Bringing the Text to Life

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Forgiveness Fitness Matthew 18:21-35

Forgiveness Fitness

Forgiveness can lower our stress and increase our personal power.

At a Glance

The personal training industry is huge in the United States. Billions of dollars are spent by Americans every year  -- dollars spent trying to stay in shape. Many people hire a personal trainer to provide encouragement and accountability. In terms of our spiritual fitness, we have a personal trainer who is always ready to help, and he specializes in forgiveness fitness.

Editors' Pick

For material based on today's OT text, see "No Way but Yahweh," September 15, 2002, at

Debi and Jared lost 30 pounds.

Brooke shed 95 pounds and says, "The mirror is not my enemy anymore."

Margaret lost 35 pounds, three dress sizes and 10 percent body fat.

These are only a few testimonials of thousands that could be cited of the benefits of hiring a personal trainer. These people came to a point in their lives in which they felt their weight and overall fitness had spiraled out of control. A personal trainer brought this downward spiral to a halt.

Writing in Men's Journal, Lauren Steele says that "working out with a personal trainer increases your fitness-goal success rate by over 30 percent, according to a study published in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine. The study found that the influence of direct supervision during workouts had a huge effect on the outcome of training."

Given the obesity problem in the United States and lack of general fitness, the American fitness industry now amounts to more than $5 billion in gym subscriptions. At these gyms, many clients hire a personal trainer to be actively involved in getting them into shape.

What does a personal trainer do?

A reputable and qualified personal trainer has a varying degree of knowledge about exercise and instruction. He or she motivates clients by setting goals and providing feedback and accountability. Trainers also measure their clients' strengths and weaknesses with fitness assessments -- assessments taken before and after completing the program. They also provide education about general health, diet and nutrition.

Leave now the world of physical training and think of spiritual training.

If we want to be spiritually fit, whom would we want as a fitness trainer?

Of course, mentors, pastors and trusted friends could fall into this category. Yet who could be a better personal trainer than Jesus, a trainer who specializes in forgiveness fitness?

But does forgiveness fitness work?

Scarlett Lewis lost her 6-year-old son Jesse in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He was one of 20 children killed in that horrific attack in 2012 -- an absolute nightmare come to life. Parents such as Scarlett were devastated. At first, her anger sapped all of her energy and strength. Her rage was directed at the shooter and also at the mother who unwittingly armed him.

But then she made the choice to forgive. "Forgiveness felt like I was given a big pair of scissors," she told The Forgiveness Project. These scissors helped her to cut her tie to the shooter and regain her personal power. "It started with a choice," she said, "and then became a process." At her son's funeral, she urged mourners to change their angry thoughts into loving ones. She saw this shift as a way to change the world.

Forgiveness starts with a choice and then becomes a process. Jesus urges us to make this choice for ourselves when he responds to Peter's question about the number of times we should forgive. "Lord," asks Peter, "if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?" Once ... twice ... three times ... "as many as seven times"?

"Not seven times," says Jesus, "but, I tell you, seventy-seven times." Other translations of this verse say "seventy times seven times" ... totaling 490 times (vv. 21-22).

However you count it, Jesus is saying that your forgiveness should be countless. Limitless. Numberless. He is like a personal trainer at the gym, urging us to increase our reps and get stronger every day. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven ... 77 ... 490.

Jesus, the forgiveness trainer.

"Forgive a multitudinous number of times," he says. Make the choice to do it, and then turn it into a process.

But exactly why does Jesus say this? Forgiving the people who hurt us can be hard to do, much tougher than lifting a stack of weights at the gym. Still, Jesus recommends it because forgiveness is good for you. Not just for the person who needs to be forgiven, but for you. Forgiveness can enable you to regain your personal power, just as it did for Scarlett Lewis.

Many people are unforgiving

Unfortunately, many people fail to forgive. Jesus tells the story of a servant -- let's call him Bernie -- who owes his boss several million dollars. Since Bernie cannot come up with the cash, the boss orders him to be sold, along with his wife and children and possessions. Back in those days, it was legal for the boss to do something like that.

Well, Bernie throws himself to the ground and begs to be given more time to pay. Out of pity for him, the boss tells his henchmen to release him and he forgives his debt (vv. 23-27).

Happy ending, right? Not so fast.

As Bernie leaves the boss's house, he sees another servant who owes him a few dollars. He grabs the man -- let's call him George -- by the throat and says, "Pay what you owe."

