Really, this sermon is sort of a "Part Two" from last week's and it comes at a crucial time in my particular journey.
I have been struggling for several years with how, or even if, I can Forgive a family member who did serious damage to me and my wife. Events at St. Barnabas recently reopened that wound. I didn't bleed out all over the congregation, but I did realize that if I don't do some things to address this wound, it has the potential to hamper my ability to function well as a priest.
And so I am doing what I need to do. And offering what I can offer in my sermon... which began with my honest gut reaction to the Gospel. See what you think.
Text: Matthew 18:21-35
I don’t know about y’all….but when I read the first two verses of this Gospel…with Peter asking “How many times must I forgive…” and Jesus was saying, “Not seven times…but seventy-seven times…” my initial response was…
Really, Jesus? Really?!
Because that’s how hard it can be to be forgiving.
Truly forgiving from the heart.
For anyone who has ever been used or abused in any way….anyone who has ever felt the sting of discrimination…this idea of Forgiveness and getting to that place of forgiving the one who has committed the wrong against us can feel that the task is as an impossible as Sisyphus pushing that huge boulder up a hill.
And this passage has been misused by some in the church to wrongly chastise people living in abusive relationships.
To be clear: not any part of the Holy Trinity: God the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit condones abusive behavior of any kind.
To wrap our minds around today’s reading…it’s important to remember last week’s Gospel.
I wish the two parts had been read together…but they weren’t.
So…quick review of what we called “The Rule of Christ” from this past Sunday:
When we last left Jesus and the disciples…Jesus was laying out for them the way to live in harmony in community…and managing the conflicts that inevitably arise in community.
An example of this: let’s say a member has done something… broke some kind of trust with another member. The first thing that must happen is that the offended person goes to the offender and says,
“You hurt me…and this is how you hurt me.”
The offender listens…perhaps didn’t realize what they had done.
Maybe they give their perspective.
Perhaps there’s more listening…more discussion…and in the end… the offender makes apology… and the relationship can be reconciled.
If that doesn’t happen… and there’s still conflict… or perhaps the issue has escalated…bring in two or three others to work out a resolution and get the offender to right their behavior.
If that still doesn’t stop the wrong behavior… it’s time for the whole church to get in on the issue.
And then… if things are really not going to change… then the person who is the disruptor will ‘be as a Gentile or tax collector’… a First Century way of saying to this Jewish audience hearing all of this… “this one is not one of us.”
This system is a way of giving the one who has been hurt a chance to air their grievance…while establishing a system that insures that the one accused of committing a wrong isn’t simply thrown out without bringing in cooler minds to hear the whole story.
The church back in Matthew’s days… and in some ways still … remains a fragile community,
Nobody wanted to just toss aside people whenever there was disagreement.
This Rule of Christ sets up boundaries for behavior…and how to manage the conflict.
That brings us up to speed with Peter and Jesus and today’s Gospel.
Peter isn’t talking about any old person who he might need to forgive.
He says “if another member of the church”…in other words…if one of my kin folk here does me wrong… do I need to forgive them seven times?”
Seven… meaning “perfection.”
So does my forgiveness need to be perfect?
And Jesus’ answer is basically… it needs to be more than perfect.
We are to live… knowing that we are a forgiven people.
But forgiveness doesn’t happen without the acknowledgement…and the recognition that a wrong… a sin… has happened.
We can’t forgive something where there isn’t a wrong that has occurred.
And forgiveness can only come from the person who has been wronged.
To make this point abundantly clear… Jesus tells a parable of the Servant and the king.
And it’s a really over the top story!
As Eugene Boring notes… in the economy of Jesus’ day… a talent is the largest monetary unit.
Just one talent is the equivalent of the wages of fifteen years.
In the parable… this servant owes the king ten thousand talents….in other words… an impossibly high number.
It would be like saying that a person working at a fast-food restaurant for minimum wage must pay back a debt of one trillion dollars or be thrown in jail and their family members sold into perpetual slavery.
It’s just not possible for the worker with that sort of salary to make the payment.
In the story…when the servant begs for mercy… the king (who knew the guy would never be able to pay him back)… cancels the whole debt and sends him away.
Again… this is an extravagant move… an unexpected gesture of kindness.
But that servant never acknowledges the grace granted to him.
Instead… when he runs into a fellow servant…a guy who owes him basically the equivalent of maybe fifty or sixty dollars…not only does the fortunate and forgiven one demand the money right there on the spot… when this other servant also begs for mercy… this guy starts to choke him…before having his colleague thrown in jail.
Others see what’s happened.
We might call these others “the church”.
They run to the king: “Your lordship… oh benevolent mighty one… this man who you forgave of his debt has lashed out at another!”
The king explodes in anger.
He revokes his mercy.
And he has the man tortured for the cruelty shown to a fellow servant.
Again…this is another outrageous action.
If we are to follow what seems to be Matthew’s logic… that “the King” is a representation of God… do we believe that the God who is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” as we hear often in our psalms…can be so vicious as to demand torture of those who fail to show forgiveness?
Would God really cancel mercy?
Remember…this parable is full of extremes.
Extremes that are meant to shake us up and get our attention.
So…perhaps rather than get so bogged down in the details of the parable itself… we should take it as answering Peter’s question about how perfect does he need to be in his forgiveness?
Or to personalize it… how perfect do we need to be in forgiving others?
Maybe instead of seeking to be perfect in our ability to forgive others… we need to get back to that idea that we have been granted grace… and mercy…and forgiveness from a God who knows us better than ourselves…and that includes those parts of us that we aren’t proud of.
It’s interesting to me that we have these examinations of forgiveness in our tradition at this time of year while our siblings in Judaism are entering those days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur… The Days of Awe…a period where Jews throughout the world are expected to do a self-assessment at how well are they doing at tikkun olam…the work of healing, repairing, and transforming their communities.
Like us…wrestling with forgiveness… this involves admitting that there are short-comings in that effort to repair breaches.
That work will require heartfelt apologies and seeking forgiveness.
And it is on-going.
It may never be perfect… but it is necessary to keep engaging and never giving in to despair.
At the Rosh Hashanah service I attended with my wife yesterday… her rabbi mentioned in his sermon that perfection is an expectation we place on ourselves.
To be “perfect” leads to disappointment and loneliness.
Because God alone is perfect.
We can only do our best to live into that Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”
Or… in the words we say each Sunday with the Lord’s Prayer… “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Forgiveness is hard work.
But when a person makes a true apology…seeks mercy… and changes their actions to right their past mistakes… forgiveness is the appropriate response.
It’s not that we forget…or gloss over what has happened.
But our forgiveness is a way to liberate ourselves…the ones offering forgiveness… from the need to seek revenge.
Freeing us to live more in love rather than stewing in hate…and it helps us to return to right relationship with God and each other.
In the name of God…F/S/HS.