Sunday, September 14, 2014 – Sermon on Matthew 18:21-35

Matthew 18:21-35

21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Last week, we learned about Jesus’ conflict resolution strategy. How to deal with conflict in the church. And why deal with conflict? Not because it is good advice (which it is), but because God wants our community to be whole. God desires our relationships to be healed, rather than broken. God hopes for us to live full lives – and that can’t be done when we are holding onto the hurts of our pasts. As part of that sermon last week, many of us were introduced to Susan and Rebecca. Briefly, Susan and Rebecca are members of the same church, but they haven’t spoken to each other in 8 years. All because one day, Rebecca said a rude and nasty comment to Susan. As the story goes, Rebecca was making biscuits from a box for the council meeting one morning, when Susan comes in with three trays of her hot, homemade cinnamon buns. And in response, Rebecca says to Susan, “Do you always have to take over wherever you go?” And that was that. The end of their relationship for 8 years.

Perhaps you thought last week that you heard the end of Susan and Rebecca’s story. Too often, nothing happens in situations like this. And it can last a lifetime. I know of siblings who haven’t spoken for 20 years, but neither of them can remember what they are so mad about. Too often nothing changes. But not in Susan and Rebecca’s case. Their story changed when a new pastor came to the church and heard about this ongoing conflict. The pastor brought them together and asked them to retell their experience of that day. Susan told her story, which we heard last week. But then Rebecca told her side. She said, “I got up especially early that Saturday morning to bake. I wanted to bake some peanut butter biscuits for the meeting. And I put three trays into the oven. And then I got a call and I lost track of time and all the biscuits burned. And I was so angry. And so when I saw Susan with three trays of perfectly brown, hot cinnamon buns, my anger got the better of me. And I spoke those harsh words before I even knew it.”[1]

Jesus’s first step in conflict resolution is to go to the other person face-to-face. Because we learn things when we talk. When we communicate. Which is exactly what Susan and Rebecca never did! For 8 years. And look what Susan learned when they finally did come face-to-face…she learned that Rebecca was a hurting person when she said those hurtful words. Susan learned that it wasn’t Rebecca who spewed such harsh words… it was Rebecca’s pain. Is it an excuse? Of course not, but knowing the rest of the story allowed Susan to come to a place of forgiveness.

What do you think? If you were Susan, do you think you could forgive Rebecca for saying something hurtful like that to you?

Well conveniently enough, forgiveness is the next place that Jesus goes. So Jesus tells his disciples about how to manage conflict when it comes up, but then the issue of forgiveness arises. Peter wants to know from Jesus how many times he must forgive another person. He wants to get to the bottom line – the numbers game. If someone keeps sinning against me, how many times do I have to forgive them before I can just say, “To heck with you.” Seven? Which is kind of a lot of times, right? It is one thing to give someone a second, or maybe a third chance. But seven? That’s pretty generous.

But Jesus, like he does, raises the bar even higher. A lot higher in fact. “Not seven times, Peter” says Jesus, “But seventy-seven times.” Or some translations say seventy times seven, meaning 490 times. Either way, the numbers don’t matter because Jesus isn’t saying, “Yes, give them 77 chances, but then on the 78th cut them off.” Really what Jesus is saying is that you should not be keeping track at all….otherwise it’s not really forgiveness, is it? The point Jesus is making is that “calculating limits on forgiveness is out of bounds.”[2]

To drive home his point, Jesus does what he does best. He tells them a story. A parable, really. A parable filled with such exaggeration that it is almost laughable. The parable is about a king who has decided it is time to settle his outstanding accounts. The king comes across one of his servants who owes 10,000 talents. Now a talent was equal to about 15 years of daily wages – and he owed 10,000 of those. Which adds up to 150,000 years worth of daily wages. Or based on our average household income here in America, the slave owed $7.5 billion dollars to the king. Which is utterly ridiculous – an amount no one could ever pay off, let alone a slave. Realizing this, the king decides to cut his losses and sell the slave and his family. At least he could get something from them, instead of nothing.

The next ridiculous thing to happen is how the slave responds. He drops to his knees and pleads with the king saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ Right. Sure, you will. All $7.5 billion of it.

But then the most laughable thing of all happens – the king forgives his entire debt. All of it. The slave is now no longer a slave – free of all debts.

But now the story shifts. The debt-free slave leaves and comes across another slave who owes him money. How much? 100 denarii or about $15,000. And suddenly the forgiven slave has an opportunity to repay the favor. To pay it forward as we would say. But he doesn’t.

“Pay what you owe!” the freed slave says, seeming to forget what had just happened to him. The second slave pleads for patience. In fact, he says the same words the first slave said to the king – “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But there was no mercy. And the first slave throws the second slave into prison. If my math holds, that’s like someone forgiving you 1,000,000 debt, and then you not forgiving someone their $2 debt.

Well, soon enough, the king finds out what happened. The king calls back that freed slave and says, “”You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” And then he sent the slave off to be tortured until he could repay his debt. All $7.5 billion of it.

