Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 15, 2002
The Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35
Sermon: "Called to Forgive"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
Then Peter came and said to him, "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."
Called to Forgive
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost - September 15, 2002
What do we do when we get hurt? How do we respond to the person who has hurt us physically, emotionally, or spiritually? Sometimes we say or think things like, "Don't worry!! I'll get even." Or sometimes we say or think, "I don't get even, I get back. I'll get them harder than they got me." Sometimes we even carry out the threat. We talk about the person behind their back. We tell stories and create tales. We exaggerate about the person creating a demon of the individual. Or we write a letter to someone the other person knows without his or her knowledge. Sometimes we get in the person's face directly and threaten with physical violence. In the work place we blame things on the other person that they didn't do. In other words we want our pound of flesh. We want the person to hurt worse than we hurt. We want revenge.
The hard part for us is admitting we do these things. We try to analyze the situation and legitimize our response: "Well, if they didn't want to be treated this way they shouldn't have hurt me." "What goes around comes around they are just getting what they deserve." What is really bad is when we try to use scripture to absolve our personal need for revenge. The Bible says, "An eye an eye and a tooth for a tooth." That means if you hurt me I am justified in hurting you. However, we really cannot justify our desire for revenge. We cannot take phrases from scripture and use them out of context. For God is clear throughout all of scripture that we do not have the right of revenge.
In fact, scripture is clear that instead of revenge we are to practice forgiveness. The Gospel lesson is an excellent example. Peter asks Jesus about forgiveness. He wants to know how many times he has to forgive somebody if they hurt him. He particularly wants to know what to do if they are members of the church. Peter wants to know if he has to forgive them as many as seven times. There is an interesting connotation to Peter's choice of the number seven. Seven and all multiples of seven in scripture are considered sacred numbers. Seven means completeness. For example creation was completed in seven days. On the seventh day, God rested after creating. Peter was asking if his obligation to forgive was complete after seven times. In other words, Peter wants to know when is enough, enough.
Jesus' answer to Peter must have thrown Peter for a loop. Jesus says not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Some scholars say this phrase actually translates to seventy times seven or 490 times. The result is the same whether it is seventy-seven or 490. We are constantly to forgive. In fact, if we are counting how many times we have forgiven someone, then we haven't really forgiven that person the first time.
To really make the point clear, Jesus tells the story of the king and the slave. The slave owed the king a great deal of money. The slave was someone who was handling some of the king's business affairs. He owed the king ten thousand talents. A talent was the ancient world's largest monetary unit. A single talent in silver weighed 45 pounds. A single talent would pay a manual laborer's wages in Jesus' day for fifteen years. This slave owed ten thousand talents. The debt is absolutely incredible in size. The king could have sold him and his family or had him thrown in prison. Yet, the king had mercy. The king not only did not throw him in prison, he forgave the slave the debt. Let's be clear, this debt was completely forgiven. The slave was never to repay this debt. However, the slave did not do likewise to his fellow slave. His fellow slave owed him a paltry amount compared to what he had been forgiven. Instead of forgiving the debt he had his fellow slave thrown in jail. He did not practice forgiveness at all.
In Jesus' response to Peter and through this story, Jesus teaches two things. First, we are to constantly forgive. We cannot count the number of times we are to forgive an individual. Forgiveness is a constant part of our lives. The more someone sins against us the more we are to forgive. Secondly, we are to forgive everything. We are to forgive the deep, stabbing hurts. We are to forgive the small, stinging hurts. Our example is not just found in this story. Our example is the life of Jesus Christ. He went among the people forgiving sins, teaching and healing sinful people. He talked with Pharisees and Sadducees who did not believe. Yet, he never turned his back on them. Finally, on the cross, after the humiliation, the beating, the stripping, the whipping, Jesus asks for the people to be forgiven. Jesus is our example and Jesus tells us we are his disciples. Jesus' command to his disciples is simple. Follow me. To be Jesus' disciple we are called, called, not asked, to forgive.
Several years ago, I heard a story of two men. One was about ten years older than the other. They were sitting across from each other at a table. One was dressed in regular clothes. The other was dressed in a prison jumpsuit. The older man was there to visit the younger man. He went every Saturday to visit this young man. You see the young man had made a mistake. He went out one, weekend night to a party. When he left the party in his car he was drunk. He wasn't just over the limit. He was intoxicated. The older man was driving that night too. He and his family were returning home from an evening out. The two met that fateful night in the sound of broken glass rending steel and screams. The older man lost his wife and one of his children in the wreck. The young man was put in prison. After some time had passed the older man went to see the young man. He sat with him and they talked at the table. While they sat at that table, the older man forgave this young man. There was no way to repay what had been taken away. The young man did not even know what to say to this man he had hurt so deeply. The older man knew what to say. He turned to the young man and he forgave him. From that day forward, on every weekend, the older man visited this young man. Forgiveness is an act of the will. Forgiveness is an act of someone who is doing his or her best to follow Jesus. As the king in the story and as the older man at the jail, we are called to forgive. It doesn't matter whether the hurt is large or small. It doesn't matter whether we remember the hurt in our minds. We are called to forgive. For only through forgiveness will we experience the depth of God's love for us.