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Community of the Forgiven

San Williams

September 14, 2014
Matthew 18:21-35

We’re in that part of Matthew’s Gospel that’s focused on Christian community. Specifically, this passage deals with how Christians are to treat one another in the church.  Over and over again, Jesus drives home the point that rivalries, hurtful acts, careless oversights, unkind words, fiery disagreements and the like are to be met by a sustained effort to restore broken relationships and reconcile differences.  In the church of Jesus Christ, the bond of love among members is of utmost importance.

Jesus’ insistence on reconciling differences prompts Peter to pose a question. Peter’s curious about how far our forgiveness has to extend. Peter knows that offering forgiveness three or four times would be considered most generous, but he ups that number to seven, thinking Jesus will surely be impressed.  “Lord,” Peter asks, “how many times must I forgive a church member who sins against me?  As many as seven times?”

Now, most of us would agree that Peter sets the forgiveness bar exceedingly high.  Imagine, for example, that you invite a friend for dinner.  You spend the morning planning the menu. Make a trip to Central Market to select your ingredients.  Buy a nice bottle of wine.  All afternoon you cook the meal, and set the table just so.  But at the appointed hour, no guest arrives.  Three hours later you get a phone call.  Your friend is gushing apologies.  Things were terrible at work.  Her child was sick at home.  She simply forgot to check her calendar.  She pleads, “Please forgive me.  I’m so sorry.  Can we possibly reschedule?”

Most of us would probably respond something like, “Oh, I know these things happen.  Don’t worry about it.  I forgive you.  Let’s set another date.”  But what if the same thing happens a second time?  Would we be as forgiving?  And if it happened a third or fourth time? Surely there’s a limit.  Peter sets the bar at seven, which, in all honesty, is higher than most of us would ever be willing to go.

How shocking, then, when Jesus says, “No, Peter, not seven times, but seventy-seven times!”  Jesus makes the number ridiculously high to demonstrate that, for him, forgiveness is not something that can be quantified, limited, or placed within parameters.  Forgiveness, Jesus teaches us, is not an occasional favor for Christians to bestow seven times and withhold the eighth. Rather it’s a way of life, and there’s no end to it.

To illustrate, Jesus tells a story, a parable about a king who decides to settle his accounts.  He calls before him a slave who owes him an enormous debt, ten thousand talents, which would work out to be about 150,000 years’ worth of this poor man’s income.  When threatened with prison, the slave falls on his knees and begs for the king to be patient with him. He promises to repay his debt, which, of course, he cannot possibly do.  But for whatever reason, the king takes pity on the man and forgives the colossal debt.

Soon after, the forgiven slave spies a man who owes him a hundred denarii, a miniscule debt compared to the debt he has just been forgiven.  He seizes the man by the throat and demands payment in full. The man begs for mercy, just as the first slave had done, but in this case no forgiveness is forthcoming.  The forgiven man throws his debtor in prison until the debt can be repaid.

When the king gets wind of this, he’s outraged.  “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”

Unlike some of Jesus’ parables, which are opaque in meaning and require explanation, in this parable the point seems starkly clear.  God’s forgiveness carries with it an obligation. We who have been forgiven are required to forgive others.  It’s that simple.

Or is it?

Let’s be honest.  Forgiveness is hard, and just how hard depends on the circumstances and persons involved. One limitation of today’s parable is that it portrays sin as financial debt.  I know we Presbyterians like to translate sin as debts, as in our version of the Lord’s Prayer:  “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” But forgiveness is not often a mere matter of re-setting the score to zero.  Rarely does it come about by changing numbers on a spread sheet.  Often times it’s hard to forgive, because profound harm has been inflicted.  There’s an article in the current issue of Christian Century magazine about ministries to the survivors of the Rwandan genocide.  In that case, the atrocities were so horrific that, at best, forgiveness will be a slow, painful process.  When physical or sexual abuse has wrought psychological and spiritual damage, when marriages have been wrecked, loved ones lost, careers destroyed—when sin leaves painful wounds, then forgiveness is more complicated than our parable would suggest.

Given how difficult forgiveness often is, I suspect that there are people, and maybe you are one of them, who feel a certain remove from the church, perhaps even a remove from God, because they have been told that if they really are Christians, they have to forgive…yet they can’t bring themselves to do it.  Step one for the community of the forgiven might be to join hands with those folks, figuratively, and say with them that they are no different from any of us. We all know that forgiveness is hard, and sometimes it’s impossible.

Granted, today’s parable ends with the unforgiving slave’s receiving a harsh sentence.  He’s thrown into prison to be tortured until his debt is paid entirely, which, given the amount he owes, means he’s never getting out.   Some will read this parable as a cautionary tale of God’s punishment for those who refuse to forgive.  Yet remember that Jesus’ parables are not, strictly speaking, allegories, in which every character of the parable corresponds exactly to some person, group, or to God.  For example, in today’s parable, God is like the King in some ways, but not in every way. The slave’s imprisonment may simply point to the cost that unforgiveness exacts.  Commenting on the ending of the parable, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “…the wicked servant’s imprisonment is a technicality.  The wicked servant was already behind bars, bars of his own making. By refusing to be forgiven and refusing to forgive, he had already created his own little Alcatraz, where he sat in solitary confinement with his calculator, and kept track of his accounts.”

At one of our summer Supper and Substance evenings a few weeks ago, we watched and discussed clips from the movie Philomena.  It’s the true story of a young Irish girl named Philomena, who became pregnant as a teenager in the early 1950s.  Her father sent her to a convent where nuns took in unmarried pregnant girls.  Harsh conditions were imposed on the girls there.  The nuns blamed the girls for their predicament, and most of them seemed completely without compassion.  After giving birth, the young mothers had limited access to their children, but it was enough for strong and deep bonds to be formed.  However, the babies and toddlers were soon taken from their mothers and put up for adoption. More accurately, they were sold, to generate income for the convent.  Philomena’s son was sold to a wealthy American couple when he was three years old and she never saw him again.  Finally, as an old woman, she tries to find her son with the help of a journalist.  In the last scene of the movie, Philomena and the journalist confront the now quite elderly and frail nun who was responsible for much of the pain Philomena had suffered. Philomena turned to the nun. “Sister, I forgive you.”  The journalist was stunned. He said, “Just like that, you forgive her.”  Philomena shot back, “No, not just like that.  This was hard for me.”   “Well,” the journalist said, “I won’t forgive her.  I’m angry.”  Philomena looked at him. “That must be exhausting,” she said.

And she’s right.  There is a cost to holding on to anger, to bitterness, to past hurt.  It’s exhausting. It eats at our insides.   Anne Lamott wrote that the inability to forgive, “feels like drinking rat poison, and then waiting around for the rat to die.”

Someone defined forgiveness this way: “Forgiveness is acknowledging that the person who hurt you probably was not capable of doing anything else.”  We may initially recoil from that definition, but it does contain a generosity of spirit and a truth about human nature. Realizing that the person who hurt you was also a wounded individual who acted out of his or her own history and circumstances may be the key that unlocks resentment, and frees us to forgive.  Jesus himself expressed such generosity when from the cross he forgave his murderers:  “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Friends, the banner that waves over the church of Jesus Christ is “The community of the Forgiven.”  God’s grace toward us is such that God refuses to keep score on us or hold our sins against us.  That’s such good news.  And yes, in spite of God’s love, we still struggle to love one another.  Through no fault of our own, some of us live each day in the shadow of some past hurt.  But rest assured, we’re all in this community called church together.  So let’s strive, hurts and all, to pass on the grace we have received, trying with all our hearts to forgive others, just as God has forgiven us.