
So watch yourselves. “If your brother or sister[a] sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
I’m not usually a lectionary preacher. For simplicity of planning, I’m falling back on the Revised Common Lectionary until I take my three-month vacation in March.[i] I prefer themed sermon series for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that I get to skip over the passages I don’t like. The first half of Luke 17 would definitely be one of those passages I don’t like, but since this was in the RCL recently, I decided to try and wrap my brain around the passage.
Luke 17:1-10 feels very jarring and out of place in the narrative. The grander scene involves Jesus telling parables to the Pharisee condemning their misuse of power while neglecting those in need. He finishes up by blasting the apostles with a series of hardcore commandments that sounds like they should have been part of the Sermon on the Plain. When the apostles cry out for helping living into those commandments, Jesus shames them and tells them to strive to be “unworthy slaves.” It feels way out of place! I’m a fan of the theory that Luke wrote his Gospel from three sources. First, he blatantly plagiarized Mark. Luke has 90% of all the exact same words and phrasings as the Gospel of Mark. Clearly Luke wasn’t turning this paper in for a grade at the first century equivalent of Course of Study. Next, Luke had the mysterious and controversial “Q source.” This was a hypothetical collection of quotes from Jesus. We can backwards engineer the Q source by identifying a lot of common quotes attributed to Jesus found in a variety of early church writings. The sayings are so common and so uniform in how they are presented, some scholars figure that they had to have been collected all together in a widely spread format. Of course, we’ve never found a copy of this Q source, so others reject its existence. MYSTERY! CONTROVERSY! Is this exciting or what?[ii] The last source that Luke used would have been the experience and tradition of his religious community. The sermons they heard, the apostles that visited, the sharing they did, all of that ended up as part of Luke’s Gospel. So I look at this weird and out of place passage, and I figure, this was probably the “Ikea Parts” issue with the Gospel’s construction. Luke had the outline from Mark, had the Quotes from Q, and had to figure out which quote should go where. At the end, just like when I put together anything from Ikea, there were parts/quotes left over that you feel the need to just shove in there and hope it works. And just like all of my Ikea creations, this part of Luke seems to stick out and be uncomfortable.
Forgiveness at the core
The call that made the apostles cry out in dismay was the call for repeated forgiveness. “Forgive someone seven times one day? OH LAWD HELP ME!” Sometimes the disciples and the apostles come across as whiny and a little dense, but this time, I’m on their side. It would require divine empowerment to continually forgive someone who is continuously wronging you. Even minor infractions would become nigh unbearable if they happened repeatedly. But Jesus decided to go aggressive in response to the apostles call for help. “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you,”[iii] and then continued to give a very unpleasant analogy to a slave doing the bare minimum of what they were expected to do, which seems harsh, but there’s wisdom in there when you put it in context.
Forgiveness good for more than just the soul
Forgiveness is good for you. Good for every part of you, the physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, and any other -al I may have forgotten. People who regularly practice forgiveness experience a sharp decline in Depression, Anger, Stress, Cardiovascular disease, Pain and an increase in Hope, Compassion Self-confidence, and Immune response.[iv] In order to tap into these benefits, it’s important for us to understand what is and is not actual forgiveness.
How we define forgiveness is pretty broad, all depending on context, but most concepts of forgiveness have three key parts.
It’s important to note, that forgiveness is a personal act, not a social act. As Dr. Everett Worthington explains “One common but mistaken belief is that forgiveness means letting the person who hurt you off the hook. Yet forgiveness is not the same as justice, nor does it require reconciliation, Worthington explains. A former victim of abuse shouldn't reconcile with an abuser who remains potentially dangerous, for example. But the victim can still come to a place of empathy and understanding. "Whether I forgive or don't forgive isn't going to affect whether justice is done," Worthington says. "Forgiveness happens inside my skin."[vi]
When you are hurt, no one can demand that you forgive. This cannot be stressed enough. “Forgiveness happens inside my skin” is a powerful way to set the boundaries of your own healing and emotional health. “Forgiveness is not reconciliation.” If you have the strength to forgive, you do not have to make yourself vulnerable to the person who hurt you. You can maintain those boundaries, so you don’t have to forgive them again. The people who stand to benefit the most from practicing forgiveness, are the ones who are the most at risk for future harm, so this distinction should be supported, shared, and spread as Gospel truth. Because it literally is of the Gospel!
Jesus was right… obviously
Now, I would not have said this the way Jesus said it in Luke 17, but he does lay out a strong argument about how to forgive. Jesus describes the faithful practice of forgiveness as a humble slave going about his duties. To that end, forgiveness is a daily, arduous task. Forgiveness is a skill that takes practice. Dr. Jeremy Sutton gives us five skills that we can practice so we will be trained up in our forgiveness powers.
In closing, forgiveness is a tool to heal yourself. God commands you to forgive, not because God needs it, but because you need it. Forgiveness is between you and God. If someone seeks absolution from you, give it if you can. However, there is nothing more toxic than an unsolicited “I forgive you.” May the Spirit help you practice forgiveness!