SEPTEMBER 17, 2017 (15th after Pentecost) “Forgiveness”
TEXTS: Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
Today’s gospel lesson begins with what might seem a rather innocent and practical question from the disciple Peter, who by this point in the gospel of Matthew has stepped to the forefront. Peter became the most vocal, the most impetuous, and to an extent the most spontaneous of all the disciples, which, as we find out by the end of the gospel of Matthew, was not always a good thing. Peter asks Jesus, “How often shall I forgive a person who has wronged me?” And I’m sure that Peter felt that he was being downright magnanimous when he offered up the number seven. “Shall I forgive as many as seven times?” I also suspect that Peter didn’t anticipate Jesus’ answer at all.
I know that there has been a great deal of discussion around the translation of the number that Jesus gave Peter. Was it originally seventy and seven, or was it seventy times seven? Of course the point that I believe Jesus was making was that we need to forgive repeatedly to the point that the business of keeping track is not worth the effort. In other words don’t worry about the tally; forgive on end, without ceasing. Forgive as if each act of forgiveness is the first, even though it may not be.
Once again we have a wise saying of Jesus that has the ability to chafe a bit, that has the ability to rub us the wrong way; a saying that seems counter-intuitive to the ways of the world in which we live. For our society and our world seems absolutely enamored with not forgiving, with carrying a grudge, with “getting even”, with revenge. We are enamored with such things to the degree that we use positive descriptors with the words. It’s not just revenge, it is “sweet revenge”. We keep mental archives of all the wrongs that have been done to us throughout our lives. And it’s not only personal affronts that we catalog, but any wrongdoings or negative words against our families or our social circles or our religion or our race or our nation. And we then use our massive archive of injuries that we have suffered as a veritable reference library that informs us, consciously or unconsciously, about how we should deal with the perpetrators of those wrongs, or how we deal with anyone who even reminds us of those perpetrators. I was once psychically injured by Bob Bentley many years ago and so I hold an eternal grudge against Bob Bentley. Not only that, though, but I also know that Bob Bentley is a Methodist, so I also hold all Methodists as deeply suspect, since everyone knows they’re all alike.
Of course the other piece of the whole business of keeping grudges and the refusal to forgive is that we seldom catalog our own sins, our own injuring of others, our own affronts against the world around us with the same accuracy and energy, or we compare one affront to the other in such a way that our sins somehow naturally pale in comparison to the sins of others. “Well yeah, I know that I shouldn’t have said what I said to Suzie, but it was nothing compared to what Suzie said to me!”
Jesus’ parable drives right to the heart of our humanness though. And in true rabbinical form Jesus does so on a scale that is truly over the top. A servant (whether a slave or an employee) owes his master an enormous sum of money. He begs for forgiveness, asking only that he be given more time to pay off his debt. His gracious master though forgives the debt entirely. Yet when a fellow servant who owes the first man a mere pittance makes the same plea, the servant who has received such enormous grace from his master, shows no graciousness toward his fellow man.
As I mentioned, the scale of the two debts and the difference between them is so enormous as be ridiculous. The second servant owes the first servant one hundred denarii; a denarius being what the average laborer would be paid for a day’s work. So we’re talking about three month’s labor, more or less. A talent, on the other hand, could be worth as much as ten thousand denarii; and the first slave owed his master ten thousand talents! That’s one hundred million denarii or day’s wages. So the first servant was forgiven a sum that he couldn’t possibly have paid back in multiple lifetimes; yet that same man could not give his fellow servant more time pay off a debt that would be less than of many us carry on our credit cards.
I think that Jesus knew, thousands of years ago, what scientists have actually proven here in modern times. Jesus knew that carrying a grudge is not only wrong in the eyes pf God, but downright unhealthy to us. I’m sure that many you have heard the modern day adage, “Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and hoping that the other person will die.” What many don’t realize is that there is a significant amount of modern medical research that shows this adage to be quite literally true. Holding a grudge, refusing to forgive, actually results in the buildup of certain chemicals in our bodies (such as cortisol) which can result in chronic high blood pressure and the breakdown of the digestive, circulatory and nervous systems in our bodies. Yes my friends, holding grudge can kill you!
And yet we do it; we do it a lot; we do it against all the scriptural and even scientific evidence of its negative effect upon us. We do it because we have somehow convinced ourselves that it is our right and maybe even our duty to do it, because that is who we are; it is part of our sinful nature; it permeates our lives. We do it even though the faith that we cling to is based upon the forgiveness of God, forgiveness so radical that God would offer up God’s incarnate self to show us the extent that God is willing to forgive us. How many of us would be willing to give up any piece of ourselves to demonstrate how far we would go to forgive others?
My friends, God is that master of the parable, constantly confronted with debts that are truly uncountable; confronted every moment of every day with children who have wronged God to such an extent that the numbers are beyond comprehension. And yet God forgives. God doesn’t say, “OK, I’ll give you more time to set things straight.” Friends, things cannot be set straight! A lifetime doesn’t contain enough moments to set things straight. No, God wipes out our debt and wipes it out completely. This is not a case of, “You pay off the principle and we’ll discount you the interest.” This is, “You once owed this and now you owe nothing!”
Yet at the same time, we must not cheapen God’s grace. God’s forgiveness is not a free pass. There is a cost to God and to the world. It is a weighty matter that should not be, in any way, taken lightly. Forgiveness is, in the words of Kathryn Matthews, “ . . . of considerable worth. Like air and water, it is both precious and necessary to life.” We need to feel that we are forgiven and we need to, in turn, release our anger and resentment of others so that we can experience the freedom of living lives of grace. It is not something that we can just turn on and off like a light switch. It must be practiced as a valuable skill. That is why Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a constant attitude.”
So know my friends that you are forgiven; you are forgiven the enormity of your sins, sins against God, sins against others, sins against yourselves. It is no casual forgiveness that you have received. It is a costly thing, a weighty thing, offered by a God who refuses to count cost or to judge weight. If you choose, you can both receive the forgiveness that is assured you from God in Christ the Son, and then let that forgiveness overflow from your life into the lives of others. Once again the choice is yours. You must choose to let God’s grace flow through you into the world around you. If you choose this path though, then the Gospels tell us that you will find life and life abundant.
Let us rejoice in the opportunity that we are given. Let us rejoice in a God who forgives. Let us rejoice in a Savior who died and rose again so that we might know the breadth of that forgiveness!