Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sermon for September 11th: Matthew 18:21-35

Unlimited Forgiveness

We’ve been getting some lessons in honesty, reconciliation and forgiveness from Jesus in the past few weeks. Last Sunday’s gospel, immediately before this one, told us that if we have something against a brother or sister in Christ, instead of posting a Facebook status update to that effect for the whole world to read, we should go quietly, raise the issue, and work to resolve it. If the other person doesn’t respond positively, there’s a process Jesus tells us to follow – you can read it all in last week’s gospel.

Today’s gospel follows hard on the heels of last week’s; Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” (v.21). I’m guessing that what’s in view here is a situation where we have gone through the process Jesus outlined in last week’s story; we’ve confronted our sister or brother, they’ve admitted their guilt, and have asked our forgiveness. What then?

Before we dive into the story in detail I want to get a couple of definitions out of the way.

First, who’s in view here? The NRSV pew bibles say, ‘Another member of the church’; the Greek says ‘your brother’, but the NRSV wants to avoid gender-specific language like ‘brother’ and ‘he’. Unfortunately, once again, it opts for an institutional metaphor rather than a family one; it would have done better to say “If my brother or sister sins against me”. Early Christians called each other ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ and treated the disciple community as a family. It’s a member of that family who is in view here.

It’s important not to obscure this. Today, as everyone knows, is the 10th anniversary of 9/11. I suspect that, in many churches where the lectionary is used, preachers will be drawing parallels between this gospel reading and the need for us to forgive the 9/11 terrorists. I’m not going to do that today. It’s not that I don’t think that a healthy dose of forgiveness and grace might not have made a huge change to the international climate over the past ten years. But the problem is that if we open that can of worms, we could get into a long political argument about whether nations should exercise forgiveness like Christian disciples, and whether the US was right to stage a military response in Afghanistan, and whether extra security measures and racial profiling and so on are justifiable. All fascinating and all very important, but I would soon use up my fifteen minute sermon spot, and you would go home never having been challenged about how you treat that nasty fellow-Christian who sits two pews in front of you every Sunday and who is so talented about getting under your skin and causing you pain!

And that would be wrong, for two reasons. First, for the vast majority of us, who do not have a personal connection to the 9/11 attacks, learning to forgive Osama and his boys is not the most pressing forgiveness issue in our lives: it’s a lot closer to home than that! Second, if we want to be faithful to the text we have in front of us, that’s the issue Jesus is raising here. It’s not about international terrorism; it’s about how we get along with our fellow-Christians in the disciple community.

That’s the first item of definition. The second is what we mean by the word ‘Forgive’. So many times I hear people say, “I just can’t forgive him for what he did to me”. When I start to ask them questions about what they mean by that, what it boils down to is this: “I can’t make the pain go away”. They’ve tried, and they think they’ve done it, but the next day they think about what was done to them and the pain and anger and resentment come bubbling back.

But this is a confusion of what the Bible is talking about. In the Bible, forgiveness is not about our emotions. We think it is, because in verse 35 Jesus tells us that we have to forgive our sister or brother ‘from our heart’. Nowadays ‘the heart’ is a metaphor for the feelings, the emotions, but that was not the case in Bible times. When the Bible talks about the emotions it talks about the bowels; in the King James Version the phrase ‘compassion’ is sometimes translated as ‘having bowels of mercy for someone’. The ‘heart’ is a metaphor for the choices, the will, the decisions we make about how we are going to act in our lives.

Forgiveness, you see, is not healing. Forgiveness is a decision not to take revenge on the other person for what they’ve done to us, but to act in a loving manner toward them, whether we feel like it or not. This is not an act of hypocrisy, because we aren’t pretending to like them. It’s an act of obedience to Jesus. What does it look like? Paul spelled it out for us in Romans a couple of weeks ago: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink” (Romans 12:17, 20). This is what forgiveness is; it’s a decision not to take revenge but to continue to act in a loving and caring way toward the one who has hurt us – to be a blessing to them, and not a curse.

Now – why should we do this? What’s our motivation? Let’s see how this plays out in the parable Jesus tells.

