Rev. Stu Smith at CCU in Anaheim, CA. 3/14/21
The title of my talk this morning is ‘Off the Hook.’ I’m sure that’s an expression we’re all familiar with. But in my preparations, I recognized that there are multiple uses of that phrase.
One meaning of ‘off the hook’ is a dated reference to leaving the phone earpiece off of its hook, so that nobody could call you. So, ‘off the hook’ was a one-time descriptor for someone who sought privacy. Today, we might say ‘off the grid’.
The current meaning of ‘off the hook’, according to the Urban Dictionary, is ‘wild’ and ‘over the top’. ‘That party last night was off the hook!’ I have no idea what type of hook they’re talking about or how being off if it makes a party wild. But there it is.
The type of ‘off the hook’ I want to talk about this morning comes from fishing. It means to release someone from an obligation or expectation, the way a fisherman might release a fish from his line.
This being a fishing reference, it’s appropriate that I refer to this Gospel story about Jesus and Peter, his first disciple and a fisherman. I believe most of us are familiar with this exchange. But as I reread it this time, it occurred to me how Peter’s question to Jesus seems to have come out of left field.
One day Jesus was teaching about the preciousness and righteousness of little children. He then talked about how each of us is precious to God, and shared the parable of the lost sheep. Then, he went on to talk about how to encourage those who have strayed back into the fold.
Then this happens. “…Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive some one who sins against me? Seven times?”
I never really thought about it before, but that’s startlingly abrupt and oddly specific. Seven times. I have to guess that, as my friend Jerry Malugeon would say, somebody just ‘scrambled his eggs’ for the eighth time. Had forgiven Andrew seven times for borrowing his sandals without asking. He was fed up, and he must have thought that Jesus would back him up. “Seven times? That’s more than plenty. Go kick his ass, Peter!”
Of course, Jesus answered, “No, not seven times, but seventy times seven!”
And then, Jesus shares the parable of the debtor.
“Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.
“But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.
“But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.
“His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.
“When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.
“That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”
The message of the parable is clear. Forgive others if you want to be forgiven.
In another place, Jesus says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
Now, these verses only work for those who recognize that they require forgiveness. For anyone who doesn’t feel that they’ve ever missed the mark, there is no interest in assuring that forgiveness is available.
The traditional Church has a history of using guilt to keep its followers in line. It has provided the message that we’re all worms of the dust, born sinners, wretched and unworthy. I’m not suggesting we embrace that toxic viewpoint.
At the same time, sometimes the pendulum swings the other way in New Thought. We focus sole-y on our Spiritual nature and ignore our physical selves. We lose sight of the fact that, as physical beings, we sometimes screw up. We act in selfish and short-sighted ways that hurt others.
When our actions are guided by Spirit, we foster hope, comfort and healing. Unfortunately, we’re not always guided by Spirit.
At the end of the Parable of the Debtor, Jesus says,
‘Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt. That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.’
From a traditional Judeo-Christian viewpoint, that means that when you go to heaven and face the final judgement, Jehovah is going to withhold forgiveness due to your refusal to forgive others, and send you to hell.
But what does it mean in the context of the God of your understanding? Replace Jehovah with the God of your understanding, and what does the parable mean?
If you believe that the Spirit of God is within you—if you believe that you are an heir to the Kingdom and that the divine spark of Source burns in your heart space—it means that you will withhold forgiveness to yourself until you show it to others. It means that you are going to weigh your actions by the same scales that you use to weight the actions of others. And so long as you find others guilty, you’re going to continue to find yourself guilty.
In the scripture when Jesus admonished his disciples not to judge others, he continued the thought in a sort of comical way:
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
Jesus was making it clear that we’re all in need of forgiveness. And if we want to be let off the hook, we need to let others off the hook.
Now, all of that is for those of us who recognize that we’ve fallen short of the mark. And to be clear, we each get to set that mark for ourselves. The key is living up to our own standards of integrity, not someone else’s. So, if you have ever fallen short of your own standards of integrity, you need to find forgiveness for others before you’ll ever really find it for yourself.
