15th Sunday after Pentecost
September 17, 2017
Matthew 18: 21-35 You can click on this link to read the text in Oremus Bible Browser
Forgiveness! Wow! I think everyone has a dozen good stories about forgiveness – ones in which forgiveness changed a life or maybe didn’t change a life. As a preacher, sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. Should I tell you how my friend Carolee is doing in her recovery from clergy sexual abuse that ended when she was in her twenties and now in her 40’s forgiveness has given her a new path in life. I could quote Anne Lamotte, who says that forgiveness means finally giving up all hope for a better past. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked Jesus story because at its heart is a story of a failure of gratitude for an enormous gift of grace.
So here it is: The king has administrators working for him that often handle large amounts of durable goods and the money that buys them and sells them. So the king has to do an accounting periodically to see that the books balance, and all the money is accounted for. So in this story, his slave is short a large amount of money; millions of dollars. It would take him over a hundred years at his salary to pay back the amount of money that is missing. It’s a disaster. There is no way this man will ever be able to make up the shortfall, and the king has every right to throw him and his family into prison or to sell them into slavery to settle the debt. The man begs for mercy; for extra time to pay it off. The king is way more compassionate than the slave deserves, and cancels the debt entirely. He doesn’t even fire the manager from his responsible job, just starts at zero and sends him back to work.
Meanwhile the administrator slave encounters one of his employees, another slave, who owes him $50. Grabbing the worker by the neck, the administrator demands payment this minute. When the worker begs for time to repay the debt, the administrator throws him in prison until the debt was paid. When their fellow workers report to the generous king what the administrator has done, the king summons him and berates him for being merciless. “I forgave you so much, and you could not have forgiven your fellow slave even the little he owed you?” The king throws the administrator into jail where he is abused until he can repay.
“So God will do to you,” says Jesus, “if you are not as compassionate to your brother or sister, as God has been to you.” Does that mean that we will only be forgiven if we are forgiving? Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Is our forgiveness conditional on our generosity with those who injure us? The administrator seems unmoved, in the end, by the enormity of the king’s grace. It’s as if the enormity of what he has been forgiven never penetrates his heart or mind. He’s off the hook, that’s all that matters.
The reason why this story appeals to me today is because of the temper of the discourse in these days in which we live. There is virtually no civility in the exchange of information or opinion in our public conversation. Voices are shrill and slurs are casual and cutting. If you don’t agree with me, you must be wrong and/or stupid. I don’t want to hear what you think, I will just shout at you and insult you until you either begin to agree with me or go away. Even the people who show up in the media speaking for the church are not compassionate or seeking to understand. Instead they are quick to dismiss anyone who does not read the Bible the same way they do and to shame anyone who doesn’t meet their standards of behavior.
Forgiveness is hard. There is no doubt about it. It hurts to let go of the pain that has been inflicted upon us. It hurts to realize that the relationship we treasured was not respected by the person we loved and trusted. We can’t be forgiving without the humility and gratitude that comes from recognizing our own failures to be gracious and merciful. God’s forgiveness of our self-centered and self-righteous actions towards each other and the earth give us another chance to create new patterns and better care. Those who recognize that they have been forgiven are grateful, and moved to be forgiving. That’s the way it works. When we realize all the wrongs – big and small – for which we have been forgiven, how can be withhold forgiveness from someone who has wronged us.
Peter thought he was reaching the outer limits of what he could accept in insult from a brother or sister. But life is long, and hurts are many. Forgiveness is the beginning of a new life with all its possibilities. We are resurrection people, recognizing that hurt and pain and even death will not keep us from God’s life for us. We say that God’s love carries us from death to life, so it is with the forgiveness that flows from that love. It is the power that changes our hearts to see beyond our own pain to the possibilities ahead. Think about it. Jesus himself will absorb the insult and torture of people who are so caught up in their distorted religion that they want him dead. And from the cross he asks for their forgiveness. Seventy-seven times? Seventy times seven? Our recognition of our own forgiveness allows us to forgive. Our gratitude for the new life we have in Jesus allows us to offer a chance of new life to ourselves and others. The power of God’s love allows us to let go of the hurts, and the ‘what ifs’ that can cripple us and let us take a step into trust again. Amen.