I want to speak to you about forgiveness. The passage from Matthews Gospel (Matthew 18:21-35), for this Sunday is all about it. How much are we to forgive as Christians and how absolutely fundamental it is to who we are as Christians.
Our reading picks up right where we left off last week where Jesus, in Matthew 18:15-20, was speaking about the care we are to take to repair and restore relationships within our immediate Christian family, within the church. Jesus also made it very clear that only by keeping these relationships strong can we act with all the power of God’s will behind us. In our reading this week, Jesus teaches about forgiveness, which is the glue that restores and bonds us together.
Our passage come in two parts. The first two verses has Peter asking a question which about how many times a person should forgive another Christian in their community. Verse 21 reads, “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?” Peter already has a sense that this forgiveness should be above and beyond common wisdom. It’s OK to forgive someone once or twice, but by the third time, the common wisdom would say you are starting to act foolishly. He has been around Jesus enough to know that and so he pick what he thinks is a high numbers for the number of times we should forgive. Verse 22 has Jesus response, “Jesus said to him, Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Jesus says to Peter that if you are counting the number of time you are forgiving a fellow in your christian family then you are not doing it right! If you are keeping a score, then you haven’t truly forgiven the person.
Jesus then, in verses 23 to 35, tells a story of a King and two slaves. It is a story about forgiveness, both its great power and its limits.
Forgiveness is as much about letting go of a debt we hold against someone as it is about the freeing, or the lifting of a burden off, of another person.
I first want to speak about what happened in the story and then I will deal with the warning Jesus adds at the end of this story. To begin, I want to talk to you about the first slave, his debt and his forgiveness. You need to know that the debt he owed to his King was more than he could repay in 3000 years. The size of the debt is important. It is meant for us to realize both that it is absolutely unpayable and how desperate the slave is in begging to have the time to pay it off, even in the face of the impossibility of the task. He knows that he doesn’t really have a hope in “h-e-double-hockeysticks” to pay it off. It is important to note that the King could of had the mercy to take him up on the slave’s own offer to have him work to pay him off all his life, but that the King goes beyond even what the indebted slave asked for, and forgives him the whole debt! Forgiveness is as much about letting go of a debt we hold against someone as it is about the freeing, or the lifting of a burden off, of another person.
But the story and the teaching doesn’t end there. The now forgiven slave no sooner leaves the King’s presence but he comes upon a fellow slave who owes him about 100 days worth of pay. A large amount for sure, but not unpayable like the huge debt the first slave had owed. Yet, when the second slave asks the same patience to pay off his debt the first slave shows no mercy at all. This is the important moment that demonstrates the problem with the first slave. Is it that he is greedy? No. Is it that he is vengeful? No. The problem that Jesus is illustrating is that the first slave who received forgiveness was not touched by it.
The challenge of the story is that when we have experienced being forgiven then it should change how we forgive others. Given so great a second chance, the first slave gives nothing to the second slave who owes him comparably little. This is what upsets the community around the two slaves and what the King punishes him for. The message for us and the hearers of this story is that if forgiveness hasn’t changed you, you don’t understand it yet.
Now I want to address the last two verses of our reading, “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” (verse 34-35). Although these last verses are harsh, we need to look at them as a way for Jesus to drive his point home; that the community that we are called into when we follow him is to work like a family and that the forgiveness we are called to give and receive from one another, as brothers and sisters, is to be forgiveness that comes from the heart. It does not keep score and it should be given as many times as necessary.
The Good News that God is offering to us through Christ, which we each received in our baptism is that God has forgiven us all our sins and will continue to do so. How great a gift is that. And how humanly impossible that would be for us to ever repay, with even three thousand lifetimes to do it in. So our reading holds up to us a mirror for us to look at the sins that we hold against our neighbour and shows us that they are nothing compared to the sins God would have to hold up against us, if not for his forgiveness in Christ.
Our world is not a forgiving community
Finally, on this particular Sunday, I must recognize that this is the tenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001. And with all this talk about forgiveness, you might wonder how this all fits together. Well, in our passage today Jesus is not addressing the sorts of events that happened leading up to the attacks of September 11, 2001, nor the many of the events that have preceded it on the world stage. As I made clear last week, Jesus is addressing a small community of people following him, whom he was shaping and guiding to be a community living the New Covenant. Our world is not a forgiving community. 9/11 is a great example of this. The events and actions that lead up to it are not about forgiveness. And too many of the actions taken after are not about forgiveness. Mainly, they are about anger, fear, power, and greed. If anything, reflecting on what happen ten years ago and on what has happened since, should fill us with a sense of the importance of bring the message of Christ to our world, which needs it so badly. Only forgiveness can stop the fear and end the anger that trading blows has started.
Our church is called to be a forgiving community
Our church is called to be a forgiving community. Forgiveness changes us and in turn changes the community. It starts with us. It starts with you, with your family, and with your christian family of brothers and sisters. That’s why Jesus is so strong in his warning to forgive each other with our hearts. If we do not start right here and right now, then we can not and will not move forward. Truly receiving God’s forgiveness we become more forgiving, this grows and strengthens our church family, which in turn grows even more forgiveness in the world around us. The more we grow introducing others to this kind of community of forgiveness, then more forgiving the world will become. And the closer and closer we come to seeing God’s will be done here on earth. My you experience forgiveness today, and may you, touched by that forgiveness in turn be ready to offer and reflect that forgiveness to others. In Christ Name. Amen.