Right here at the beginning of this sermon, let us quietly and honestly ask whether we know anyone from our own circle of friends and family whom we have not forgiven for some wrong that person might have done us; a person from whom we once separated ourselves in anger—perhaps not even in open anger, but in quiet bitterness, thinking: I cannot stand it any longer, I can no longer associate with this person.
Or are we really so inattentive that we say we do not know anyone like this? Are we so indifferent to other people that we do not even know whether we are living in peace or at odds with them? Whether one after another may not someday stand up and accuse us, saying: “You separated yourself from me in discord—you could not tolerate me—you broke off fellowship with me—you found me unsympathetic and turned away from me—I once did you wrong, and you left me alone—I once wounded your honor, and you broke with me—and I could not find you again—I often looked for you, but you avoided me—and we never spoke frankly with each other again, but I wanted nothing more from you than your forgiveness, and yet you were never able to forgive me. Here I am now, and I am accusing you—do you still even know me?”—Whether or not in that particular hour names will come back to us that we hardly recognize anymore— many, many wounded, rejected, poor souls whose sin we did not forgive. And among these people perhaps even a good friend, a brother or sister, one of our parents?
And at that moment a single, great, threatening, terrible voice will speak against us: You have been a hard person—all your cordiality cannot help you; you were hard and proud and as cold as a stone; you did not concern yourself with any of us; you were indifferent to all of us and hated us, you never knew what forgiveness might accomplish; you never knew how it benefits the person who experiences it and how it liberates the person who forgives. You have always been a hard person.
We make it too easy for ourselves with other people. We completely blunt our sensibility, and then believe that not thinking ill of someone is the same as forgiving that person—yet in so doing we utterly fail to see that, as a matter of fact, we have no positive thoughts about the person— and to forgive would mean having nothing but good thoughts about the person and supporting that person whenever we can. But precisely that is what we avoid—we do not support such persons. Instead, we continue alongside them and grow accustomed to their silence; indeed, we do not take it seriously to begin with—and yet the whole point is to support such persons—to support them in all situations, with all their difficult and unpleasant sides, including any injustice and sin they may commit even against me—to be silent, to support, and to love without ceasing—that would come close to forgiveness!
Those who do indeed take this posture toward others, toward their parents, their friends, their wives, their husbands, but also toward strangers, in fact, toward all those whom we encounter in our lives—they know how difficult this really is. They know how often they want to say: I just cannot do it any longer; I just cannot stand this person any longer; I’m just worn out from it. One cannot always just keep on as before. “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” How long must I endure this person who acts so harshly toward me, hurting me, wounding me, who is so completely inconsiderate and insensitive and who has hurt me immeasurably—Lord, how often . . . ? At one point or another, it simply must end; wrong simply must be called for what it is; my own rights simply cannot continue to be violated on and on—“As many as seven times?” We probably will smile at Peter here, since seven times does not seem like all that much to us—how often have we already forgiven and overlooked? And yet we certainly should not smile, indeed, we have absolutely no reason to do so with regard to Peter here. To forgive seven times, genuinely to forgive, would mean making the best of the wrong that has been done to us, would mean repaying evil with good; it means accepting the other person as if that person had always been our dearest friend—no small feat. Indeed, it is what we tend to call forgiving and forgetting: Live and let live. But then genuinely forgiving, out of pure love, love that simply refuses to turn the other person loose and instead insists on continuing to support that person—that is certainly no small feat.
Such questions are a real torment. How can I deal with this person?
How can I endure this person? Where do my own rights begin with regard to this person? When these questions arise, let us always go to Jesus, just as did Peter. For if we were to go to anyone else, or if we were simply to ask ourselves, we would only get insufficient help or no help at all. Jesus, however, will indeed offer help, albeit only in a quite peculiar fashion.
Not seven times, Peter, but seventy-seven times, Jesus says, and he knows that only in this way can he help Peter. Do not count, Peter; instead, forgive without counting—do not torment yourself with the question of how long—endlessly, Peter, endlessly, that is what it means to forgive—and precisely that is what grace is for you, that alone will make you free.
When you count, once, twice, three times, the whole matter gets increasingly threatening—and your relationship with that person gets increasingly agonizing—but do you not notice that as long as you are still counting, for that long you are still reckoning that earlier sin against the person, for that long you still have not really forgiven that person, not even for the first time! Peter, free yourself from such counting—forgiving and pardoning know neither number nor end. You need not worry about your own rights, since they are already taken care of with God—you may forgive without end! Forgiving has neither beginning nor end; it takes place daily, unceasingly, for ultimately it comes from God. This is what liberates us from forced relationships with others, for here we are liberated from ourselves; here we may surrender our own rights merely in order to help and serve others.
