This week’s theme:
Most of you know that Jesse, our oldest son and our technical director, is on the autism spectrum. You’ve come to appreciate his quirks, his genius, and his empathy. However … educating Jesse was an adventure. Some teachers were totally in on Team Jesse. Others didn’t know what to make of him and struggled with managing his obsessions. Back in seventh grade he had a home ec teacher who decided that he would be her improvement project for the year. I guess she meant well, but it was torture. She just couldn’t let him be Jesse.
As things began to escalate, she decided to communicate directly with us parents and send us her daily diary of Jesse issues. Today he wouldn’t stop working on the project and transition with the rest of the class. Today he argued with me about the best method for hand washing. Today he froze and said he couldn’t do what I asked. And these were multiple paragraph entries for each and every day! Mostly all about little stuff! Who’s got that much time on their hands?
Well, we ended up with multiple conferences with teachers, principals, special education director, school psychologist. Because one teacher couldn’t let go of her effort to make Jesse fit the neuro-typical mold. Jesse may have been an every day inconvenience to her, but he surely wasn’t sinning against her or the class every day. Nevertheless, she counted up every small transgression and held onto them. That was rough on Jesse, and it was also damaging her soul. Mercy!
Our theme today comes from a question of the apostle Peter: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Seven times?”
Message, Matthew 18.21-35
This text from Matthew follows immediately after last week’s text. So, a little review. Three weeks ago, we first heard Jesus talk about binding and loosing. We mentioned that sometimes that has been applied to church discipline around behavior, but noticed that for Jesus it is primarily about relationships, not about behavior. Last week, Jesus uses the expression for the second time in this gospel and offers a process for reconciling relationships, for what happens when one of us sins against another, thus hurting a sister or brother. And we discovered that, for Jesus, the purpose of reconciled relationships is power in prayer. “Where two or three agree on earth….” “What you bind on earth is bound in heaven, what you loose on earth is loosed in heaven.” There is power in prayer when the people of God pray together and we can pray together only when we live together in reconciliation.
Peter asks the practical question: “How many times should I forgive?” How about seven times? That sounds like a lot,at least in Jesus’ time.
Notice the questions that are not asked or answered. Peter does not ask, “Why should I forgive him if he’s not sorry?” Because forgiveness is unilateral. We can grant it even to someone who doesn’t ask for it or believe they need it. Reconciliation requires both parties to participate fully. Forgiveness does not. Forgiveness sets us free, so that we are no longer tied to our pain, no longer defined by it, no longer bitter.
Peter also does not ask if forgiveness necessarily involves forgetting. Because it doesn’t require forgetting. It does require that we do not hold something against someone, but that is not the same as putting ourselves at risk once more. It does require leaving what happened in the past, and that only allows us to create a new and better future. Robin and I learned this one early on, fortunately for us. At some point, our conversations included the “but you always” line followed but a precise rejoinder, “twice in the last month I didn’t.” We discovered that such conversation was not productive for a loving marriage and we agreed together to leave the past in the past so that we could build a new and better future.
Peter asks a different question: “How many times should I forgive?” How about seven times? That sounds like a lot, at least in Jesus’ time.
Jesus offers up a much larger number. Depending on the translation choice, it is given to us as seventy times, seventy seven times, or seventy times seven (which is 490 times). For every one of us who is tempted to keep a log of offenses against us, that’s an awful lot of paperwork. And, that’s if you take Jesus literally. I think that most of us understand Jesus to be speaking figuratively, using a multiple of this perfect number, seven, to tell us that we should ditch our diary of dislike, that we should let go of our litany of lapses, that we should tear up our tally of transgression, that we should forgo our forms for faults, that we should rip up our record of wrongs. (Yes, I used a thesaurus.)
This, after all, is God’s way. Jesus “erased the record that stood against us, with its legal demands … nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14, NRSV). Love “keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:5, NIV).
