Sermon on Matthew 18: 21-35
We pray each week, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who sin against us. it seems Peter’s question gives Jesus an opportunity to illustrate that line a little bit in the parable he tells. Forgiven, we forgive.
This passage is immediately after what we talked about last week, Christian confrontation of sin in community. Forgiveness is the expected outcome of that process, even if it was not named yet so yes big star to Peter for understanding that much. Forgiveness, the cancelling of the barrier to right relationship, so that the relationship can heal, is what is to come from talking about the transgression, the sin, whatever was done that harmed. It should not result in gossip, in shaming someone, in escalation of tensions, but true forgiveness.
But Peter –thanks Peter for asking the questions others might have thought but not put into words- Peter wants a number. Peter wants a limit to how many times he should b expected to forgive. Seven was considered the number of completeness or perfection, so he guesses that as a starting point. If the same person does the same thing and we talk about it and I forgive them, okay once I can do it, twice, three times… but stretching the imagination- 7 is a lot, right Jesus?
But again Peter, and all of us, need that reorientation. From thinking about things how we’re used to thinking about them- me centered, to thinking about them from kingdom of God perspective. It’s not about counting, Jesus says with the number way bigger than what Peter said- a number you really don’t want to try to keep track of- what he means is, it’s not about keeping track. If you start out with a number, you are going to do this like an exercise expecting the other person to mess up again, looking for your way OUT of the relationship, rather than deeper Into it.
And then in this parable Jesus goes into more exaggeratedly huge numbers. 10,000 talents would be daily wages for 60 million days. And the servant, the worker, owes it to the king, who is already rich. In modern terms it’s like an amazon worker making –$15/an hour owes Jeff Bezos seven billion dollars. It is an obscene number to expect that person to pay back. But the king in the parable has mercy. And does not imprison him to force his family members to pay for his freedom.
Then that same worker has someone who owes him twelve thousand dollars and grabs him by the throat to demand payment. You would think this worker would be walking on air, would be feeling generous to owe nothing where he had owed more than he ever could have repaid. In the parable this is not the case: even though his slate of debt has been wiped clean, he can’t stop calculating. Can’t stop counting what others owe him. Instead of living as forgiven, he is living as a debt collector, exacting payment.
This other person uses the same words that came out of the worker’s mouth before the king’s throne, be patient I will pay you back. But he does not have mercy. He throws the person in prison a much smaller debt than what he had been forgiven.
It takes other people noticing to step in and tell on him.
Then he is the one put in prison. Not for his debt, but because he failed to let that forgiveness he received sink into his way of life, his thinking. He did not let that forgiveness of immense debt change the way he walked in the world. We can choose to understand the sentence the king gives, instead of really being a cause-and- effect punishment, is really just a way, in the story, of pointing out of the reality the slave has already chosen to live in. because even though he was forgiven an astronomical sum, he couldn’t get out of the counting game for himself. So he was already in the torture chamber. He couldn’t live the way of forgiveness and the freedom to forgive that comes with it.
The disciples are expected to live differently because they are following Jesus. This section of Matthew lays out some of the high standards Jesus has for his disciples. This is not a carnival fun ride with no commitment and no cost.
But the benefits always outweigh the commitment we make. It is not just what God expects of us, it is what God knows is good for us. Forgiveness is not just for the debtor, the one who messed up, it is for the forgiver the best course of action.
Blogger Debie Thomas writes:” I think forgiveness is choosing to foreground love instead of resentment. If I’m consumed with my own pain, if I’ve made injury my identity, if I insist on weaponizing my well-deserved anger in every interaction I have with people who hurt me, then I’m drinking poison, and the poison will kill me long before it does anything to my abusers. To choose forgiveness is to release myself from the tyranny of my bitterness. To trust that my frenzied longing for vindication and justice is known to God. To cast my hunger for healing deep into Christ’s heart, because healing belongs to him, and he’s the only one powerful enough to secure it.”
I find this idea beautiful and true: Forgiveness is a deep trusting in God’s justice coming about in the end. Not that what happened to me, to us, to whoever, doesn’t matter, but I can let it go into the infinite justice of God and then let God take care of it. That I won’t be able to make things right on my own so I let God step in for the healing to be able to begin. It reminds me of Jesus on the cross when he says, Father forgive them for they know not what they do. Can’t you just feel the freedom Jesus has, even nailed to a cross, that he can forgive in that moment? The complete trust he has that even though he is being killed, God will make it right?
But also, forgiveness is not pretending what happened didn’t happen. It isn’t a mere sweeping under the rug or let bygones be bygones. Because of the whole first part we talked about last week- where you actually tell the person how they hurt you, you confront that hurt and try then to heal it together. I do not want anyone to confuse what I’m saying with permitting abuse of any kind To forgive is to confront the offense, whatever it was, and then say, if you can admit as well this was wrong, I still care about you as a person and want to have a relationship with you, so we will not let our relationship be defined by this hurt between us. We will open ourselves to a future that is not defined by the past..
Forgiveness is at least, being able to wish the person well that hurt you. Hope for their healing and their well-being. Which might have to happen far far away from you.
We say we have been forgiven by God because of Jesus Christ. That forgiveness is infinite, without limit, uncountable. If we follow Jesus our way should be one that is oriented to the way of forgiving, having mercy. But beloved, we never do it on our own. We never do it without receiving it first. God has forgiven us in sums as extraordinary as the king forgives in the parable. We pray each week: Forgive us as we forgive those who trespass against us. We pay the forgiveness forward so that it can cut apart those chains, disrupt those cycles of hurting one another, so all the world can see there is another way to live, trusting in God, forgiven and free. May it be so.