September 17, 2023

"Forgiving it Forward”

Rev. Scott Landis

Matthew 18:21-35

The concept Pay it forward is an expression for describing when the beneficiary of a good deed repays the kindness to others rather than paying it back to the original benefactor.

The concept is old, but the particular phrase may have been coined by Lily Hardy Hammond in her 1916 book, In the Garden of Delight. But you may be more familiar with it from the popular film by the same name starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Joel Osment in which a 12-year-old boy takes on a social studies project by inviting others to “pay forward” a good deed to AT LEAST 3 other people. The idea being if each person “pays forward” a good deed to three others the result quickly becomes exponential, and society at large is the better for it. 

"Pay it forward" is implemented in contract law of loans involving third-party beneficiaries. Specifically, the creditor offers the debtor the option of paying the debt forward by lending it to a third person instead of paying it back to the original creditor. This contract may include the provision that the debtor may repay the debt in kind, lending the same amount to a similarly disadvantaged party once they have the means, and under the same conditions. 

Debt and payments can be monetary or good deeds. Which is precisely the situation in our story today from the gospel of Matthew. Jesus had just completed a long discourse on how his followers ought to conduct their lives in relation to one another. Remember, the disciples were semi-nomadic at the time. They had not fully settled into any one region and so there was a lot of borrowing and helping each other out as they moved from place to place. 

Conflicts ensued, as I addressed last week. Tensions arose frequently among the disciples, and they desperately needed some guidance on how to get along. Peter, thinking he had this all figured out, asked Jesus a rather obvious question, “Master, how many times do I have to forgive my brother or sister who hurts me? Seven? 

You see, Peter was looking for a formula. He certainly did not want to forgive TOO much but he wanted to make sure he was doing his part. And so, he probably thought he was being rather generous by offering to forgive 7 times!  But Jesus laughed. Seven? Oh, Peter, you’ve gotta be kidding. That’s just the beginning. You need to forgive seventy times seven. Putting it bluntly – you are never to stop forgiving. 

Jesus continued by telling a remarkable tale about a king who owned many slaves – one of whom owed him a huge amount of money – so much that he couldn’t possibly pay it back. When the king threatened to cast his entire family into prison, the slave threw himself at the feet of the master and begged his debt to be forgiven. The king graciously granted his request. No strings attached. 

But when someone owed this same slave a comparatively small amount of money, and when that person similarly begged forgiveness of HIS debt, he would not hear of it and had him thrown into jail. 

When the king caught wind of this, he was furious. “I forgave you, but you did not do the same to the one who owed you money. How low can you be?” And he suffered the consequences for his selfishness. 

He did not have the ability or the willingness to Pay it Forward – or to ‘forgive it forward,’ in this case. All of which convicted my spirit and forced me to ponder, “just how good am I about receiving and offering forgiveness?” How good am I at forgiving forward? It’s an issue, I believe, each one of us must wrestle with individually. 

I think we would all agree, like the 12-year-old boy in the movie, if we all paid forward deeds of kindness to at least three people – the world would be a much better place. So much kindness would be spread there wouldn’t be much space for evil, negativity, or animosity. But like so many other things Jesus demands of us this seems to run counter to our basic human instincts. But notice, it begins with our ability to receive forgiveness, before we can possibly do the same for others. 

Not long ago I had a parishioner ask me why we don’t have a stated Prayer of Confession in our liturgy. I didn’t have an answer to his query. You see, as a Transitional or Interim pastor – my job is not to change a lot of things, but rather to keep holding up a mirror to the congregation so that it takes a good, long look at itself. Here’s one issue that I think bears some consideration. 

Go ahead. Look long and hard into the mirror. Why no confession? Do we honestly believe we do no wrong? That we are above and beyond sin or feel like Jesus forgave all that so we no longer need to consider it as part of our worship? Or is confession seen as a private matter between me and God and not a public act of worship? Or, and I suspect this is much closer to the truth – “We’ve never done it that way before.” As is often the case for why things are the way they are in churches. 

The reason for my question or concern is simple. I believe it is difficult to pay something forward that we have not received ourselves. But once we have received and experience the joy of the gift, we are transformed and naturally want to offer the same to others.

We can readily see that was the expectation for the king in today’s story. In fact, the he was shocked that his slave was unable to “go and do likewise” when he was similarly confronted with someone who owed him money. 

When we confess our sin and receive the blessing of forgiveness that comes through the grace of God we ought to respond with gratitude. There should be joy in our hearts. We are liberated and given the opportunity to begin anew. But part of that new beginning ought to involve the possibility of blessing others by “forgiving forward” any wrongs that have been done to us. 

We sing it in our Lord’s prayer – “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Wouldn’t it be beautiful to really live that in our daily lives? How might that change who we are and how we live?

I thought it might be fun to try it out — to practice that today. And so, I’ve included in your bulletins a “Prayer of Transformation and New Life” that comes right out of the United Church of Christ liturgical orders for this Sunday – the 16th Sunday after Pentecost. I invite you to turn to that now as I offer this caveat. Confessional prayers of this nature are always written for corporate use. So, you may not relate to every word in the prayer, but you will likely see yourself in some aspect of the prayer. It is not written to make anyone feel condemned or bad for anything we have done. Rather it recognizes our humanity and that we all make mistakes periodically. As you read the prayer, please do so with the attitude that God hears your need for liberation – to begin anew – for transformation and new life as they prayer suggests.  

E pule kākou – let us pray together in unison:

God of grace, we need your strength in our weakness. We confess that we can be judgmental and hyper-critical of our neighbors, family, and friends. We project our own shortcomings on others in order to deflect attention from our mistakes. We withhold and condition forgiveness, mercy, and grace from those who wrong us at the same time we seek it for the wrongs we have done. Even still, we struggle to forgive ourselves. You have shown us the better way. Help us to follow your path–receiving and extending forgiveness in a world in need of an infusion of grace for transformation. In your mercy, O God, hear our prayer, and let us forgive as you forgive. Amen.

Words of Grace

Beloved, grace has always been part of God’s relationship with humanity. God does not want you condemned or held captive by unresolved anger leading to bitterness. Rather, Creator desires you to be released as both forgiven and forgiver so that all may live a life that is whole, free, pono, and flourishing. May you be set free to receive the forgiveness of ke Akua and may you forgive forward those in need of forgiving love. Amen. 

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