I can see it on your faces: Here we go again, another scripture about conflict. Another word on forgiveness. What is it your trying to tell us pastor?
Let me say that, to my knowledge, there is no big brewing beneath the surface conflict in our church. If there is, someone needs to let me or the session know so that it can be handled and not fester.
To plan and aid in the planning of our worship services year-round we use a tool called the lectionary.
The Revised Common Lectionary is a three-year cycle of weekly lections used to varying degrees by the majority of mainline Protestant churches in Canada and the United States. The RCL is built around the seasons of the Church Year, and includes four lections for each Sunday, as well as additional readings for major feast days. During most of the year, the lections are: a reading from the Hebrew Bible, a Psalm, a reading from the Epistles, and a Gospel reading. During the season of Easter, the Hebrew Bible lection is usually replaced with one from the Acts of the Apostles. It runs in three-year cycles, year A, B and C. We are in year A, for those of you who are curious.
This tool helps pastors, teachers and churches cover a larger scope of scripture than when relying upon individual presences.
Often themes will emerge in the selected lectionary passages, just as they emerge in the scriptures themselves. Right now, we are in the book of Matthew, where Jesus is teaching about community. As a community, you will deal with conflict and forgiveness.
Today’s passage from Matthew is right after last week’s section, where we heard that there can be a lot of steps necessary to bring conflicted persons together in the body of Christ.
After hearing such an honestly labor-intensive conflict resolution model, Peter asks “How many times do we have to do this? Seven?” Seven is a good biblical number, a number of completeness. It is a generous number. In our society, we often use the phrase, “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” Forgiving a third time might be seen as the charm. But forgiving the same person 7 times, that is beyond generous.
However, Jesus says “Nope, not seven Peter, seventy times seven, or seven times seven, or seventy-seven- depending on the translation.” No matter which of those numbers you go with, that’s a lot of forgiving going on for the same person sinning against you.
Jesus says essentially- there is no limit on forgiveness. Then he tells a story, a parable. This parable, called the unmerciful servant points out the contrast between forgiveness received and forgiveness given. There is a lot going on in this story and honestly, it’s never been my favorite. But this week I’ve found a lot of sustaining life-giving content in its words.
There is a king who is looking at his books, so it must be around April because no one does their taxes before then. He notices that there is one particular servant who owes him ten thousand talents. A word on exchange rates. A talent was roughly 130lbs of silver, which would take about fifteen years for a laborer to earn. Just one talent. SO, this servant owes 150, 000 years’ worth of wages to the king.
He would never ever be able to repay this debt. So, the king orders him, and his wife, and his children and all his possessions, sold to pay the debt. The servant begs for this not to happen, and the king relents. He forgives the unpayable debt, out of pity, not because he must, but because he wants to do so.
That is an amazing level of forgiveness. Even with most of our student loans, house payments, car loans etc., none of us can imagine having that debt repaid. This man has just had 150,000 years wages forgiven. And he walks out of the place and bumps into an old friend.
This old friend owes him 100 denarii, or roughly 100 days wages. He grabs the guy by the throat and says in his best mob voice” pay up or else.” The man can’t pay and so, he has the man arrested and thrown in jail for the debt.
Others who witnessed this event were distraught and brought it to the kings’ attention. This was a violent act, and your behavior reflects upon the one you call Lord.
The king’s anger is stoked and he orders the man to be tortured until his original debt is repaid. Until he can literally get his pound of flesh.
Th e Jesus adds an ominous “SO my father will do to each of you who does not forgive from your heart.”
This is a difficult passage to say the least. Difficult to hear, and difficult to follow. I think far too often it has been looked at as prescriptive- forgive everything and if you do then you won’t be tortured in hell. Most of my life I have heard it used to keep people who have been hurt from standing up for themselves. It has been used to say quietly turn the other cheek. It has been used by people who would harm and abuse “You’re a Christian, you’re supposed to forgive.” People have said to me as they intentionally caused harm.
But I don’t think that’s the point of this passage at all. I see two things in this passage that jump out as lifegiving, life affirming, that the unmerciful servant misses.
One, the servant is forgiven an immense debt, more than any of us can imagine. Then he goes out and grabs another debtor by the throat. It’s not just that he won’t forgive his friend, that’s bad enough, but here he has received an amazing gift, grace, unmerited favor- and he seems untouched by it at all. He has no sense of any gratitude. As David Lose says “his whole life changed . . . and he didn’t even notice.”
“As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it occurs to me that Martin Luther’s great insight was simply realizing that righteousness was not God’s expectation but instead God’s gift. It wasn’t his responsibility to be “right with God,” but God’s responsibility to put him right. And once he realized that some of God’s favorite things to do are to forgive those who seem unforgivable, love those who feel unlovable, and make right those things that seem so persistently in the wrong, Luther was not only freed from his fear of punishment, but also freed to love and forgive and care for those around him. So also, I think, with forgiveness – when we realize that forgiveness is not primarily God’s expectation but rather God’s gift, we sink into that mercy and grace and find ourselves more able to turn in mercy and grace toward others.”1
We rejoice together in the forgiveness we have received. Let us also rejoice in the forgiveness we have given.
Forgiveness allows us to begin to heal, even those things that are painful, those times when someone doesn’t want to own up to hurting you, those times that seem to hurt you even more each time you remember; those words or actions that scar you so deeply; even these things can begin to heal once forgiveness is applied.
A great example of forgiveness to heal is Nelson Mandela, the man on our bulletin this morning, who spent 27 years in prison for trying to end white minority rule by violence in South Africa. 20 years after his release from prison, he invited one of his jailers to the celebratory dinner. The two developed a friendship. He invited another former guard to his inauguration. He ate with people who had tried to have him killed. “When a deep injury is done to us, we never heal until we forgive.”
As part of a community, people are aware of our actions. We watch one another, good and bad. In the story Jesus tells the community sees the behavior of the unmerciful servant. The community comes to the throne of the king and says, “this man is dealing poorly with his neighbor.”
As the community of faith, we are to hold one another accountable. We are not to watch so that we may punish, or criticize, after all Romans tells us not to judge. But we watch so that we can remind one another of the grace received. So that we might help one another to reach out with grace, even when it is easier to reach with a clenched fist.
In our country, in our state, in our city, in our church- whenever it is that we see fellow Christians reaching towards vengeance instead of grace- we need to be ready to call attention to it. By prayer and by confrontation, as described in last Sundays’ text.
Every one of us has been given mercy, offered help, grace, and forgiveness. Not one of us could come before God if it was not for the saving death of Jesus Christ. We have been ransomed, redeemed and reconciled only because of God’s grace. None of us can take any credit for these things.
And that is why we should extend grace and mercy, not because of fear of punishment, but out of joy at the forgiveness already in hand.
Forgiveness is a gift, one we cannot afford to keep to ourselves. “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus offered forgiveness from the cross. Let us rejoice, celebrate, live lives so filled with the acknowledgement of this act of grace that we must be grace-filled with or brothers and sisters.