Practicing forgiveness is part of the art of living fully, joyfully, and peacefully in this world. Last week, Tom provided us with that unforgettable image of a person standing in the ocean trying to hold a beach ball under the water—and how that effort meant that the person was not free to do anything else. Not forgiving, he pointed out, is like trying to hold that beach ball under the water.
In today’s gospel, Jesus tells a story about a king who forgave a slave in tremendous debt to the king. That slave, having been forgiven his debt, went out and refused to forgive one of his fellows who owed him money. In fact, the forgiven slave had the person in debt to him thrown into jail until the man could pay his debt to the slave the king had so generously forgiven.
The others who witnessed all of this went and told the king, who called the forgiven slave in. The king said, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”
And the king hands over the slave to be tortured until he pays his original debt.
And then comes this zinger from Jesus.
“So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
That is, we suffer the consequences when we continue to be unforgiving people.
So I’m wondering—are there, in the end, limits to God’s limitless mercy?
The answer to that question is yes, there are limits to God’s mercy—the limits to that mercy that we create through the exercise of our own free will.
So let’s do a thought experiment.
Go back to Tom’s beach ball image for a moment. Imagine that you are at the beach in the water, right beyond the breakers, holding down the ball under the water.
Jesus comes walking by, sees what is going on, wades out to you and says, “Hey, let me hold that beach ball underwater for you.” You gratefully agree because you’re tired, and you hand Jesus the beach ball. Jesus holds the ball under water for a minute with you still standing there, amazed that someone would do this for you.
And then Jesus laughs and says, “Listen, there’s something I’d love to do for you. I’m going to free you from this ball forever so you can go live your life. Is that ok with you?”
You reluctantly agree.
Jesus takes the ball and hurls it far out into the ocean, and the currents quickly carry it out to sea.
(Here, I’d like to point out, since this is the Season of Creation, that the ball floating away out to sea doesn’t go away, even though you are free of it, but it now has the potential to harm sea life. For instance, floating plastics deliver disease causing microbes to coral reefs. And remember, many plastics are not biodegradeable, but instead, they just keep breaking into smaller pieces called microplastics that never go away. This is like any sin we release into the world—even though we are free of it once we let it go, that consequences of that sin are now loose out in the world—and still have the potential to harm, which should give us pause—before we commit even the smallest sin, to remember that there will be unintended consequences from what we have done that may occur long past our times. And the small things we do that harm the earth do have unintended consequences that will affect those who come after us.)
Now, back to our thought experiment. Jesus has just asked you if he can free you from the beach ball forever and you’ve agreed, so he has hurled the ball far out to sea and it’s quickly floating away from you.
For a moment you are relieved, but then you think to yourself, “Wait, I can’t let that ball go! What am I going to do if I can’t hold this ball underwater?” You ignore Jesus, who continues to stand next to you, hoping that you will go with him back to shore, and you start swimming out toward the ball.
And at this point, because we know that God ultimately will not interfere with our free will—after all, God has already provided all that we need to know to live fully—Jesus stands there in the water weeping, as you swim far, far out into the ocean, swimming after the ball that was already robbing you of life, and ultimately you drown.
What ball are you chasing today that Jesus has ALREADY taken away from you? What is it that you can’t forgive or let go, that you keep taking back, even though you have been forgiven and freed by God and by others for your sins toward them over and over and over?
The unforgiveness that you hold onto, the unforgiveness toward others or even toward yourself that you keep holding onto because you think you can’t live without it, because it’s become such a part of you, is going to kill you in the end.
Here’s the good news. No matter how many times we take that ball out into the ocean and try to hold it underwater, Jesus will come out to us and offer to take the ball away. Seventy times seven, and then on and on, through infinity. In that way, God’s forgiveness is limitless.
But God will let us choose to limit the mercy we receive from God.
As St Augustine says, “Sins that have been forgiven return when there is no brotherly love.” And that is the whole point of this story. Our sins return because WE keep making space for them, and even actively taking them back, even after we’ve been freed of them, when we choose not to forgive and to love one another from our hearts.
Jesus said, “Forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Paul asks the people of the church in Rome, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”
We all stand before the judgment seat of God all the time. Jesus is next to us in the water all day long, hoping to take away that ball of unforgiveness that is distracting us and potentially killing us once and for all.
It’s up to you. Hand it over or hang on to it. That’s what it means to stand before the judgment seat of God. God is constantly giving us that choice. What we choose dictates what judgment we receive.
Another important thing about these lessons is the reminder that once the ball is gone, we need replace the ball with something else, or we will start longing for the ball again, because it’s what we know, and we’re comfortable with it, even if we don’t like it.
That saying, “Nature abhors a vacuum” is a way to describe what I’m trying to say.
So once the ball is gone, replace that thing that is killing you with life giving praise and blessing to God.
The psalmist says, “Bless the Lord, Oh my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy Name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.”
Yes, replace the stuff that is trying to kill you with God, who longs to give you life! Focus on God and God’s goodness. When we do that, we find that we have no desire to hold on to the death dealing things in our lives—we want to live! We want to forgive!
Because as the psalmist reminds us, “God forgives every one of our sins and heals all of our infirmities.”
That is a cause for celebration.
Last week, Tom reminded us that when are tempted not to forgive someone or when we are tempted to continue carrying a grudge, to go to a quiet place and after thinking about all that has happened, let that thing go. Yes!
But don’t stop there. Replace the thing you’ve released with praise for our almighty Lord, our healer, redeemer, our advocate, the one who loves us through eternity.
And the one who frees us, once and for all, to live free, joyful and loving lives.