September 17, 2017 – Forgiveness: an Act of Self-Care

Text: Matthew 18:21-35

Forgiveness is another name for self-care. Forgiveness is hard because self-care is hard. Each of us knows what works for us when it comes to self-care. We may have developed our own practices, and we may be pretty good at keeping them: eating a comfort food, going for a walk, taking a nap, watching a favorite show, getting a massage, taking a bath or spending time with friends. They are all good and important practices for our lives to be sustainable, but the self-care I am talking about is much deeper than that. We need to care for our souls, and that’s why we need forgiveness.

Our forgotten wounds, unexpressed anger, neglected sadness come and visit us unexpectedly at any moment in our lives. Instead of waiting for them to come over, we can visit them every once in a while. Forgiveness is like visiting our alienated family members who are no longer around us, but still affect us in a way we don’t even know how or why. We might ask, ‘why do we have to uncover a bandage to check the scar while it can be healed as time goes by?’ If time alone can heal, why does it feel like yesterday when we think about what happened 30 years ago? It’s not time but love and care that heal. Forgiveness is a way of loving and caring for ourselves.

It is also a way of life. A wise minister once taught me to practice forgiveness every time I brush my teeth. That’s a good reminder. We don’t consider brushing our teeth as waste of time, or doing it for someone else. It’s a necessary part to keep our own teeth healthy and clean. By brushing our teeth regularly and intentionally it can become part of our daily activities that we may feel something is missing if we miss it. Likewise, forgiveness can become part of us that we can feel incomplete if we skip this important daily practice.

There is no way to forgiveness. Forgiveness is the way. If we are on the way of forgiveness, we can be more accepting various aspects that the pathway lead us into: curve, uphill, downhill, level or rough. We may fall but we can stand up and carry on. We may fail but not completely. On the pathway of forgiveness we do not count how many times we should forgive, or we do not dare to be perfect in forgiving.

Peter asks, “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” The number seven is identified with something being perfect, whole, holy, complete or finished. So the question implies that there is a destination he could reach as if forgiveness is something which can be done. Jesus replies, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times or seventy times seven.” I take his answer as a punchline, which provides catharsis to those of us who try to be perfect or who need a masterplan. He is basically saying that forgiveness must be beyond counting; it must be beyond perfect; it’s a never ending journey, not something we can achieve as a destination. The following parable is about what keeps us going on the journey.

There is a king who wishes to settle accounts with his slaves. One of them, who owes ten thousand talents, is brought to the king. One talent is approximately 20 years of labour, which makes the salve’s debt about 200,000 years of labour. So when the slave falls on his knees and begs for patience from his master, he is making an impossible request. Nonetheless, the king feels sorry for him, and lets him go free, telling him that he doesn’t have to pay back the money. But the same slave, as he goes out, happens to meet his fellow slave, who owes him a hundred denarii. A denarius is about one day’s
wage. But the slave refuses to forgive the insignificant debt. The debt-free slave refuses mercy. When it is brought to the king’s attention what has happened he is angry, saying “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” Then the king hands him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. The parable ends with an even more shocking message that “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

The two unforgiving people, the slave and eventually the king don’t seem to fit in the teaching of Jesus on forgiveness. But the parable speaks deeply about interconnectedness, seeing one in relation to everyone else. Without which, even the forgiveness he receives becomes so privatized that it doesn’t produce a fruit for others. The practice of forgiveness doesn’t come naturally especially in our individualistic culture, which I find most disturbing. In this culture we can even mistake the practice of self-care as something selfish, while in reality the wellbeing of each individual affects the well being of the whole community and vice versa. The question “Why do I have to forgive? Or why do I have to ask for forgiveness” reflects this lack of understanding – I am because you are, and that I am because we are. Forgiveness is counter cultural, because it restores the original human connectedness that we are born for one another. In fact, Peter’s question comes out of his genuine concern for his community and how he is going to live in relation to everyone else. “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me….”

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, talks about three sentences for reconciliation. This is how he and his community practice in Plum Village, France, when they are upset with someone. The first sentence is “darling, I am angry. I suffer, and I want you to know it.” With loving speech you tell the person the truth, that you suffer, that you are angry with him or her. When the other person comes to ask if we’re all right, if we’re angry, we may say, “me, angry? I’m not suffering at all”. That is the opposite of the practice. Instead we say, “Darling, I’m angry, really angry. I suffer. I want you to know it.”

The second sentence is, “I am trying my best”. It means that I am practicing. It means that every time I get angry I mustn’t say or do anything. But I go home to my breathing; I practice mindfully embracing my anger and looking deeply to see its roots in me. It’s also an indirect invitation for the other person to practice and ask himself or herself, “what did I say or what did I do to make the person suffer that much?” and that is already the beginning of the practice.

The third sentence is, “please help me”, because alone, I can’t transform this suffering, this anger. When we become partners, when we become friends in the practice, we have to share our happiness as well as our suffering. “Now I suffer, I want to share it with you and I need your support.”

The three sentences for reconciliation – “I am angry at you, I suffer very much, I want you to know it.” “I am doing my best to deal with my suffering.” “Please help.” – are useful practices to maintain good relationships. We can practice at home, at work and in church. The practice requires our truth, honesty, respect, compassion and genuine love.

Forgiveness is another name for self-care. It’s a way of loving and caring for our souls. It is a way of healing ourselves, our homes, communities, the country and the world. It’s hard, but I don’t know any other way because our life is deeply interconnected.