George hits his knees and begs Bernie for more time to settle his debt. But Bernie refuses and throws George into prison until he can pay up. Although Bernie has been forgiven a debt of several million dollars, he cannot find it in his heart to go easy on George over a few denarii. Clearly, he needs forgiveness training (vv. 28-30).

When Bernie's fellow servants see what's happening, they're horrified. After they reported what they saw, the boss summons Bernie and asks him, "Should you not have had mercy on George as I had mercy on you?"

Gulp! Bernie knows that he is so busted. The boss then has little patience with him. And so God will do "to every one of you," promises Jesus, "if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart" (vv. 31-35).

You think your fitness coach is tough, standing over you and barking, "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven"? Jesus is tougher. Jesus demands that we forgive other people, based on the fact that we have all been forgiven. He insists that we make the choice to forgive, day after day, and turn it into a process that makes us stronger and stronger.

Forgiveness has benefits

Modern research is discovering that Jesus was right about the benefits of forgiveness. Dr. Robert Enright is a developmental psychologist in Wisconsin, and also a Christian who was raised on the teachings of Jesus about tolerance and forgiveness. But he wondered if forgiveness could be proven to help patients in a hospital or therapy clinic. So he designed ways to include forgiveness in therapy sessions, and he studied its effects.

Enright developed therapies for helping elderly women to forgive the people who had wronged them in the past. He also tried to help the victims of abuse and incest to understand the people who assaulted them, without justifying what the abusers had done. He created two groups -- one made up of women undergoing forgiveness therapy, and one made up of women receiving therapy for emotional wounds without a focus on forgiveness.

What did he find? The forgiveness therapy group showed greater improvement in emotional and psychological health than the group that did not focus on forgiveness. As Scarlett Lewis discovered after the Sandy Hook attack, forgiveness helps people to regain their personal power.

Similar work is being done by Dr. Frederic Luskin, a co-founder of the Stanford Forgiveness Project. Luskin is teaching forgiveness to a variety of groups around the world, including war-ravaged populations in Northern Ireland and Sierra Leone. He is discovering that anyone -- from betrayed spouses to terrorism victims -- can heal themselves through the practice of forgiveness.

Luskin offers a week of "forgiveness training," delivered in a group setting. In it, he leads discussions and exercises that are helpful to people like Bernie, the unforgiving servant in the parable of Jesus. Let's imagine that Bernie is able to attend this training, sitting down with a group of people to reflect on his relationship with his boss and fellow servants. At the start of the training, Luskin would challenge him to tell his "grievance story." He would let Bernie vent about George, who had caused problems for him by owing him money.

Then Luskin would say to him, "Bernie, why are you taking the debt of your fellow slave so personally? It's just a few dollars. Why are you seeing yourself as a victim?"

Bernie might reply, "But he owes me money. I need it."

"True," the doctor would say, "and there is nothing wrong with holding him accountable. Give him the time he needs to make things right. Remember that plenty of people fall into debt -- didn't you owe your boss several million dollars?"

Well, yes. But unfortunately, Bernie is blind to this truth about himself. How differently the parable would have ended if he had realized that he was both a debtor and a person who was owed money. If he had done so, he would not have seen himself as an isolated victim. Bernie would have realized that many people face similar offenses and disappointments. By seeing himself clearly, he could have let go of the pain and the blame, and found a way to forgive George who owed him a few dollars.

But he didn't. Because he failed to forgive, Bernie remained stuck in his stress. He threw George into debtor's prison and continued to feel miserable (v. 30).

This is true for us all. Our failure to forgive leaves us with a chemical reaction known as "the stress response." This is when "adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine enter the body," according to Luskin. "Those chemicals limit creativity, they limit problem-solving ... over time, they lead you to feel helpless and like a victim."

Make the choice

So, what is the solution? Jesus captures it well: "Forgive your brother or sister from your heart" (v. 35). Luskin says that when you forgive, you counteract the stress response along with its chemicals that make you feel like a helpless victim. "When you forgive," says the doctor, "you wipe all of that clean."

Jesus wants us to get stronger and healthier by making the decision to forgive, and then turning that choice into a process. He acts as our forgiveness trainer, challenging us to make that choice repeatedly until it becomes a part of who we are. Yes, forgiveness is difficult. Seeing ourselves as sinners who have received forgiveness from our loving Lord is also difficult. It is much easier to hold grudges than to feel compassion toward the people who have hurt us. But Jesus knows that forgiveness is good for us -- body, mind and spirit -- which is why he commands us to offer it to our brothers and sisters. Sometimes we need to be challenged to forgive, just as we need to be pushed by our trainers at the gym, rep after rep after rep.

