Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 18:21-35

Then Peter came and said to [Jesus], “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 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. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 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.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 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. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 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 the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)

This past Friday was the anniversary of 9/11—a day when horrible atrocities were committed in the name of God. The events of that day led to a violent response from our own nation as it pursued “justice,” also in the name of God. Thousands of men, women, and children on all sides have lost their lives. Whatever we think or feel about the events of the past several years, it might be good for us to ask, “How does one follow Jesus and practice forgiveness in such a time?”

I have to be perfectly honest and say that I’m not entirely certain how to answer that question except to say that maybe Jesus knew there would be times such as these. One day on a hill by a lake, he gathered his disciples and told them to pray like this: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us. . . .” Perhaps that is where we begin. With all the hurt, pain, shame, guilt, anger, and betrayal, perhaps that is where we should begin today.

Last week, we discussed Jesus’ teaching on loving folks who hurt other people. The community was to confront them repeatedly until they stopped sinning and repented. This week, Jesus turns to the behavior and responsibilities of the victims. I think it’s especially important for us, as the body of Christ in this world, to pay attention to what Jesus does and does not ask of righteous victims.

First, it’s important to reiterate that in Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus is calling his followers to love perpetrators of sin by confronting people with the way that their sins harm others. This isn’t a one-time action that dissolves our responsibility toward hurtful people, but ever-widening portions of the community are to confront the person to help her or him stop hurting others—for their own good. 

In the context of this week’s discussion of forgiving sin, we must therefore be clear that forgiveness is not about excusing sin or permitting harmful “l” behavior to continue. Christian responsibility toward perpetrators who hurt others is to lovingly, repeatedly call them to repentance, just like Jesus did with tax collectors and sinners. What, then, is the responsibility of victims of others’ sins?

Prior to last week’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells the parable of the shepherd bringing lost sheep back into the fold (18:10-14). Then last week Jesus offers instructions for how to correct, or reprove, the actions of another Christian in the church (18:15-20). That leads into today’s two-part lesson of how many times we ought to forgive a fellow Christian (Jesus’ answer: forgive them more times than you can count) and of the parable of the unforgiving servant.

At the outset Jesus says this parable should shape how we understand the reign of God. As is the case in many parables, extraordinary circumstances seek to highlight certain details. A servant owes ten thousand talents. That would take 150,000 years for a laborer to pay off if every cent earned every day went to paying off the debt. That impossibility does not so much highlight the hole of debt this servant has dug, as it highlights the incomprehensible magnitude of God’s willingness to forgive. Yet, this forgiven servant threatens a fellow servant to pay what is owed to him, which is the equivalent of only 100 days of labor, a measly amount compared to the forgiveness the first servant received. The master hears of this and is irked, to say the least.

Peter was understandably confused when Jesus extended the responsibility to love our neighbors by pursuing them to stop and repent of behaviors that harmed others. He then asked Jesus how many times he was required to forgive someone. 

Jesus had already said that his followers should attempt to stop someone from sinning against others at least three times—though I argue that Jesus spent his entire life doing this, and so should we. Peter asked if forgiving someone seven times was enough— more than double the number of times Jesus had just said to confront a perpetrator. Jesus told him that forgiveness must be infinite.

Perhaps we could call this lesson “Trying to get around having the chickens come home to roost and failing miserably.” Yes, that’s a long title, but there’s a lot going on here. Peter is trying to pin Jesus down as to how often one should forgive a fellow believer. Peter suggests the complete number of seven. Jesus swats that answer down like an annoying fly: Not seven times, but, I tell you, seven times seven or seventy-seven times (the Greek isn’t real clear, either way it’s a lot). In other words, forgiveness is not an event but a process. It is designed to free both offender and victim, to work reconciliation and restoration. Yet because of our fear and tendency to be “judgy” with one another, we have turned more to punitive responses and punishment, thus perpetuating cycles of violence, pain, and suffering.

Jesus doesn’t stop with treatment of fellow believers. He launches into a parable with societal impact in the story of the unforgiving servant. We are to be agents of mercy, not justice, retribution, or judgment. All one has to do is look at systemic structures of racism, violence, criminal justice, and consumer debt to see how far we as a culture have strayed from Jesus’ instructions. We are conditioned to judge worth, place, and value rather than practice neighbor love and mercy. The only way to break the cycle is to turn our hearts to the one we claim to follow and begin to practice what he teaches us. 