Listen, there is no longer any need for us to be so sensitive—we gain nothing by it—no need for us to be so concerned about our own honor— no need to be indignant when others repeatedly wrong us—no need to continually judge those persons—we need only accept them just as they are and forgive them for everything, absolutely everything, without end, without qualification. Is it not truly an enormous grace that we can enjoy such peace with our neighbor,—that no one and nothing can ever disturb that peace? Here our friendships, our marriages, our brotherhood and sisterhood receive precisely what they need, namely firm, enduring peace through forgiveness.
When Jesus said this to Peter, he was telling and giving him something joyous, something wonderful, something that would free Peter from the agonizing opposition between people. You may forgive one another, Jesus says. This is truly good news.
What is unfortunate is that precisely when Jesus wants to give us such enormous help, something so truly great, we immediately say: Ah, but how difficult it is, what Jesus is putting on us here, how unbearably difficult.
Rather than helping us, this merely burdens us further. For who is able to do this, to forgive brother or sister for everything and to bear it together with them? All our defiance reawakens: No, I do not want to do it and I cannot do it. Nor have the other persons really earned such forgiveness.
And behold, it is only when we start talking in this way that Jesus gets angry with us. We may ask him for help without end—but to resist his help, saying: That is not really help at all,—Jesus does not want to hear that from us. “You cannot forgive, you do not want to forgive, the other person does not deserve to be forgiven,—indeed, who do you think you are, talking like that?”
And now, with great anger, Jesus recounts the terrible story about the roguish slave, the slave who experienced mercy and yet remained a hard person, to whom all mercy was thus denied and who experienced God’s terrible judgment. And by telling us this angry story, Jesus gives us the greatest help possible by showing us the path to true forgiveness. It is this path that we now want to understand.
Are we able to recall a moment in our own lives in which God called us to judgment, a moment in which we were lost ourselves, in which our own lives were at stake? God demanded that we render an account of ourselves, and yet we could show nothing but debts, immeasurably great debts. Our life was stained and impure and guilty before God, and we had nothing, absolutely nothing to show but debts and even more debts. Let us recall how we felt at that time, how we had nothing to hope for, how futile and meaningless everything seemed. We could no longer help ourselves; we stood there completely alone—facing nothing but punishment, righteous punishment. Before God we were utterly unable to stand up straight; and before God, before the Lord God, we fell down on our knees in despair and pleaded: Lord, have patience with me—and we came out with all sorts of prattle, just as does the roguish slave here: I promise to pay back everything and to make restitution—that sort of talk, even though we knew too well that we would never be able to pay it. And then suddenly everything changed; God’s countenance was no longer filled with anger, but rather with enormous misery and pain because of us human beings.
And so God remitted all our debt, and we were forgiven. We were free, and all anxiety departed from us, and we were once again joyous and were once again able to look God in the eye and to offer thanks.
Thus did we, too, once appear just like this roguish slave. But how forgetful we are! And now we go and seize someone who may have done us a slight wrong, who may have deceived us or slandered us, and we say to that person: Make good what you have done to me! I can never forgive what you have done! Can we not see that what we really ought to say is: Whatever that person has done to me is nothing, absolutely nothing compared to what I have done to God and to that other person? Who has called us to condemn that person when we ourselves are so much more culpable?
But, looking at verses 31-34, now we have forfeited grace; now all our earlier guilt emerges anew; now wrath rains down upon us—now we are lost people, lost because we have had contempt for grace. That is the whole lesson here: Though you certainly see the other person’s sin, you do not see your own. Only by recognizing in penitence God’s mercy for you will you yourself then also be capable of forgiveness.
How can we get to the point that we are able to forgive each other’s sins, all of those sins, from the bottom of our hearts? My dear friends, those who have experienced what it means for God to lift us up out of a great sin and to forgive us, those to whom God has in such an hour sent another brother or sister to whom we might then confess our sin, whoever knows how a sinner resists such help because the sinner simply does not want to be helped, and whoever nonetheless has experienced how a brother or sister genuinely can release us from our sin in God’s name and in prayer—that person will surely lose all inclination to judge or to hold grudges and will instead want but one thing: to help bear the distress of others, to serve, to help, to forgive,—without measure, without qualification, without end,—such a one can no longer hate sinful brothers and sisters, but will instead want only to love them all the more and to forgive them for everything, everything. Lord, our God, may we experience your mercy so that we, too, may practice mercy without end! Amen.
***Sermon from The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer edited by Isabel Best copyright © 2012 Fortress Press admin. Augsburg Fortress. No further reproduction allowed without the written permission of Augsburg Fortress.***