“So shines a good deed in a weary world.”
This is my favorite Willie Wonka movie quote, from the 1971 version with Gene Wilder, not the newer version with Johnny Depp. Sorry to any Johnny Depp fans out there, but he just can’t hold a candle to Gene Wilder’s version.This line happens at the very end of the movie, after a little kid named Charlie Bucket from a desperately poor family loses a contest to own Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory on a technicality, and gets yelled at good by Wonka to boot.
On his way out of the factory, Charlie gives up his one last chance to save his family. In his hand is the Everlasting Gobstopper, one of Wonka’s new secret formula candies. Charlie could easily sell that candy to Wonka’s rival and ruin his business. But Charlie doesn’t do it. Even though he’s been treated badly, Charlie refuses to take revenge – he sets the gobstopper on Wonka’s desk and walks away, forgiving the anger and the injustice of the technicality. Wonka picks up the candy and says in a quietly moving voice – like only Gene Wilder could pull off – “So shines a good deed in a weary world.”
– Interesting side note, that quote is actually a line from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice about one lone candle burning in a dark hallway: “How far that little candle throws his beams. So shines a good deed in a weary world.”
In this long season of Pentecost following the birthday of the Church, we move today into Jesus’ teaching on Christian forgiveness. This is the last in the series of teachings to the disciples at Capernaum that make up a kind of employee manual for the kingdom, on the life and relationships within faith communities, and how Jesus expects those who follow him to behave toward each other. Last week, we talked about the community guidelines for handling sinful behavior between Christians, and the power God gives to the Body of Christ to make those decisions when we gather in his name. We follow that up today with Peter, coming to Jesus with a challenging question about sinful behavior and forgiveness, “Lord, how often should I forgive another member who sins against me? As many as seven times?” Jesus answers, “77 times,” or as some ancient manuscripts say, “70 times 7.” Either way, whether it’s 77 times or 490 times, it’s a crazy number that realistically would never happen – Jesus is making a point by using this ridiculous number to say that our forgiveness should have no limit. There is no end to God’s forgiveness, and so there should be no end to ours.
Last week, we heard a very structured and tightly numbered process on church discipline and accountability in community. But our call to forgive each other has no limitations. The same Church empowered with accountability has its power checked and balanced with a requirement to offer forgiveness – a reminder that the love of God guides every single part of a faith community’s life. The love of God guides even our struggles with one another.
Jesus underlines the importance of this requirement to forgive in telling his disciples the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. A king forgives his servant a ridiculously large debt, 10,000 talents. 10,000 was the largest Greek number, and a talent was the largest currency unit. That ridiculous amount of debt was something the servant couldn’t pay back even after working thousands of years. This servant who was forgiven a massive amount of debt fails to show any mercy to a fellow servant who owes him a comparatively tiny amount – 100 denarii, or about 100 days wages, and throws his fellow servant into jail. The king hears of it, and throws the unforgiving servant into jail. This is the same thing, Jesus says to the disciples, that my heavenly father will do to you if you do not forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.
Evidently, forgiveness is pretty serious stuff. Jesus makes a couple of things clear here: as sinners redeemed by God, we have been forgiven a debt that is bigger than we could ever hope to repay; so God expects us to be forgiving to others, and to really mean it, and if we don’t, he will hold us accountable. This is evident in the prayer of all the faithful that we say every Sunday, and in the Daily Office every day, the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…” Matthew’s version of the Lord’s prayer in the Sermon on the Mount explains it in a little more detail, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Forgiveness is pretty serious stuff. How many of you want to be forgiven by God – show of hands? Yeah, that’s pretty much everybody. We know that we do, but HOW do we about forgiving each other, especially when someone has never apologized for their behavior, or who has done something really terrible to us? Maybe that person’s not even alive anymore.
We are called simply to forgive. But forgiveness is not simple. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean pretending like what they did didn’t happen. In fact, it’s the opposite of that – forgiving someone means being honest about what has happened, then choosing to let go of the power that someone’s else’s sin has over you, by letting go of your anger and the desire for revenge. This can take time, prayer, and if the hurt is traumatic enough, we may need the help of a professional to guide us toward healing.
We are called by God both to forgive and to enact justice in the world. But forgiveness and letting go does not mean giving up justice. Jesus was very clear on the dangers of an unforgiving heart, but he was also clear about consequences for those who deliberately endanger the faith of vulnerable Christians, and those who continue to willfully sin against others in the Body of Christ.
We are empowered by God’s forgiveness. Because he forgave us first, our ability to forgive is therefore not dependent on the other person. We don’t have to wait for them to apologize. If they do it’s definitely nicer for us, and good for their soul if they do – as Jesus said, if they respond to accountability, then we have regained the one back into our faith community – but whether they are ever sorry or not does not matter to our call to forgive them. They don’t even have to be alive for us to forgive them. Forgiveness is a choice that is completely dependent on us discovering our own freedom in being a servant of God’s grace to others. When we make the choice to forgive, we are empowered by the healing grace of God at work in us.
Forgiveness is a spiritual practice, and like all spiritual practices, it takes time and regular work to get good at it. If you’ve been through something really difficult, and you don’t feel comfortable facing forgiveness in that right now, start by practicing forgiveness in smaller things. As you strengthen your forgiveness practice, you can begin to work on forgiving the big stuff. Don’t worry, God will make the journey with you. It is your willingness to have a forgiving heart he is looking for, not how perfect you can be at forgiving.
Charlie Bucket discovered that while he may have lost the contest, he ended up winning the chocolate factory and saving his family. Because he was able to let go of the way the world expected him to react, instead holding on to a commitment to doing what was right, he ended up getting everything he needed. Each time we let go and embrace the choice to forgive, we receive the grace of God that we need, and a sin-weary world sees a little more of the shining light of Christ.