13th Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 24
September 11, 2011
Matthew 18:21-35 (Genesis 50:15-21; Romans 14:1-12)
It seems ironic that on the day when we observe the anniversary of the day we can’t forget, that we should be talking about forgiveness. What emotions swirl around this event. The news and the papers are full of people’s remembrances, reflections, and reactions. It is almost as if those airplanes destroyed so much life and property only yesterday. That this offense was carried out on our own soil destroyed once and for all our sense that we were exempt from the hatred and destruction meted out on other countries which were not so special as ours. We want justice. Without justice how is forgiveness possible?
All our texts today are about how forgiveness finally lets go of injury. Without forgiveness, they tell us, -the theologians, psychologists, sages – we are still locked into the pain and suffering that has been inflicted on us. In the story of Joseph, we hear the end of a long tale of vindictiveness, false accusation, and triumph. This could so easily have been a story of revenge. When Joseph finally gets to meet his brothers again he tests them severely to see if their hearts have been changed from the hatred that sent him into slavery. Even after years of living with Joseph in Egypt, the brothers are afraid that when their father died, Joseph would finally have his chance to get even. But instead he tells them that they need not be afraid of retribution from him, it is God to whom they must give account, and that God has turned what was meant for evil into redemption for many.
In Paul’s letter to the Roman congregation, we have a discussion of the injury one group of faithful Christians can inflict on another by clinging to rules and making barriers that exclude others who are trying to be faithful. Interesting, those who are described as ‘strong’ Christians are the ones who ignore the outward evidence of a life different from the pagans, and live faithfully to God among them. Those who are described as ‘weak’ are the ones who hold themselves to the rules of the most purity, scorning others who do not live according to the same rules. What Paul wants to see is that those who disagree about what’s right and wrong recognize that each is trying to be faithful in his or her own way, and that each is finally responsible to God for living out our own understanding of what’s right.
In the Gospel story, Peter is reacting to Jesus’ teaching about confronting those in the community who have offended and the mending that accompanies those ruptures. Peter wants to know how many times one must forgive continuing offenses. “If someone keeps on doing what’s hurtful, do I have to forgive dozens and dozens of times?” he asks. Jesus answer is about infinity: as many times as it takes. But then he gives an interesting illustration.
He gives us this story of the man who owes the equivalent of millions of dollars to his master, and pleads for more time to pay it back. In Matthew’s over-the-top style, it is not just a lot of money, it is a debt so huge that even extra time would not pay back everything that is owed. But the master is merciful, he forgives it all, every last cent, letting the man go free. But the man doesn’t really get it, does he? He accosts a man who owes him a pittance, demanding payment immediately. His friends are offended at his ungratefulness, and report him to the generous master, who turns him over to dramatically worse treatment than was originally meted out to him.
Paul is right on the money when he tells us that each of us is accountable to God. Because God has a right to demand complete devotion, complete compliance with the rules of behavior of all God’s people. And we all fail completely. We know our failures so well. And we know that much of our suffering is caused by those failures. But God is always at work, as in the story of Joseph, turning our failures, our hatred, our stupid blunders into something good at the end. The fact is that God never gives us what we deserve. So much for justice. Rather, God gives us mercy and love and an ocean of forgiveness. The whole of scripture tells us that God forgives over and over and over again. God can turn horror into a vehicle for hope. Of course, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the ultimate testimony to God’s power to turn failure into triumph.
Each of us has a story of disaster turned into something we never expected. Each of us has a story of how an unanswered prayer became a better answer than we would ever have imagined. And so we live by grace alone. Jesus is not just an example of how we should live, Jesus is a gift. He is God’s ultimate gift of love and mercy, opening for all time a world in which hearts are changed beyond getting even to lifting up those who need it most. When we pray for our enemies, we are tapping into the power of the love that raised Jesus from the dead. It is the power that only God can give. It is yours. You do not have to live in the prison of the offenses that have been inflicted on you, or in the prison of the regret for offenses you have inflicted. God can give you peace through forgiveness. You do not have to live in fear that you will do something that God cannot forgive. In Jesus your sins have been blotted out, covered over. You can have the power to change, to turn from ruinous behaviors because the love of God opens hearts to the power of love. You can rely on that power, it is the everlasting life won for you by Jesus himself.
As the Psalmist says, “You have not dealt with us according to our sins, nor repaid us according to our iniquities.” “Lord, you are full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” You can life in gratefulness of the gift of forgiveness and pass it on to those around you.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.