Our congregation, and our society, must examine its complicity in structures that are not of God and decide together a way forward that shows mercy and restoration. We must practice forgiveness and mercy until our hearts break open and fill with Christ’s light and love poured out for the world.

Emotionally, this is a difficult parable because we don’t want to ask anything of victims. Yet, I think the parable is essential for two reasons. First, it helps us understand what is, and what isn’t, forgiveness. I don’t think the king, even after being compassionate to the slave, would ever loan him money again or trust him with anything. 

  • Forgiveness is by no means pretending that the offense didn’t occur or trusting the perpetrator with any responsibility that they have demonstrated that they don’t deserve. 
  • Forgiveness also isn’t declaring someone innocent when they aren’t. 
  • Forgiveness, as explained by the parable, is giving up pursuing what we are owed by those who have hurt us.

If either of the debtors attempted to repay their debts, I think that would have been welcomed in the parable. In the section we read last week, Jesus calls for the community to continually pressure the offender to repent—that is, to undo the effects of sin, to make restitution. But the forgiveness that Jesus calls us to is to stop seeking that which we are owed by those who have hurt us. Renouncing the debt that is owed is what Joseph does in this week’s reading (Genesis 50:21) and what Paul counsels in 1 Corinthians 6:6-7. This is why Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

Ceasing pursuit of what we are owed by those who have sinned against us doesn’t absolve the perpetrator of their responsibility to still try to make restitution. But it does free us from waiting on another for our healing. 

Forgiving is saying that God is sufficient for us. This is the second gift of this difficult parable. It helps solidify one aspect of God’s love. God foregoes restitution for all our sins. Repenting is still good—and I would say essential—in order to try healing the ways we hurt God and others. But God doesn’t need us to do that. This is our Christian response to human sin: as a community, we love the sinner by helping her or him stop hurting other people and work toward restitution. We love the victim by helping her or him let go of the restitution that they are owed.

The way this parable shapes our understanding of God’s reign is twofold. It offers a glimpse of God’s incomprehensible proclivity to forgive us, and says that divine forgiveness must shape how we treat others.

I’ll confess, forgiveness can be a complicated concept. Most people begin to grasp it as young children, when playing with other young children. One child physically or emotionally hurts another child, and then an adult offers an instruction to forgive. It is a good lesson for a child to learn that if someone (intentionally or unintentionally) knocks over your blocks, you need to let that act not ruin your whole day. Yet, we grow in age and the situations that involve a call to forgiveness grow more complicated.

  • Do we “let bygones be bygones” if a bully steals our lunch? 
  • Must we “forgive and forget” those unwarranted double punches to our face from a stranger? 
  • Should we “turn a blind eye” to someone’s pattern of abuse? 

It does no good for us or for the other person if we passively accept this harmful behavior out of a child-like understanding of forgiveness. Recall that immediately prior to today’s lesson, Jesus was teaching how to correct another Christian’s behavior. 

So perhaps we must consider how reproving another person may be the necessary step for that person to desire forgiveness and to make amends for their actions.

Our understanding of forgiveness must develop beyond what we initially learned as children playing with others, especially when the offending behavior shows a pattern of abuse instead of a one-time accidental offense. 

A summary of a more mature understanding of forgiveness is this: We need not like the person after forgiving them, nor do we have to maintain a relationship with them. Forgiveness is for us to be liberated from the power that person’s action has over us, and we should hope that our forgiveness will direct that person toward being liberated from whatever is driving them toward this unhealthy behavior.

The attacks of 9/11, and our response to that attack, were claimed to be done in the name of God. I just have to ask, is this really the way God wants us to act in the world? I think our readings were answer that differently than we have in the past.

Once again, as we look at our world and the systemic structures of racism, violence, and criminal justice in it we have to ask ourselves how God would want us to look at these issues and correct them. Unfortunately we are as in the same amount of agreement as how we responded to the attacks of 9/11. Lord have mercy, we are better than this and have been shown a better way to learn to deal with conflicts and attacks. I pray we spend more time in prayer with God and listen to those better ways in the future.