And we are tempted to respond with – Good! That ungrateful jerk deserves it. But then Jesus turns it around on us[3] and concludes with this little gem – “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

A couple of weeks ago, journalist James Foley was killed in Iraq by ISIS soldiers and the horrific event was put on display all over youtube. When James Foley’s parents were ask if they could forgive the terrorists, they said, “Not today…but as Christians we have to.”[4]

So, what do you think? Do we as Christians have to forgive? Can you do that? Can you forgive your brother or your sister an unlimited number of times from your heart as Jesus commands?

Forgiveness is this slippery thing that I have been wrestling with all week. And it begs the question – what does it mean to forgive?

Does forgiveness mean forgetting? Forgive and forget, they say. But sometimes we shouldn’t forget the things that have happened to us.

Okay, forgive but don’t forget. You’ll hear people say that sometimes, “I can forgive what you did, but I will never forget it.” Which, I don’t know about you, never really sounds like forgiveness. It sounds like that person, like Peter, is still in the counting game. Strike one, buddy. You got 76 left. Watch out.

Does forgiveness mean letting someone off the hook? As if there are no consequences to our behavior? If you live in an abusive relationship, does forgiveness mean forgetting the abuse and continuing to stay? I’m not so sure that’s forgiveness. Forgiveness is not letting people walk all over you. It isn’t tolerating wrongdoing or injustice.

Or is forgiveness for your own benefit? Do you forgive so that you can let it go and not be haunted by it the rest of your life? Nelson Mandela was put in jail for 27 years for his role in trying to end the racial segregation in South Africa. Painted on a wall in the Owatonna Junior High is a quote from Nelson Mandela – “If I didn’t forgive them, I would still be their prisoner.” Maybe forgiveness is about freeing yourself from what has happened.

I’ll be honest. I’m still not entirely sure I know exactly what forgiveness is. Maybe it is sort of like – you know it when you see it. Or better said, you know it when you receive it.

Have you ever had to ask forgiveness? Not spitefully, like, Geez, will you just forgive me? But honestly – like, I’m really sorry and I need your forgiveness. It’s hard. It’s humbling. We don’t do it a lot. We will say we are sorry. But it is something else to ask for forgiveness. It almost seems a little ridiculous these days. And then have you ever received forgiveness? Forgiveness that you knew you needed? What did that feel like?

And it makes me wonder – do we feel the same way about God’s forgiveness? I wonder, do the majority of us feel like we’ve had a debt of $7.5 billion forgiven by God? Are we wowed by God’s forgiveness anymore or is it just assumed? Never once have I proclaimed forgiveness at the beginning of worship and someone has burst out in tears and rejoicing that they were forgiven. Never once. And I’ll make it a little more personal – I don’t know that I am wowed by God’s forgiveness. At our young adult group on Friday night, the question was asked whether you would prefer to stand before God with all the wrong you’ve done or whether you would rather stand before youtube and the internet with all the wrong you’ve done. I can’t speak for all of us there, but the sense was – most of us would rather stand before God. God knowing all that we’ve done doesn’t seemed to frighten us as much as everyone else knowing all that we’ve done. It’s almost like we think, “Well, you’re God. You have to be forgiving.” But the world? It can be a cruel place.

But what if that’s Jesus’ point. What if that is why Jesus wants us to strive to forgive as God forgives? What if we cannot experience God’s unconditional forgiveness unless we experience it through the world. Through flesh and blood. What if here, in the messy world we live in, is the very arena in which God’s forgiveness needs to be enacted and practiced.

Like I said, I’m not exactly sure what forgiveness is. And perhaps it changes with every situation. And I don’t think it is something we do once, but rather is something we have to keep doing over and over again. What ever forgiveness is, Jesus’ point is clear. He’s trying to motivate us to be forgiving people. Why? Because how can we proclaim God’s forgiveness to others, if we can’t even practice it ourselves.

Does that mean forgiveness will always be easy? No. Will it always be clear? No. But maybe what it means is that it is something we never stop searching for, never give up on – both for those who have wronged us and from those whom we have wronged. Because perhaps what is true in the somewhat petty situation of Susan and Rebecca is true for all the wrongs in the world – when someone hurts another, it’s only because they have been hurt themselves. If we can listen long enough to one another and we can see that, perhaps forgiveness will be possible. Or put one more way – perhaps we are called as Christians to strive to view forgiveness as God does – “Forgiveness is not to be dispensed with an eyedropper, but a fire hose.”[5] Perhaps, living that out, we will all come to a place where we see each other as God does – drenched and soaked to the skin in the water of grace and forgiveness. Amen.

[1] Alan Storey, http://www.cmm.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/20110904-sermon.mp3

[2] Tom Long, Matthew, pg. 211.

[3] Long, 212.

[4] http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/james-foleys-parents-prepared-forgive-4092566

[5] Long, 213.

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