70 x 7 – Sept. 13, 2020

70 x7

A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

Matthew 18:21-35

September 13, 2020

Main Idea – Forgiveness sets us free.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

Forgiveness is a wonderful, fantastic concept that makes us uneasy to think about.  We love forgiveness but to look at it closely; to explore what it is, and why we need it, and how it functions in our lives can be an uncomfortable experience.  It forces us to acknowledge moments when we have hurt someone else, or grudges that we are not quite willing to let go of yet.  Forgiveness is essential to our personal lives and to our wider society. We can’t live without it, and yet forgiveness can be difficult to give and difficult to accept for ourselves. 

This fall we will be exploring some of Jesus’ parables from the gospel of Matthew.

But before we get to today’s parable, we have an exchange between Jesus and Peter, and this conversation sets the stage for the story to come.  Earlier in this chapter, Jesus lays out guidelines about how his followers should get along.  In response to that guidance, Peter asks Jesus, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’  Peter thinks that he is being beyond magnanimous, that 7 is an extravagant number. Sure, a second chance should be given, maybe a third, okay, a fourth, and a fifth, a sixth and a seven.  Surely that is more than enough.  But Jesus has other plans.  “Sorry Peter, not seven.  Seventy-seven, or seventy times seven (which is 490 for those keeping score).  Jesus is saying that it is not about keeping score or having limits.  Forgiveness is not an account from which we draw until empty or a ledger where we keep track of how many times you were wrong and I was right.  Forgiveness is an orientation to life lived in God’s love.  Forgiveness sets us free.

The parable Jesus tells to illustrate this point is outrageous in many aspects, as Jesus’ parables often are.  Parables are a unique literary form which takes a simple story, drawn from everyday life, and gives it a twist to jog awareness and understanding.  Parables elicit emotional reactions and reveal truths about our God that are hard to explain in other ways.   Because this parable is so outrageous and harsh at the end, it is a little scary but let’s enter into it and see what we find.

The parable starts with a King who decides to audit his accounts.  He discovers that one of his employees owes him 10,000 talents.  One talent was worth 130 pounds of silver and was the equivalent of 15 years of wages for a manual worker.  10,000 talents would mean 150,000 years of wages.   The Greek word for 10,000 is myriad, the largest number imaginable.  The modern equivalent would be kagillion, a nonsense word that means a number beyond counting.  How this king had enough money to lend this amount is not told us.  Perhaps this employee was in charge of the King’s treasury.  But even that is beyond outrageous.  “The annual tax income for Herod the Great’s territories was 900 talents per year.  Ten thousand talents would exceed the taxes for all of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria.  The amount is fantastic, beyond all calculation.” (M. Eugene Boring, NIB Volume 8, p. 382)

Now what the king does when he discovers the debt would have been seen as proper to those listening to Jesus.  When someone could not pay their debts, their possessions were sold and they were sold into slavery, along with their family.  For the employee to cry “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”, is almost laughable because there is no way he could ever repay this debt. 

What the king does next is unexpected.  He has pity on the man. Jesus says “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents* was brought to him; 25and, 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. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.” (18:23-27)

Wouldn’t it be great if the story ended here?  Everybody goes home happy.  All has been forgiven.  The story might have ended here, if the one forgiven really understood what forgiveness was all about.

Unfortunately, the forgiven employee, so happy to be free, happens upon someone who owes him 100 denarii, which is equal to 100 days of wages.  This is a significant amount but nothing compared to what the first person had owed.  He grabs him by the throat and growls, “Pay me what you owe!”  The second person replies almost word for word what the forgiven man had said to the king. “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.”   But no pity is given.  The man is not sold into slavery, the debt is not that large, but he is thrown into prison which would have been accepted practice in that time.

It is here that a Greek chorus enters the story.  Other people, who know both parts of the story, report back to the King, who calls the forgiven man back. “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” (18:32-33).  The forgiven man’s eyes open wide. “Wait, that mercy was not just for me? This new way of caring should be shared with others?  I should care about more than just myself?  I don’t get it.”  “That much is obvious” says the King, who throws the man into prison until he can pay his debt, which of course, he never can.

Matthew sees this parable as an allegory; the King is God, we are the unforgiving slave, and we better forgive or else.  But Jesus’ parable has more layers to it.  It gets to the heart of what forgiveness is and how it saves us.  The problem of the unforgiving servant is that he doesn’t really understand or trust the forgiveness that he has been given. 

Now before we dive deeper into what forgiveness is, let’s be clear about what forgiveness is not.  Forgiveness is not forgetting. Forgiveness is not remaining in a harmful or abusive situation, or allowing harmful behavior to continue. Forgiveness is not meekly saying “okay” to injustice.  Forgiveness cannot be coerced.  Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation although they are related. “Reconciliation requires the offender’s repentance and attempt at restitution. Forgiveness means no longer demanding that the past be different than it was. It means the offender no longer has power to keep on hurting the one who was hurt.” (Pamela Griffith Pond, Facebook comment)

When we hold on to anger, pain, and grudges we are weighed down.  So much energy is taken that we call it “nursing a grudge”, we feed it, and give it lots of attention.  The sad irony is that the person with whom we are angry may be completely unaware of us.  They are happily living their inconsiderate lives, while we feel miserable.

Forgiveness is about power; the power to let go of the past, reclaim the present, and make possible a new unburdened future.  Forgiveness is refusing to let others’ behavior define us.  It breaks those chains that weigh us down and allows us to be free.  It is not easy.  It is essential.

The unforgiving servant in the parable cannot forgive, and so he remains trapped in a torment of his own creation.  Because he cannot share the love and grace and forgiveness given him, he cannot truly experience it for himself.  When we forgive others, we are empowered by God’s love and forgiveness.  When we let go of those burdens, we have the energy and focus to participate with God in bringing about justice and peace.  We can laugh more easily.  We can sleep better.  We physically feel better. We can rest in God’s forgiveness and take power from God’s love.

When we look at the unforgiving servant, we are appalled at his lack of mercy.  How can someone forgiven so much, not forgive others?  Unfortunately, there are many examples in our society of just this behavior.  Think back to 2008 when the big banks were bailed out for billions of dollars, and yet they continued to forclose on and repossess millions of homes. [10 million people lost homes during that financial crisis (https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-financial-crisis-experiences-20180915-htmlstory.html).] Think of those who judge all those of a different religion by the outrages done by extremists while ignoring the violent history of Christianity.  The unforgiving servant is still among us, is still us, but we have the opportunity to do better.  We must do better.  We can do better.

Forgiveness gives us an opportunity to strengthen our community and our ties to each other.  Forgiveness sets us free to build something new together.  These next few months will be filled with fear and anger as we approach this presidential election and deal with the results afterwards.  Forgiveness will be an important piece of stitching our nation back together again. 

Forgiveness is an orientation to life lived in God’s love.  Resting in the assurances of God’s love and grace and mercy, we are free to transform the world and declare that the burdens of the past will no longer define the future. 

Let us pray,  Forgiving God, we thank you for your love and grace and forgiveness.  Help us to trust in the power of forgiveness.  Empower us to forgive as we are forgiven.  Amen.