We can wipe the slate clean by forgiving our brothers and sisters. That's a choice that lowers stress, increases personal power and heals the world as well.

Possible Preaching Themes:

+ Forgiveness and accountability

+ From divine pity to human mercy

+ Forgiving from the heart

Participation Pointers:

+ As you tell the story of the boss, Bernie and George, arrange with three people to mime the action you're describing off to the side.

+ Perhaps some members of the congregation could share their stories of forgiveness before, during or after the sermon.

+ Offer a prayer of forgiveness that people could pray, or perhaps, repeat after you silently.


Bettencourt, Megan Feldman. "The science of forgiveness: 'When you don't forgive you release all the chemicals of the stress response.'" Salon, August 23, 2015.

Lewis, Scarlett. "The forgiveness project." August 2, 2015.

Steele, Lauren. "Do you need a personal trainer?" Men's Journal Website,

"The state of the personal fitness industry." Academy of Applied Personal Training Education Website. July 27, 2012.

THE OTHER TEXTS: September 17, 2017, Cycle A

Exodus 14:19-31 

What Does the Text Say?

This is the well-known story of the crossing of the Red Sea. The "sea" is not identified in this chapter, but it's named in 13:18, where we learn that the Lord could have led the Israelites out of Egypt in a more direct fashion by taking them (via the pillar of fire and pillar of cloud) through "the land of the Philistines" (13:17). But God decides against this option, believing that, if the Israelites faced war with the Philistines, they'd cut their losses and hightail it back to Egypt (13:17). So God takes them on a "roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea" (13:18). The result: "Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses" (v. 31).

What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?

A Wall on the Left, a Wall on the Right. Walls are hot, itchy and touchy subjects these days with us Americans. No need to go into details. This is why the preacher will have the congregation's attention by mentioning it. Perhaps some will think the preacher's meddlin'. Others may think she's prophetic. Whatever, the preacher can review some of the most famous walls past and present. There's a wall around parts of Bethlehem today. There's been a wall along parts of the southern U.S. border for some time (The question is, "Should it be extended?"). There was the Berlin wall that was up for almost 30 years. There's the Great Wall of China. Remember that less than 500 years ago, most cities were built with a wall around them, including Jerusalem. And then there's the "wall … on their right and on their left" (v. 22). God created a wall, two walls actually. The Bible talks quite a bit about walls in both a negative and positive sense. An undisciplined ruler is like a city whose walls lie in ruins (Proverbs 25:28, et al.). And yet, the apostle Paul speaks of breaking down walls (Ephesians 2:14). The preaching point is to discuss the providence of God as shown in God's deliverance of the Hebrews in this text, and the extent to which God will build a wall around us to shelter and protect us from harm.

*Homiletics has treated this text twice. Go to Select Exodus in the Scripture Search drop-down menu and click GO.

Psalm 114 

What Does the Text Say?

This psalm, sometimes called The Egyptian Hallel, connects thematically with the OT reading about the crossing of the Red (or Reed) Sea. The Exodus text is the screenplay; the psalm text is the soundtrack. However, the song gives us a few insights we might have missed from the OT reading. For example, in verse 1 we learn that the Exodus marks the birth of a nation. "When Israel went out from Egypt ... Judah became God's sanctuary, Israel his dominion" (vv. 1-2). In verses 3 and 4, the song reviews the facts: The "sea looked back and fled, Jordan turned back. The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs." In verses 5 and 6, the lyrics are repeated, but in the form of a question: "Why is it, O sea, that you flee?" These verses review more than the Red Sea crossing, but also the wilderness experience itself, and the crossing of the Jordan. The short, lyrical answer to the question posed in verses 5 and 6 is that it is the "God of Jacob" who "turns the rock into a pool or water, the flint into a spring of water."

What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?

Where's Your Soundtrack? The title refers to a line in the commentary above: "The Exodus text is the screenplay; the psalm text is the soundtrack." This sermon is about whether we have a song to sing. The answer is that we probably do. But what kind of song is it? A lament? A dirge? A country-western ballad of failed relationships and lost love? If we were to compose a song today, what would it be like? The song would reflect our current experiences with each other and with God. Would it be a thankful song with a lilting melody? Would it be slow and reflective? Would it be upbeat, syncopated and jazzy? To answer these questions, we must discuss the screenplay of our lives. Perhaps it is in need of a rewrite.

Romans 14:1-12  

What Does the Text Say?

