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Matthew 18:21-25

The parable in this gospel is a bit shocking. It is hard to imagine Jesus telling Peter this story which ends with the King condemning the unmerciful slave to torture until he pays his entire debt. Then Jesus goes on to say that his Father will do the same thing to all of us if we do not forgive our brother or sister from our hearts.

This seems an intense consequence for the lack of mercy and forgiveness. It helps to know that this parable starts with a dramatic hyperbole – the amount of talents that the slave owes the King is equivalent to 60 million denarii so the people hearing this in real time would know that this is a dramatic exaggeration. So maybe the threat of torture is hyperbolic as well. But as we know, over the years many preachers have told their flocks that God is a punishing God who will exact a high price for our disobedience. But usually, this disobedience is for breaking one of the commandments or for living in sin not for a lack of mercy. Jesus is letting us know that God is abundantly merciful and forgiving and we better be too.

The story of forgiveness in the Genesis story of Joseph and his brothers is one of my most favorite. Remember the back story of Joseph? He was nearly killed by his brothers, but they sold him into slavery instead. He ended up in prison where he interpreted dreams which led to him advising the Pharoah. He told the Pharoah that there was going to be a seven-year bountiful harvest followed by seven years of famine and so they must prepare. This saved countless lives, including that of his own family. When Joseph’s brothers come to ask for food, they beg him for forgiveness, and they all weep together.

But Joseph does not judge them. Instead he asks. “Am I in the place of God?” He is free of resentment as he perceives their actions as the way God led him to be in a position to save lives. What they intended for harm God intended for good. He has completely reframed their story so that his brothers were merely pawns in God’s saving plan. Joseph is free of the pain of resentments and anger. He isn’t wasting his life on the past but rather imagining how he can serve others with his gifts.

Maybe all of us have stories where things looked terrible, even devastating, and yet we can see later that they led to blessings. And not just blessings for ourselves but blessings for others. Maybe we can look for the silver lining in our own lives or reimagine our stories to see how they led to good things. Yet we all know that sometimes it seems impossible to forgive. Some actions are unforgiveable. What do we do then?

I facilitate a program in the local prison – California Men’s Colony. It is called Healing Dialogue and Action. Every week I sit in listening circles with about 40 men. We pass a battery-operated candle as our talking piece and take turns telling our stories. At the beginning of the program the men share about their childhoods which for most are filled with the worst sort of trauma. They start to see how the pain they endured led them to be violent and for many, to addiction. They know this doesn’t excuse their crimes but rather helps them realize the truth that hurt people hurt people.

About midway through the 12-week program we brought in Nora to tell her story. Nora’s son, Nico, was killed as he stood in front of a convenience store texting his girlfriend. Gang members drove by and shot at the store where a rival gang member was. They weren’t trying to kill Nico; he was an innocent bystander. Nora tells the story in detail and with deep emotions. It is heart wrenching and devastating to hear her pain.

We were all fighting tears as we listened but this one inmate, Richard, really lost it. He started weeping, tears were pouring out of his eyes. He tried to fight them back, but the emotions were too strong for him. Crying in prison is not good. It risky to be vulnerable, but he couldn’t stop. Richard told us he hadn’t cried in the 27 years he has lived behind bars.

Richard looked right into Nora’s eyes and said, “I am so sorry. I didn’t kill Nico, but I may as well have. I have taken a life, and it may as well have been your son. I am so sorry.” Nora looked into his eyes and said, “I forgive you. I forgive you.”

More of the men said they were sorry, and Nora looked from man to man saying, “I forgive you. I forgive you. I forgive you.” She was offering abundant mercy and forgiving her brothers from her heart.

Nora is famous in the California prisons for telling her story. She feels that God has asked her to do this, and she does it to honor Nico and to keep him with her in this way. The impact of her story is unimaginable. She has changed countless lives.

The next week Richard came to class looking like a different man. He told the group that he her forgiveness had freed him. It was honestly a miracle. He said he will never be the same – that he will never hurt another person as long as he lives.

We could all see the truth of his words on his face. He was beaming with calm confidence in the new person he is now.

The act of taking a life is unforgivable. But the person who transforms their life and dedicates themselves to what we call “living amends” is forgivable. Actions are sometimes not, but people are.

What I know, and these men are learning, is that healed people heal people. The men who I sit with are dedicated to becoming better men. Better fathers, better brothers, sons, and husbands. They are struggling to forgive themselves by bravely looking inside themselves and transforming their lives. They now live to help others and offer only mercy.

We can all probably do a better job of offering mercy. Of forgiving our brothers and sister from our hearts. We can all do a better job of being humans. We can all seek to be more merciful and forgiving.

I know I can.

Let us heed the warning – God will not be pleased with anything less than abundant mercy.

Sister Greta

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