Year A Matt 18:21-35. 9/17/23
Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our readings today center around the idea of forgiveness; what it is and how much we’re called to forgive, what forgiveness can look like? And what does it matter?
Forgiveness is such a difficult topic because there are so many layers to it. And yet it’s all around us--it’s in songs on the radio, it’s what happens in our lives in big and small ways, and it’s often a sore subject when it’s too painful for us to forgive. In our society, in the media and in our own lives we’re often acutely aware of failings to forgive.
We can probably think of times we’ve had a hard time forgiving. Likewise, we can think of times we have been forgiven from the heart and how it has made all the difference in our lives.
Last week Jesus gave his disciples guidance surrounding conflict resolution. He laid out basic steps for attempting to hold relationships together. Peter approaches Jesus directly after this conversation with a question: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Peter’s thinking, that’s a lot, right?
Peter truly thinks he’s giving Jesus an outlandish number. I am tempted to think of Peter as naive and bumbling–but as the rock of the church, as the right hand man of Jesus, think about what he’s faced with. He’s charged to lead the disciples, to establish the church.
In that role, he needs to know the parameters of what’s acceptable in God’s eyes.
He has to understand how to hold the flock together.
How much are we supposed to weather together? At what point do we throw in the towel, hold a grudge or more? Where is the space for justice and accountability?
I tend to lose patience maybe after one or two moments of being proverbially pinched by someone else. Think about this for a second; is there someone in your life that has wronged you and you’ve forgiven them more than 3 times? We’re so used to the three strike rule. Or the fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me--there’s not even a third line in that saying!
We’re conditioned to believe there are basic limits to forgiveness, because we’ve only ever experienced the human capacity for forgiveness, not necessarily the divine. We don’t know the heart of God and how deep the waters run. We can’t fully comprehend our Lord who is ‘slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love’ as our Psalmist sings today. (If we’re ever in doubt of God’s mercies, Psalm 103 can help steer us back to the keeper of our souls.)
One thing I found interesting in my research for today is that Peter did not pull the number 7 out of thin air. It’s possible he’s drawing on an ancient understanding of retribution that stems all the way back to Cain, of Cain and Abel. Early on in Genesis, out of anger and jealousy, Cain killed his brother Abel. God banished Cain from his home but also gave him a mark of protection; anyone who harmed Cain would be punished sevenfold.
Later in Genesis, the great great grandson of Cain, a man named Lamech– killed someone who had wounded him. Lamech self declared that anyone else who harmed him would be punished seventy seven fold. Jesus reverses this narrative of vengeance from Lamech and Cain when he says, we are to forgive not simply seven times but seventy seven times.
Jesus wants us to forgive over and over, continuously; he says, stop counting. Jesus takes the legacy of retribution, and replaces it with one of grace and mercy.
Peter and all of us can draw on another ancient story to reinforce the benefits of forgiveness. In our first reading today, we hear about the reunion between Joseph and his brothers. Long after Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, after some major ups and downs, Joseph rose in the ranks to the right hand man of Pharaoh.
The famine in the land drives Joseph’s brothers to seek food from the royals and they meet after many years apart. This is where we come in today. Joseph is in a position to punish his brothers sevenfold or seventy seven fold; an eye for an eye style.
-But he chooses forgiveness. He breaks down and falls to his knees sobbing and his brothers do too. They know what they deserve but Joseph chooses a different path.
He restores the relationship to the point of promising to care for his brothers, their families and their little ones.
He chooses to break the cycle of generational violence.
He chooses love over loss.
He says, though you meant me harm, God meant it for good. This is what we’re called to do today. God is a God who forgives completely and we as the body of Christ are called to do the same.
In the gospel, Jesus asks Peter to dig deep, to learn the ways of the Lord through practicing forgiveness over and over and over. Though so much of our lessons of love and mercy need to be learned alongside the teacher named justice too.
Forgiveness does not necessarily mean we go right back to a relationship, especially one that is abusive or hurtful. Sometimes we forgive in order to let go, to cut the ties that bind us to pain, to lay down our burdens. Forgiveness in those times is more to gain back the power the hurt has over us; to reclaim the energy and life lost from holding onto bitterness.
It is tempting to look at the concept of forgiveness only from a personal lens, but we all live in community with one another. Even if we feel like we’re on our own, what one does affects the others because we are connected as the body of Christ. As Paul says in our Romans reading, “we do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.”
So I am drawn to the eyes of the observers in Jesus’ beautiful and then quickly disturbing parable. Theologian Ken Bailey reminds us to think of parables as rooms we enter into, sit down and contemplate. I think of how it feels to go to an art gallery; to sit down on a bench and ponder a painting. Not everything is to be seen as this equals that.
The piece we’re meant to notice about the parable today is how lavishly the king offers grace and mercy to his servant after a simple plea for more time. The servant owes a ridiculous amount of money to the king–10,000 talents, something like a gazillion dollars in our day. He would have to work his entire lifetime and then some to pay it off.
He would never be able to repay it even if he tried. His plea for more time may be genuine or it may be a ploy to kick the can down the road for his life sentence. And he has a lot on the line: not only his own life and freedom, but his wife and children’s too, also everything he owns. I don’t think he ever expected the king to forgive his debt entirely.
The fact that the first servant completely misses the point of his own forgiveness and does not hear his own exact words echoed back to him in the second servant’s plea: “ Have patience with me, and I will pay you,”--this is also striking. Being a living example of the kings’ compassionate mercy should rightly compel the servant to spill grace out of his pockets for the rest of his life. Instead, he chooses violence and retribution, when forgiveness is called for.
The other servants were distressed because they saw the judgment and hypocrisy held over someone else; they understood that grace should grow more grace, not that grace is some sort of entitlement. The body of Christ cried out for justice, for accountability, for fairness. As if they quote the Lord’s prayer to us from Matthew, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” they blow the whistle on the first servant so that this kind of thing never happens again.
What do we do as a people when something happens to one of our own and that conflict shakes the community? As children on the playground practice pushing each other down and pulling each other up, we continue to practice confessing and forgiving each other in community.
Forgiveness is central to our life of faith together. We practice forgiving ourselves and others and receiving forgiveness from God. Every week we confess our sins, the places we’ve fallen short, known or unknown, in our corporate confession–and we’re forgiven, every single time. God sees us trying, sees us striving, and continues to offer forgiveness even before we know we need it.
So, if we look at forgiveness as an ongoing process, a thread in the fabric of life together as a church, there can be no limit to forgiveness. It’s a continual, constant thing we do as Christians. God has a different response than what the system says too: even on the cross, Jesus asked God to forgive his executioners: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
In the parable at the end there’s a concerning bit about our heavenly father torturing us until we pay our debts. This is disturbing if we envision God with a pitchfork poking us and turning out our pockets. But really, isn’t there some truth to the fact that we torture ourselves when we aren’t able to forgive?
When we hold grudges and clench our fists and refuse to let go, we are giving someone else our energy, our time, our mental space and we’re more attached than if we could open our hands and give it over to God? Forgiveness is usually gradual and often painful just by its very nature. It scrapes away our hard exterior and makes us look in the mirror and in one another’s eyes.
It makes us vulnerable…but it’s also freeing. And yet, nothing about forgiveness is easy. But Jesus doesn’t ask us to take the easy road and he doesn’t take the pain and suffering from our conflicts away from us; he asks us to forgive seventy seven times.
If another member of the church sins against us how often are we to forgive? As much as possible.
Our answer is always forgiveness.
Because God forgave us first, we can imagine forgiving others--and imagining it means we can practice it.
And practicing it means we can learn to live it.