Summary: As God has forgiven us in Christ, so it is our responsibility to forgive those who have wronged us.

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Lessons on Forgiveness

Matthew 18:21-35


One said, “Forgiveness is like the violet sending forth its pure fragrance on the heel of the boot of the one who crushed it.”

For three days a fierce winter storm had traveled 1500 miles across the North Pacific from Alaska, packing gale force winds and torrential winds. The snow was piling up in the Sierra Nevadas. In the foothills of the Sierras the streets were flooded and the power was off in some parts of the town of Grass Valley. The high winds beat against the windows with violence, as Father O’Malley had never heard before.

In his tiny bedroom, O’Malley was writing his Sunday’s sermon by candlelight. Suddenly, the phone in his office rang, shattering his concentration. As he picked up the phone, a voice asked, “Is this Father O’Malley?” “Yes,” he replied. “I’m calling from the hospital in Auburn. We have a terminally ill patient who is asking us to get someone to give him his last rites. Can you come quickly?” the female voice said. O’Malley told her he would try his best to get there. The trip was only 30 miles, but it would be hard going in the storm.

Finally in the distance he saw the lights of the small hospital. He slipped into his raincoat before stepping out into the wind-swept deluge. With his tattered Bible tucked deep inside his overcoat, he forced the car door open, stepped out and leaned into the wind. As he stepped inside the hospital door, the night nurse approached him. “I’m so glad you could get here,” she said. “The man I called you about is slipping fast, but he is still coherent. He’s been an alcoholic for years, and his liver has finally given out. He’s been here a couple of weeks this time and hasn’t had one single visitor. He lives up in the woods and no one around here knows much about him.”

O’Malley asked what the patient’s name was. She said, “The hospital staff has just been calling him Tom.” As he entered the room, O’Malley saw a man with a thin sallow countenance who looked ghostlike behind a scraggly beard. He introduced himself and told him he would like to talk a little before he went to sleep.

“Don’t give me any of that garbage,” Tom replied. “You didn’t just stop by at 3:30 in the morning. I asked that dumb night nurse to call someone to give me my last rites because I know my deal is done and it’s my turn to go. Now get on with it.”

Father O’Malley began to say the prayer of the last rites. After he finished, Tom perked up a little and appeared as if he wanted to talk. O’Malley asked him if he wanted to make a confession. He told him no, but he said he would like to talk a little.

Tom and Father O’Malley talked about the Korean War, the fierce storm outside and the knee-high grass and summer blossoms that would soon appear. Occasionally, O’Malley would ask him if he wanted to make a confession.

Finally Tom replied, “Father, when I was young, I did something that was so bad that I’ve never told anyone about it. It was so bad that I haven’t spent a single day without thinking about it and reliving the horror.” O’Malley encouraged him to share what it was.

Believing his life would soon end, Tom decided to share with the priest what he had never told anyone. He told him how 32 years ago he was working as a switchman on the railroad, a job he had held all his life. It was a stormy night just like the present one. It was two nights before Christmas and to push away the gloom of the storm the entire crew drank all through the swing shift. Since Tom was so drunk, he volunteered to go out into the storm and push the switch for the northbound 8:30 freight.

Tom confessed, “I guess I was more drunk than I thought I was because I pushed that switch in the wrong direction. At 45 miles an hour that freight train slammed into a passenger car at the next crossing and killed a young man, his wife and their two daughters. I have had to live with my being the cause of their deaths every day since then.”

There was a long pause as Tom’s confession hung in the air. After what seemed like an eternity, Father O’Malley gently put his hand on Tom’s shoulder and said, “If I can forgive you, God can forgive you, because in that car were my mother, my father and my two older sisters.”

In the story we have read about the unforgiving debtor, Jesus teaches us some lessons about forgiveness. In the verses that directly precede these verses, Jesus taught about relationships between fellow believers when they wrong one another. In response to that teaching, Peter proposes the question of how many times we should forgive those who wrong us. You see Peter was aware of human nature and its tendency not to forgive but to hold grudges and harbor resentment.

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