I believe 100% that Jesus came to us to free us from everything that binds us, every one of our limitations so that we can live in the freedom of God’s children. To do that we first of all need to come to grips with the idea of forgiveness, because unless and until we learn to truly forgive, we will continue to drag those chains around our feet, unable to move forward.
The good news is that God always gives us a choice: we can either get caught up in the cycle of hurt or we can stand up and break the cycle of hurt. We can choose to learn how to deal with hurts and offenses in a constructive, healthy, Christian way. We all get offended, but there is a healthy way of dealing with it and then there are unhealthy ways of staying trapped in the offense. It’s like falling into a pit and choosing to stay there, or like losing electricity in the house and choosing to remain there even though the house next door has electricity and the neighbor has invited you in. There are people who are stuck in an offense that happened 10 or 20 years ago, and if you get them to talk about it, it’s like it happened just yesterday! These are the ones in need of embracing the grace that invites them to move forward instead of clinging to past hurts.
If we get stuck in hurt and woundedness, we can get to the point where we become bitter and that bitterness colors every part of our lives. Holding onto the hurt has the power to poison our relationships with God and others, but it also kills our passion to serve others as we are called to do. This is the resentment that can kill marriages, ministries, family relationships and whole congregations.
Today’s Gospel reading is all about dealing with offenses and offenders in positive ways before they evolve into the poison of woundedness and bitterness. Now, you and I know that wherever there are two or more people, there will always be issues, there will always be occasions where someone is offended by someone else. And when that happens, we have a choice. Will we allow our pride to dominate and withhold forgiveness? Will we allow some minor event to derail us and throw us into a frenzy? Or will we find a gracious and grace-filled way to forgive and move forward? What does Jesus expect us to do?
Before we delve into Jesus’ instructions on how to reconcile with others, we should take a look at his idea of forgiveness. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus teaches the disciples about forgiveness: He says, if a person offends us and they come to us and apologize that we should forgive them—even if they offend us 7 times in a day, which is the Hebrew way of saying an unlimited amount of times. The disciples are dumbfounded: “Increase our faith, Lord,” they say, because they couldn’t imagine how that kind of forgiveness could even come about.
And so Jesus continued: if you have just a little faith you could tell a mulberry tree to transplant itself into the ocean and it would. If you’ve ever attempted to rid yourself of a mulberry tree, you know something of how tenaciously they dig their roots into the ground, so this saying of Jesus is even more profound once we realize what he’s trying to teach. In connection with the earlier teaching on forgiveness, what Jesus is saying that when we refuse to forgive, when we allow woundedness and bitterness to grow within us, they become an intricate part of our lives, twisting up inside our hearts so much so that they become inseparable from us and they eat away at our peace of soul and our lives.
But as frightening as that image is, the good news is that Jesus is saying with a little faith, it will be possible for us to actually forgive—even though it may appear difficult in the heat of the moment. With a tiny little bit of faith we can get rid of the bitterness and the woundedness because we always have a choice, and we can choose to stop the cycle of hurt. The first step is to forgive and once we have forgiven the offense then we can seek full reconciliation with the one who has hurt us. And since this Gospel reading is actually a practical lesson, it helps to review the steps Jesus recommends to us as we attempt to move forward in faith. What kind of faith are we called to have anyway?
First of all, Jesus asks that we have faith in our sister or brother. We aren’t to wait until she or he comes to us, we are to take the initiative. It is always possible that the offending person doesn’t even know they’ve offended us. So we are called to give them the benefit of the doubt, to have a little faith in them as human beings and realize that they, like us, may have hurt without intending to do so. Calmly and gently sharing our experience of hurt allows them the opportunity to see our feelings of injury and gives them a graceful opportunity to apologize.
If the offense does not stop; if the relationship becomes hostile, we need to take it one step further, Jesus suggests. We need to engage the wisdom of our Christian sisters and brothers as they act as mediators for the relationship. Think of this as a kind of “counseling” but it is not limited to individuals since it might be appropriate and applicable for entire church congregations. Of course, it would take all parties to agree on this method and if one party refuses to see a counselor or if they refuse to reconcile, then Jesus asks us to take the matter to the larger community.
Instead of allowing people to fall by the wayside and drift out of relationship, we are called as a congregation to keep reaching out to them in a reconciliatory manner. This is the third step and it is valid even if they refuse to reconcile as we continually reach out to them.
This is at least the spirit in which I understand Jesus’ words: “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In the past, we have been quick to excommunicate or ostracize or shun such people, but this is not what Jesus is saying. To let them be to us as a Gentile (non-believer) means that we need to reach out to them as we are called to reach out to all Gentiles (non-believers)—meaning we are not to give up on them. That’s the essence of the Great Commission (Mat 28:19ff).
Jesus reminds us in today’s reading that offenses will happen–even in church. But today He is asking us to have a little faith in the power of forgiveness to bring healing and reconciliation to our lives, our relationships, and our churches. Jesus believes in us; he believes that we can do this. That’s why he said that it takes the faith of a tiny mustard seed…literally it takes this much faith. (Show them a tiny seed.) I invite you to consider this invitation to forgive and to apply the three step approach recommended by Jesus, and if we do decide to accept His advice we can become powerful reconcilers in our churches and in our communities. And as we do, we will experience the power of God in our midst–the power of forgiveness and reconciliation.