So, it should be no surprise that in Jesus’ absurd story, the king or master is willing to forgive an astronomical and impossible debt. This servant owes ten thousand talents – equivalent to sixty million denarii. And a single denarii was the salary of a day laborer. Somehow, this man had fallen into a debt that would take him 160,000 years to work off. It’s an absurd story. There is simply no way you can put a price on a debt like that. If that is a good way to imagine, to quantify, the debt we carry for our sins, individually, then imagine what it meant for Jesus to carry the debt for the sins of the entire human race on the cross (Bruner). There is no way I can put price on what Jesus has done for me.
It seems that Jesus is suggesting that the only appropriate way to respond to such lavish generosity and grace from God is to pass it on. That not passing on such grace and mercy is an indicator that you do not desire it, or are not ready for it yourself.
Instead, this story gives us a forgiven servant who cares nothing for passing it on. He finds his co-worker who owes him money, and it’s a debt that is actually possible to repay, something reasonable to negotiate, but he refuses. He tosses the guy in jail. Other servants are shocked at his spitefulness and report to the king. The king, who has power to do whatever a king wants, takes back his forgiveness and tosses this man in jail too, putting him in a prison of his own making, under a torture of his own design.
This is awfully uncomfortable. Like the co-workers, we are shocked when the forgiven servant can’t pass on even a crumb of grace and mercy. And we’re probably cheering when he finds himself in prison. But then we start to wonder: Is it possible that God could be a spiteful as that? As spiteful as we would want God to be with the people on our list? Because if God is spiteful with them, perhaps God could be spiteful with me.
It is a good thing for us when we encounter such uncomfortable things in the biblical text to lean into that discomfort. And the discomfort in this text pushes us to ask this question: Why aren’t we uncomfortable with our own spite? We’ll be shocked when someone else is spiteful. We’re uncomfortable when we imagine God being spiteful. But we are entirely justified when we are spiteful. Yes, that hits too close to home.
Here in Mountain Top, I have noticed that political signs are being stolen or defaced. Why is that? Because we feel completely justified. It seems that we believe that a vote for the other guy will usher in Armageddon, the end of the world as we know it, the complete destruction of the American way of life. I sure hope that fear is exaggerated. And I hope that we here in Christ Church can model civility and unity in some difficult national conversations, to say nothing of leading with grace and mercy and forgiveness rather than fear and hate and spite.
In the global United Methodist Church, resolution of the fifty year old argument about gay marriage has been put off by the pandemic. In the meantime, we are reminded of how much good we can accomplish together – responding to Hurricane Laura, to wildfires out west, sharing the gospel in Mongolia and Milwaukee. There’s an old story of a Baptist deacon board arguing over some silly thing. Finally, one of them bangs the table and says, “I want what I deserve!” Another responds, “Go to ****!” Theologically, the second man was correct. But they both completely miss the point: Our God is gracious and merciful. Our God is slow to anger, and God’s loving-kindness endures forever. It is my hope that whatever the future of the global United Methodist Church, we don’t act like people who serve a spiteful God.
My friend Joel Shuman says that we have a mercy shortage in the world today, and he is right. God isn’t short on mercy, but we are. In every arena of human life we are choosing spitefulness, vengeance, anger, bitterness instead of forgiveness. We are building our own prison, devising our own torture. Because when we refuse mercy, we also refuse the mercy of God.
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart”(Matthew 18.35). Jesus warns us, and I’m aghast, that if we act like people who serve a spiteful God, we may well discover that God is spiteful toward us.
Peter asks the practical question: “How many times should I forgive?” How about seven times?
Instead, Jesus offers seventy-seven times. The numbers here echo a revenge theme in the Hebrew Scriptures. Lamech commits murder and reports to his wives, “I killed a man for wounding me. If Cain – the first murderer – was avenged seven times, then Lamech is avenged seventy-seven times” (Genesis 4.23-24, see Bruner). Instead of infinite vengeance, Jesus offers infinite forgiveness.
· How would Jesus tell this story if he were telling it today?
· Has anyone ever kept a record of your failing or sin? How did that affect your relationship? How did it affect them?
· Read and discuss these Scriptures: Jesus “erased the record that stood against us, with its legal demands … nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14, NRSV). Love “keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:5, NIV).
· What would it look like in our lives if we lived as people who follow a gracious and merciful God? Be specific.
· How do you need to move forward and leave the past behind?
· Set yourself free: Release a grudge.