Our passage is part of a longer section comprised of 12:1-15:13, where Paul addresses everyday life in the church. "We who are strong" (15:1) -- oi dunatoi, those who are capable, competent and powerful -- are to "welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions" (v. 1). Who are "the weak"? Paul describes the weak initially as "weak in faith" (v. 1). The verb asqenew and associated adjective asqenhV (from which we indirectly get the medical term "asthenia") have the essential meaning of experiencing weakness, sickness or illness. There is some debilitation, incapacity or limitation involved. "Weak in faith" has the added meaning of weakness caused by excessive fear or caution in determining correct courses of action; it can have the connotation of being overly scrupulous. One is faint-hearted or timid when faced with issues of what might be right or wrong for a Christian to do. Paul writes from the position of the "strong" (15:1; 14:14, 20b). While he addresses people of both camps, requesting mutuality of toleration and respect, most of what he has to say in 14:1-15:7 appears to be to those who are "the strong." In verses 2-6, Paul gives two examples of the types of issues the church is wrangling over: (1) What is permissible for followers of Jesus to eat and drink? (2) Is a Christian obligated to set aside certain days for special observances? "The weak" chose to avoid eating meat or drinking wine (vv. 2, 21). They ate only vegetables. The second issue is expressed in verse 5a: "Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike." As in so many other areas of Paul's "practical theology," Paul prefers to avoid taking sides when he can; he tries to find a middle way, to bring about as much harmony as possible within the community (v. 7), so people will not get distracted from matters of greater importance (v. 17) in honoring God and loving people.

What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?

The Art of Compromise. To compromise is not to surrender one's principles. Instead, it is to discover a middle way in an atmosphere of mutual respect that yields a solution with which both parties to a dispute can be happy. In the community of faith, there's no place for a "my way or the highway" attitude. A popular suggestion is, "In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things charity." Yet, it is often hard to agree as to the identity of the essentials and nonessentials. And isn't it true that many, if not most, congregations lean so far one way or the other on the current issues of the day that those who are not leaning the same way would not feel the love? Do we have a hard time with the "in all things charity" part of this adage? The preacher's task is to remind the congregation of the importance of staying true to the church's mission, embodied, perhaps, in the congregation's mission statement.

*Homiletics has treated this text three times. Go to Select Romans in the Scripture Search drop-down menu and click GO.

Worship Resources

Music Links


Forgive Our Sins As We Forgive

O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing

Just As I Am, Without One Plea


I Could Sing of Your Love Forever

Amazing Love

You Are My King

†For licensing and permission to reprint or display these songs on screen, go to The Praise songs suggested by Homiletics can be found in most cases on Google by using the title as the search term.

Other titles on these topics
(you must be logged in to view them)


  • Speak Up for Forgiveness
  • The Unforgiven
  • Stone Testaments
  • The Perfect Time to Lose Your Luggage
  • Much Love
  • Saving Colonel Kappler
  • Forget Forgiveness
  • Fugitive Fools
  • Restorative Justice
  • Exposure to Venom
  • The Kukuse Problem
  • Snake On a Stake
  • Cleaning House
  • Together Again
  • Accident Forgiveness
  • The Macbeth Effect
  • Dirty Jobs
  • Self-cleaning Clothes
  • Pardons Unlimited
  • Forgiveness Fitness


  • God's Measuring Stick
  • Saving Colonel Kappler
  • Dirty Jobs
  • Mercy and Graced to Life!
  • Forgiveness Fitness


on Matthew 18:21-35

from Sep 17, 2017

Any study of the parables within the synoptic gospels must now grapple with questions regarding the degree to which the evangelists may have altered their original focus by the narrative contexts into which the parables are placed within the particular gospels. Certainly some of those tensions are evident in this lectionary text. To illustrate the point to Peter that no restraints should be set on... Read more (you must be logged in to read the commentary)

Animating Illustrations

Neither a borrower not a lender be
For loan oft loses both itself and friend
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

--Polonius to Laertes in Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Too often we think forgiveness is important, even critical, because of how it affects the person being forgiven.

No, it is not important for only that reason.

Forgiveness is important because it primarily benefits the one offering the forgiveness. Forgiveness only benefits the one being forgiven IF that person is repentant, wants to reconcile, is willing to provide restitution and, has asked for absolution.

Otherwise, forgiveness is about YOU. ... Henry Ward Beecher said in his Life Thoughts that being able to forgive but not forget is just another way of saying "I cannot forgive." Beecher is wrong.

Forgiveness is not saying "Forget it."

