Childlike Maturity: Forgiveness - Matthew 18:21-22
Isaiah 11:6 reads, “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” My friends, as we enter the third week of our series, we are trying to let a little child, or actually, let children in general lead us, as we are striving to grow up in childlike maturity, responding to Jesus words, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[i]
We know that like children we are growing. We have to choose to grow in our faith…seeking out opportunities for learning and stretching (such as Sunday School and Bible Study), refusing to be satisfied to remain infants in the faith, and realizing that the moment we stop growing, we start dying.
We know that like children we are dependent. Just as children are dependent on their parents, grandparents, or some other adult for life, sustenance, and shelter, so too are we all dependent upon God. He is our Creator. He is our Provider. He is our Savior. We are not to be independent, but be wholly dependent upon Him and the Church which He calls us into as the living body of Christ, as the flesh and blood embodiment of God Himself.
We know that we are called to be as generous as children. We are called to be willing to give away all our resources, all our recognition, all our time, in service to God, especially if any of those things might come before God in our lives.
This morning’s reading, though it doesn’t reference children, calls us to grow into childlike maturity with forgiveness. Hear the words again: “Then Peter came and said to [Jesus], ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times? Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’” (Some translations read, “seventy times seven times.” Now what Jesus is describing is childlike forgiveness…and it is what He tells us to do.
It always baffled me until I began working on this sermon.
When Anita and I first married, we moved into a mobile home park in Creedmoor. At that time, Natalie was four years old, and Ben was nine. We were about halfway down one side of the “U-shaped” road that drove through the mobile home park (and when I say “down,” I mean “down,” the slope of the road must have been somewhere between 30 and 45 degrees—meaning if there was ice on it, you might as well not try to leave home). Well, up near the entrance to the neighborhood lived a couple and their two daughters. One of those girls, Nicole, was Natalie’s age. It was not long before they were close friends, going up and down the hill to each other’s home. As they grew older, they went to school together and played softball together. They were almost inseparable. Well, at least most of the time, anyway. There would be days where Natalie would come home or Nicole would leave and you would have thought that Nicole was the worst person on the face of the earth. I don’t remember what any of their arguments were about, and if I was a betting man, I’d wager that Natalie couldn’t tell you what a single one of their disagreements were about. Yet, to hear Natalie tell it back then, it was of earth-shattering, universe-changing importance. The next day would come around and Natalie would be heading outside. “Where are you going Natalie?” Her response would be, “To play with Nicole.” “Wait a minute Natalie, I thought y’all weren’t friends anymore…you said yesterday that you weren’t ever going to talk to her again.” Natalie’s response, “That was yesterday, everything’s fine now.” As she walked or road her bike up the hill, I would just stand there shaking my head. It is not like this was a onetime deal, it would happen monthly, sometimes weekly, and even from time to time daily. I don’t know if it ever hit four hundred and ninety, or even seventy-seven times, but it happened a lot: argue/fight one day, best friends again the next day—childlike forgiveness.
Unfortunately, many of us adults have not grown into childlike maturity when it comes to forgiveness. Admitting we need to grow, realizing that we are dependent, and generosity, maybe. Forgiveness, that’s a whole different matter. When it comes to forgiveness we tend to be more reflective of Charles Bronson in Death Wish or Mel Gibson in Payback. Somehow our mentality has been less about forgiving and more about getting even…and it does not have to be something as drastic as a murder or attempted murder like those movies. It can be coworker taking credit for our idea. It can be a spouse cheating on us. It can be someone cutting us off in traffic or at the checkout line of the grocery store. It may be someone who openly, or even quietly, disagrees with us. It could even be someone failing to respond to our “hello.” These things happen, and suddenly we either want to get even, or we simply do not want anything else to do with that person. We do not want to forgive once or even seven times, much less seventy-seven or four hundred and ninety times. Our attitudes tend to be more reflective of an old-West main-street showdown-at-noon than little children on a playground in the afternoon.
How essential is forgiveness to our faith-life as Christians? It is of upmost importance!