In actuality, forgiveness builds on itself. The more we forgive others, the more we’re able to forgive ourselves, and the more we forgive ourselves the more we’re able to forgive others. And we get better and better at forgiving.
But, even if we don’t buy into the idea that we, too, need to be forgiven, it still behooves us to let others off the hook. What happens too often, though, is that we keep people on the hook.
Most people have a variety of people on the hook, different categories.
There are the standouts—those people who have committed some huge offensive act against us. This category includes the parent who failed to nurture and protect us; it includes the unfaithful spouse; it includes the trusted friend who betrayed our confidence. If you’re like me, there are people who have hurt you deeply whom you still struggle to let off the hook.
Aside from those standouts, there are the people we keep on the hook in little ways. I recently talked about having to return to Carl’s Jr. because they left a burger out of my bag. When I returned, I asked if they’d like to compensate me for my trouble. I did that based on the fact that I believe making restitution for our mistakes is an important principle. I really do believe that. But I don’t think it does me any good to try to hold others to that standard. That’s not my job. That’s another way of me trying to keep someone else on the hook.
Giving me free cookies was my condition for letting them off the hook. It’s the same as demanding an apology. “I’m not going to forgive them because they never apologized!” I’m going to say this for the 188th time, because it seems we need to be reminded often: “Forgiveness is about the forgiver, not the forgiven.” Putting conditions on our forgiveness makes no sense at all.
We don’t let people off the hook because they deserve it. We let people off the hook because we deserve it. We deserve not to have to carry around all of that baggage. It’s all about us, not them.
Another category of people I need to let off the hook is celebrities who have violated my standards of integrity. I’m sure none of them are losing any sleep over it, but I haven’t forgotten.
You’re all familiar with the water shortages we face in California. Several years ago, Tom Selleck got in some trouble when the foreman of his avocado farm was caught stealing water. I studied the environment in college, so water is an issue for me. Whenever I see him on those reverse mortgage commercials and he says, ‘trust me’, I think about that.
Another one is Justin Beiber. There was a video released in 2013 of Bieber peeing into a mop bucket in the back of a restaurant in New York. That’s obviously not okay. But if that was someone I knew personally, I probably would have let them off the hook by now.
But my biggest celebrity grudge is with Arianna Grande. In 2015, she was caught licking donuts in a shop in Lake Elsinore. That one really sticks in my craw because it has to do with food. Whenever her name has come up in the past few years, I’ve referred to her as ‘Donut Licker’.
As I said, none of them care that I haven’t let them off the hook, or for that matter, even know that they have been on the hook. I’m not doing them any favors by releasing them. I’m doing me a favor.
I just don’t want to carry all of that around anymore. There’s just no benefit to resentment.
Years ago, when I used to iron my own shirts, I realized that it’s not the one or two creases that make a shirt look bad. It’s all of the countless tiny little wrinkles.
Forgiveness is the same way. It’s natural to direct our attention toward those big offenses that we’ve suffered and direct our focus there. But we also need to pay attention the subtle ways that we keep people on the hook.
When we’re driving in traffic and someone cuts us off accidentally, we don’t need to express our disapproval. When someone forgets something we just told them, we don’t need to roll our eyes or click our tongue at them. When someone inconveniences us in some way, we can just let it go. We don’t have to hold them accountable, however noble that may seem at the time. I rarely feel better anymore after I’ve held someone accountable.
And the reason we want to let people off the hook is entirely selfish. We have enough work to do living up to our own standards of integrity. The last thing we need to do is try to hold someone else up to theirs…or worse yet, ours.
Let me close with this. Letting others off the hook is letting ourselves off the hook in more ways than one.
First of all, by forgiving others of their shortcomings, we get better at forgiving ourselves. It’s a snowball effect. The sins we notice in other people are often the same sins we notice in ourselves, and vice versa. Forgiveness begets forgiveness.
Secondly, holding others to account is a full-time job. It’s exhausting. By letting go of our harsh judgements, we free ourselves up to fully express our higher nature. We can stop wasting our energy trying to keep others in line.
Let everybody off the hook. Whoever you’ve still got on your line, let them go. The big fish and the little ones, too—let them all go. The more fully you can clear your hook, the happier you’ll be.