Forgiveness is not saying "I forget."

Forgiveness is not saying "It's okay."

Rather, forgiveness is saying ''I'm okay, and I am willing to let God deal with whether you are okay, and I am also willing to let go of my need to be the tool of correction and rebuke in your life." ...

Forgiveness is not saying "I no longer feel the pain." Rather, forgiveness is saying "I no longer feel the need to hold on to your involvement in my pain."

--Timothy Merrill, Learning to Fall: A Guide for the Spiritually Clumsy, 106ff. Kindle loc. 2246ff.

When Chris Carrier was 10 years old, he was abducted near his Florida home, taken into the swamps, stabbed repeatedly in the chest and abdomen with an ice pick, and then shot through the temple with a handgun. Remarkably, hours after being shot, he awoke with a headache, unable to see out of one eye. He stumbled to the highway and stopped a car, which took him to the hospital.

Years later, a police officer told Chris that the man suspected of his abduction lay close to death. "Confront him," suggested the officer. Chris did more than that. He comforted his attacker during the man's final weeks of life and ultimately forgave him, bringing peace to them both. ...

Chris Carrier's story isn't an anomaly. Forgiveness isn't just practiced by saints or martyrs, nor does it benefit only its recipients. Instead, studies are finding connections between forgiveness and physical, mental and spiritual health and evidence that it plays a key role in the health of families, communities and nations.

--Everett L. Worthington Jr., "The new science of forgiveness," Greater Good, September 1, 2004,

The day Anthony Colon heard his older brother had been gunned down in East Harlem, he began struggling with a rage that would last for years. The anger wore him down. He missed him desperately. He hated the three men who had fired 13 bullets into his brother who was unarmed.

"Oh, God, it just -- it just put so much hate in my life. I hated everybody. I hated everything. It made me to be a person, like a monster," said Colon, who considered his brother Wilfredo his only stable family. "I loved him because he always stood up for me from a little kid. He would not even allow me to fight. He would stand up for me, whatever happened, because he always saw that goodness in me."

But as the years passed the fog of anger began to lift. He married. Had two children. He welcomed religion into his life. And, he was overwhelmed by a desire to find reconciliation with his brother's killer. "I just wanted it to be okay," he said.

Then one summer day, a chance encounter while visiting a friend at the Eastern Correctional Facility in Ulster County, New York, changed his life. He looked across the room and saw Michael Rowe, one of the men who had murdered his brother. Rowe saw him too and tried to duck down. "I was expecting that we would be you know, it would be a fight, some type of physical violent altercation," said Rowe. Rowe recalls feeling remorse and shame, unable to forgive himself for murdering another young man -- and afraid of retaliation.

Colon walked straight up to him and said: "Brother, I've been praying for you. I forgave you. I've been praying I would see you again." The meeting would transform both men's lives.

--Rose Arce, "From anger to forgiveness: Man befriends brother's killer," CNN, April 13, 2013.

A personal trainer has the following skills:

Knowledge of human anatomy and the concepts of functional exercise, basic nutrition and basic exercise science

Designing individual and group exercise programs tailored to the needs and attainable goals of specific clients

Conducting and understanding the need and importance of screening and client assessment, initially and progressively

Executing individual fitness program design in a safe and effective way

The desire to help clients reach their health and fitness goals through appropriate cardiovascular, flexibility and resistance exercise

Motivating others to improve their overall fitness and health

A dedication to maintaining personal integrity and your own health and fitness

--"The role of a personal trainer," National Federation of Professional Trainers Website. Retrieved March 27, 2017.

Children's Sermon

Place a soccer ball on the floor, and ask the children if any of them play the game. Have them describe how the game is played, and what it takes to kick the ball down the field and score a goal. Ask if any one player can win a game all by himself or herself. Of course not. Teamwork is needed, including passing the ball from person to person. Tell them that Jesus told a story about a boss and his employees or workers. Explain that one worker owed his boss a lot of money -- like, thousands of dollars -- and the boss "forgave him the debt" (v. 27). Roll the ball toward one of the children and say that the boss passed him the forgiveness ball. Continue by saying that the worker left his boss's house and ran into a friend who owed him a small amount of money, say $5. Ask the children if they think the first worker passed the forgiveness ball to his friend. Tell them, "No, the first worker grabbed his friend and said, 'Pay what you owe!'" (v. 28). Ask what the children think about this. Ask if the worker should have passed the forgiveness ball to his friend, just as the boss passed the forgiveness ball to him. Ask the child to roll the ball to another person.