To emphasize this point, Jesus continued after telling Peter seventy-seven times with this parable:
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents (more than $500,000 in terms of our money) was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him his debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii (about $150); and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘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 in his anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’”[ii]
Earlier in Matthew, Jesus, in teaching his disciples how to pray, taught them to pray, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…For if you forgive others their trespasses, our heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”[iii]
It is obvious, my brothers and sisters, why it is so essential that we obtain childlike maturity when it comes to forgiveness. Our forgiveness is contingent upon it. Yes, God may freely offer forgiveness to us…and let’s get one part of that straight, it was free to us, but it was not free to God, it cost Him His Son…Jesus Christ paid for our forgiveness with His very life…but we did nothing and do nothing to earn that forgiveness, it is freely poured out from God to us. However, as the parable relates to us, and as we pray the Lord’s Prayer, if we refuse to extend that same free grace to others, then we are asking God to withhold our forgiveness, and we can be assured that God will withhold our forgiveness.
“But preacher, life is not a playground argument or the refusal to share toys…the things that were done to me, they were serious:
“When he lied at work and took credit for the project, he got a promotion and I lost my job.”
“When she seduced my husband, it ruined our marriage.”
“When he forged my checks, my rent payment bounced and I was evicted.”
“When she cussed me out at the park, I became a recluse, afraid to go out in public again.”
“When he killed my child….”
“You don’t understand Pastor, there are things that no human can forgive.”
Let me share a story with you:
The words, ‘I forgive you,’ were the hardest words that Reverend Walt Everett ever had to write. He wrote those words to Mike Carlucci—the man who murdered his son. Now, in what can only be described as a relationship fueled by the grace of God, Walt Everett and Mike Carlucci consider one another friends.
Their journey began in July of 1987 when Mike Carlucci, under the influence of drugs and alcohol, held a gun to Scott Everett’s head in the apartment complex they both lived in, and pulled the trigger.
Carlucci was arrested, tried, and convicted of murder. At the sentencing hearing, Scott’s father, Reverend Everett, described the pain of losing his son. It was at that time that Mike Carlucci asked for forgiveness.
Just weeks later, on the anniversary of the murder, Everett wrote a letter to Carlucci in which he described how difficult the past year had been since the death of his son. Near the close of the three page letter, in what Everett probably considered an effort of closure for the whole ordeal, he wrote, “I do accept your apology and, as hard as these words are to write…I forgive you.”
When Carlucci received that letter in prison where he had been fighting to overcome his drug and alcohol addiction. Carlucci responded to Everett’s letter, and after writing back and forth for several months, he asked Everett to visit him in prison.
Hesitantly, Everett agreed and went to meet with Carlucci. Their conversation began by what prison life was like for Carlucci, but soon turned to their faith and where they found themselves in life. At the conclusion of the meeting, Reverend Everett stood up to shake Carlucci’s hand, but instead, from God’s prompting, hugged the man who had murdered his son.
That was amazing in and of itself, but it was not the end of their relationship. Everett began visiting Carlucci in prison on a monthly basis, sometimes more often, for two years. At the end of three years in prison for Carlucci, he asked Everett to come to the parole board meeting and support Carlucci’s request for early release. Everett agreed, feeling that Carlucci was truly a God-changed man that that Carlucci would be a productive member of society.
Their relationship continued as Everett presided at Carlucci’s wedding, then supported Carlucci after his wife’s death and through a battle with bankruptcy. Now, 25 years after the murder of Everett’s son, Everett and Carlucci continue their friendship. They travel together speaking at churches, college campuses, and other locales sharing their story, talking about forgiveness, especially between crime victims and the perpetrator, and working to abolish the death penalty. [iv]
My brothers and sisters, this was no “playground argument,” but truly an embrace of forgiveness with childlike maturity. It was forgiveness that was made possible only through the amazing grace of our unbelievable God; a forgiveness that echoes the words of Jesus as He looked down from the cross and said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
Does forgiveness erase the wrong done? No.
Does forgiveness take away the consequences for what happened? No.
Does forgiveness always lead to reconciliation? No.
Is forgiveness dependent on the one who committed the wrong asking for forgiveness? No.
So what is forgiveness?
It is allowing God to take control of the situation.
It is releasing bitterness, anger, and hatred, and allowing God to replace it with compassion and peace.
It is being able to drop any desire for vengeance and actually pray for God to bless, strengthen, and change the person or people who wronged us.
It is growing up into childlike maturity and allowing Christ to live in our lives.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Matthew 18:3
[ii] Matthew 18:23-35
[iii] Matthew 6:12, 14