Peter’s question is “How many times should I forgive? As many as seven?” I’m sure he thought he was being very generous. After all, the most common human response to attack is escalation. “You burn my house down, and I’ll burn your village down in response”; each party resolves to hit back so hard that the other party will not be able to hit them again. But over and over again, the other party comes back with an even more devastating response, which if course requires an even more devastating response, and so on, and so on.

Give Peter credit, he was suggesting a reversal of this policy. My brother or sister sins against me, we’ve gone through the process outlined in the previous verses, the offender has repented and asked for forgiveness, and I’ve given it to them. But then, a week later, they do the same thing. So I grit my teeth, confront them with it again, they readily admit their guilt and say, “A thousand pardons, you’re right, I’d determined never, ever, ever to do it again, please forgive me”. So we grant them the requested forgiveness, and then a couple of days later, they do it again. Now we’ve reached the seventh time, and the anger in our soul is rising to boiling point. Surely seven times is enough!

Any reasonable person would agree. Let’s take the obvious test case here, the one that is always mentioned in discussions of forgiveness – a woman who is being regularly beaten by her husband. Now there is a very strong body of opinion that would state that, in that situation, even one instance of forgiveness is one too many. If he beats you, get out of there, and have nothing more to do with him! And certainly if he has left you black and blue seven times, he has used up all his ‘get out of jail free’ cards! In this case I would suggest that the vast majority of reasonable opinion would be on Peter’s side: seven times is more than enough!

Jesus’ response is the parable of the unforgiving slave. ‘Slaves’ in those days often had a lot of responsibility and it is quite possible, for instance, that the minister of finance of a country would in fact be a king’s slave. Somehow this slave has gotten himself into enormous debt to his master the king. Ten thousand talents was a lot of money. A talent was more than fifteen year’s wages for a day labourer; we are talking about a sum of money that would have taken a day labourer 150,000 years to pay off. It was, in fact, approximately a thousand times the annual tax revenue of the provinces of Judea, Samaria, Galilee and Idumaea put together! Jesus is trying to paint a true picture of the position in which you and I stand before the King of all the universe, the creator of all.

Let’s think about this for a minute. The great commandment is to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, but every day, in a host of ways, I break it: I make myself the centre of my universe, and I see others as simply supporting characters in my story. In other words, I make myself the idol that I worship, rather than worshipping the one true God. I love other idols too – money and the things it can buy, sexual enjoyment, my own selfish ease, the good opinion of others. And I don’t love my neighbour as myself; I would far rather live an easy life and come home to rest and relaxation than put myself out to help another. I live in luxury while the vast majority of the world lives in grinding poverty. I walk past beggars on the street on as regular basis, and not only do I not give them a handout, but I don’t take the time to find better and more effective ways of helping them either.

Or think of what Jesus has to say in the Sermon on the Mount. I regularly commit spiritual murder against my brother or sister by nursing anger and hatred against them in my heart. I commit adultery by looking upon women with lust on a regular basis (especially in the summer time…!). I am not always conscientious about keeping my word. I do not reach out and love my enemies. And so on, and so on. It is overwhelming, and paralyzing, to think of the number of times, in an ordinary day, in which I sin.

Except that it isn’t. Most of the time I don’t think about it. I just take it for granted that God will forgive me. And, according to the parable, that is in fact exactly what happens. “And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt” (v. 27). Did you notice, by the way, that the master did not, in fact, give the slave what he asked for. The slave begged “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything”. In other words, he asked for more time to gather money to pay off the debt.

Think about this for a minute. How could the slave possibly repay a debt the value of 150,000 years wages for a labourer? The very idea is ridiculous, and the master knew it. So instead of answering his prayer, the master did what the slave had not asked – he forgave him the whole debt.

What does this mean for us as Christians? We are so in love with the illusion of our own respectability that we just can’t contemplate putting ourselves into the position where we are debtors to grace forever. And so, when we come to God and ask for his forgiveness, I wonder if what we are really saying is, “Lord, please give me more time, and I really, really will change – you see if I don’t!”

