First Congregational Church
September 14, 2014
14th Sunday after Pentecost
“The Hardest Blessing”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Our scripture passage for this morning is the one that immediately follows the one from last week. The passage for last week was one of the top ten tough ones - in my book, because of the great propensity for confusion, misunderstanding and the harm it can do and has done. For those who weren’t here, it began, “If your brother or sister sins,” detailing the steps of what has been called “church discipline.” It ended with “if two of you on earth agree and pray” and “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” I wasn’t surprised, then, when today’s passage turned up, and at the immediate response to this well-known text.
Matthew 18:21-35 NIV
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Thank you, Mary. Some of my initial thoughts in regards to this passage went like this: If you take Jesus’ words literally, on one side of the coin, forgiving 77 times sounds like a lot - until you realize that you don’t have to do it anymore after that 77th offense. On the other hand, being forgiven 77 times is awesome, until you realize that you are at number 75. Good thing it’s a parable, because 10,000 bags of gold would take a lot of work to maneuver. (The second amount owed was about 100 days worth of labor, and the first amount was about 150,000 years of labor at the time, about $1 million in our time.) Back to the initial thoughts, at what point - in torture - or jail - is a debt repaid? How does time served actually repay a monetary amount? Interesting that this passage falls on the Sunday after the 13th anniversary of 9/11. Ironically, in the end, Jesus doesn’t actually tell us the steps or the potion or the whatever of how to forgive. And I can’t wait to hear what some of your impressions are.
Most folks would take this passage to be about forgiveness, which is where I started. Earlier in the week, I asked a question on Facebook: “In preparing for Sunday's sermon, what is your favorite quote on “forgiveness?”" I never expected 35 responses by yesterday afternoon! I wish there was time to read them all, but here are a few of the delightful nuggets some by local folks, others from history. (By the way, I decided to print them all, and have a copy here for those who don’t do Facebook, if you’re interested.)
Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past can be different or change. To not forgive is like living in a cell and the lock is on the inside. “An eye for an eye, and the whole world would be blind.” Not forgiving is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. It doesn't take a very big person to carry a grudge! Forgive your enemies- it messes with their head. And my ultimate favorite: You weren't in church....I forgive you!
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I sort of remember a study that was once done to determine which was more necessary: food or forgiveness, and it turned out to be forgiveness. It therefore makes all the more sense that the prayer for daily bread lies right next to the forgiveness of debts in The Lord’s Prayer.
On the surface, there seem to be a couple of motivational tools that Jesus is utilizing: one of grateful response and the other of punishment. They may be effective, but not always or necessarily the most helpful.
Scott Hoezee from Calvin Seminary said, “Forgiven” is who and what we just are. Forgiveness is not a tool you need just once in a while. Forgiveness is not like that Phillips screwdriver that you keep out in the garage and that you fetch now and then when a kitchen cabinet is loose (and when a regular flat-head screwdriver won’t work). Forgiveness is not a specialty tool to be utilized occasionally.
Eric Barreto from Luther Seminary mentioned that we do well to remember that this is a parable, not a real event. He said, “Jesus seems to treasure teaching in parables. He is a vivid storyteller. He casts simple but memorable stories that communicate profound and life-altering truths.” I was all over that thought, until I realized that Jesus never actually explained “how to forgive,” - and I listened to The Moonshine Jesus Show.
While the easiest take on this passage may be forgiveness, if you think about it, there is more - a whole lot more. Everyone who hears this parable gets the surface lesson: how could the servant possibly not overlook that (relatively) minor debt when he had just been forgiven an impossibly huge one? What I think many of us fail to do at that level is to extrapolate it to something like - if God forgives all my stuff, and welcomes me, then shouldn’t I at least be able to “allow” others into my realm of influence, others that may not be like me? That’s that big, open, magnanimous love for all people.
Go back to the generous king, the one who had forgiven so much, the one we would all most likely pat on the back for such a gracious gift. Skip over the middle bit, and listen to the tune the king is playing at the end of the parable. The very one that he had just gifted may be free of debt, but he remains a slave - and now in prison. The king is blind to the fact that he has not freed anyone or done anything gracious, but has perpetuated slavery. Back in the day, slavery was so common, that a huge argument could be made over the relevance of this “made-up” detail.
But it’s an excellent lesson for us contemporary followers of Christ. We all have blindnesses to which we buy into societal standards that hurt other people: an inexhaustible water supply, a mentality that some deserve differently than others, that we can withhold forgiveness because we can find many reasons not to forgive.
The original Greek word for forgiveness in this parable means to “let go.” (Too late I realized that we could have had someone sing “Let It Go” from the Disney movie, Frozen.) To let something or someone “go” is a huge blessing. The hardest part of that blessing is going from hurt to forgiveness, pain to freedom.
But our passage has another hard lesson, to take a look at the things that give us the most pride, and see if they are really serving a worthwhile purpose. I’m not talking about fishing boats or cars or bread makers or artistic endeavors. It’s the three fingers that come back at us when we are pointing at someone else.
It would be easy to say, let us pray at this point, but we all need the last reminder that 1. my prayer is always that God will teach the points we need to hear, despite the fact that I don’t know everything, and 2. we don’t have just 7 or 77 chances with God. God keeps no record of wrongs, and will not treat any of us differently than God has in the past - or will in the future. God’s love is as steadfast and gracious as it has been since the day God dreamed of each one of you. Out of that grace and steadfastness, we are able to begin to let those things that loom over us go, over and over as many times as we need, beginning with prayer.
Grace-full and Gracious God, we thank you for forgiving us our debts, trespasses, sins, slip-ups, fall-outs, and all the other ways we sometimes seem to goof up and/or fall short. We are grateful for the unending supply of forgiveness that is ours for the asking. So help us when it comes to forgiving others. Help us to “want” to forgive those who have wounded us deeply. Help us to patiently lay down our burdens of sorrow and pain and injustice at your feet, that you may roll them out to the sea of forgetfulness. Help us, too, to realize those situations that can make us appear blind to our own foolishness. More than anything, God, help us to not focus on the miscues and mistakes, but on the good and betterment. Thank you for loving us, gracing us, forgiving us, over and over and over and over. And all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.