Except that it doesn’t work. How many times have I told God one day in my prayers that I repent of a particular sin, only to go back the next day and do the very same thing again, with my eyes wide open, knowing exactly what I am doing? The reality is that change is hard, almost as hard as paying off a ten thousand talent debt. Change is possible by the help of the Holy Spirit, yes – but it isn’t going to be finished by the time I kick the bucket!

And this is the wonder of the Christian gospel. God does not answer my prayer! He does not give me more time to pay off the debt, because he knows that for the rest of my life I will never be able to pay it all off. Some of it, yes, but not all of it. Personally speaking, it’s a safe bet that in some ways I’m going to continue to act like an SOB when I’m in a wheelchair in a nursing home. I hope I won’t do it as often as I do now, but I’m not taking any bets! And so I ask God to forgive me, over and over and over again.

And I expect him to do it. I can never remember, in all my life, praying to God a prayer remotely resembling this one: “God, I think I’ve probably used up all my get out of jail free cards on this one. If you forgive me again, you’re just going to be reinforcing my bad behaviour. If I were you, I wouldn’t forgive this time”. I have never prayed a prayer like that! Every day, even up to seventy times seven and beyond, I ask God to forgive me – and I expect that he will. And given the fact that he continues to give me the gift of his presence, his love, and his help on a daily basis, that prayer would seem to have been answered. ‘Amazing grace’ indeed! Remember that ‘grace’ means love that we don’t deserve, and that we don’t have to deserve – God just showers it on us as a free gift, because it’s his nature to do that. Grace is at the heart of the Christian gospel.

Very well – what does that mean for how we treat one another? The story goes on to deal with a situation where the same slave, who had been forgiven such an astronomical sum, refused to forgive a paltry little debt owed him by a fellow-slave. A hundred denarii was a tiny sum in comparison to the ten thousand talents; it was still substantial, about three or four months’ wages, but nothing in comparison to the astronomical debt the first slave had been forgiven.

Jesus’ point is obvious. ‘Yes, you certainly have a case against your brother or sister; the offences they have committed against you are real. However, when you stack that list up against the list of offences you have committed – and continue to commit – against God every day, it’s not hard to see which list is longest”.

Why would the slave act in this way, after he himself had been forgiven so much? I suspect that he did what I do so often – he kept these two items in two hermetically sealed compartments in his soul. Compartment number one reads: “God has forgiven me more than I can possibly imagine, and he continues to forgive me day by day. I must never forget that”. Compartment number two reads, “That SOB sitting two pews in front of me is going out of his way to hurt me. He does it on a regular basis. It’s time for him to get what he deserves!”

Whoa! Wait a minute! “What he deserves?” If we are going to move back into the realm of what people deserve, we’ve left the gospel behind, because the gospel tells us that God doesn’t give us what we deserve – he gives us what we need. If we want to move back into the realm of desert, we’ve moved back from the gospel to the law. And that has terrifying implications for us.

What are the consequences of not forgiving? Look at what Jesus says in verses 34-35:

“And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart”.

Let’s be frank: do you want to enjoy life forever with God? Do you want to be a part of the kingdom of heaven? Then remember that the passport that gets you in is God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness. Jesus is quite clear here: if you refuse to forgive someone else, your passport is revoked. It was given to you for free, but it can be revoked if you refuse to forgive others as you have been forgiven.

Remember, we’re not talking about healing here; we’re not talking about feeling good toward the offender. We’re talking about Jesus’ command to love even our enemies and to be a blessing to them. Jesus does not specify what form the love should take in a specific situation. He does not say, for instance, that a woman who is being abused by her husband should remain in a situation where her life and safety are in danger. What he does say is that revenge is not an option. ‘An eye for an eye’ is not an option. Love may be a struggle, but it is the command of Jesus.

Remember the Lord’s Prayer? “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. It is only because of that forgiveness that I can have any hope of eternal life. Day by day I am a debtor to God’s amazing grace. May God help all of us to love as Jesus loved us, and to forgive not just seven times, but seventy times seven, just as we expect God to forgive us. Amen.

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