St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Trinity 14, Sept 13, 2020
Canon Claude Schroeder
Sermon on Matt. 18. 21-35
Peter came to Jesus and asked him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often am I to forgive?”
Peter’s question to Jesus in our lesson today follows on naturally from the instruction Jesus gave his disciples in last week’s lesson: “ If a fellow member of the church sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained a brother.” (Matthew 18. 15)
This is the real test of Christian community. And it’s when, out of love, we go and speak to the person who has wronged us, and engage in the hard work of reconciliation, and restore the relationship. We do so not only for the sake of the relationship, but for the sake of our Christian brother or sister.
As Stanley Hauerwas has pointed out, “If we fail to challenge one another in our sins, we in fact abandon one another to our sin.” (1) Where is the possibility for correction? And God, as we are reminded in the Absolution in the service of Morning Prayer, “does not desire the death of a sinner, but rather they turn from their wickedness and live.”
But what am to do, with this person, who has sinned against me and has now admitted their fault?
Anybody who has spent any time around Jesus, knows the answer.
I am to forgive.
But this then raises another problem, and another difficulty, which Peter identifies in his question to Jesus.
“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often am I to forgive? As many as seven times?
With some people, “one strike and you are out!” There are no second chances.
Others will give you a second chance, but then, after the third strike, just like in baseball “ you’re out!”
Peter thinks he is being pretty generous in forgiving seven times.
But at what point, am I entitled to withhold forgiveness.
When it comes to forgiveness, when have I reached the limit?
It’s not an unreasonable question.
Jesus said to Peter, “ Not seven times, but seventy times seven,” by which he clearly meant to say to Peter, “ If you are keeping count, keeping track, you have missed the point.”
There are no limits to the forgiveness Christians must be prepared to offer one another.
As Jesus goes on to illustrate in this morning’s parable, the reason this is so, is that there are no limits to the forgiveness the Father offers us through His Son, and that which God has forgiven us is simply out of all proportion to the forgiveness that we offer one another.
For this reason said Jesus, the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.
This was an astronomical amount of money, the equivalent to 3. 5 billion dollars in today’s currency.
The King decides to cut short his losses and recover what he can by having the slave sold, together with his wife, children, and all his possessions.
When the slave falls on his knees and begs the King, “Have patience with me, and I will; pay you everything!” who was he kidding?
The slave would have to be reincarnated countless times before the books would be balanced. And while some religions hold to a doctrine of reincarnation as the only possible way for sin to be dealt with, Christianity is not one of them.
We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins (Apostles Creed), where the books are not so much balanced, as they are closed and thrown out, because the debts have been cancelled.
So it was that out of pity for him, the Lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.
But no sooner has the slave been forgiven his unrepayable debt, than he encounters a fellow slave who owed him a hundred denarii, a mere $75.00 in today’s currency.
This slave similarly fell on his knees and pleaded, “Have patience with me, and I will repay you,” a not unreasonable request. But the plea for patience and mercy fell on deaf ears, and he went and threw his fellow slave into prison until he could pay the debt.
At this point the story takes a dramatic turn. The fellows slaves reported to the king what had happened, whereupon the King became angry and there was ‘hell to pay’ literally. In has anger, the king ordered him to be tortured until he would pay the entire debt.
And so, says Jesus, “My heavenly Father will also do to everyone one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
And that as they say is not a threat. It’s a promise.
Here Jesus reveals to us the truth about unforgiveness. Unforgiveness is a torment. It is torture. It is hell.
So when you forgive someone who owes you, it’s not like you’re doing them any favors, because God has already forgiven them. You are doing yourself a favor. You are freeing yourself up from the torment of an ongoing resentment.
Jesus, as per usual, has turned the table on us in this little parable. The question is not, “How often should I forgive?” but rather, “How am to live into the forgiveness that I have been granted?” such that forgiveness becomes a matter of the heart?
One way we do this is by keeping close hold of and remembrance of the enormity of which I have been forgiven. How do I do that? I do it first of all through the practice of truth telling. This is what we call confession. It’s where I call a spade a spade, and a sin a sin. Lying, adultery, stealing, but also holding onto resentments, and any other action that run contrary to the commandments of God, are not just mistakes or arbitrary moral judgements. They are sins against God, but they are sins which have forgiven, and debts which have been cancelled, transforming us into a community of the forgiven.
The other way we live into forgiveness, is by passing on what we have received. And it is this for which we pray in the Lord’s prayer. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Here you want to start with the small stuff, the every day stuff, the little irritations. In this way forgiveness will, through God’s grace, become a habit of the heart.
So what do you do with the one person and that one thing in your life which seems beyond your ability to forgive. What this person did you, and what happened to you, was just so hurtful. This is where you can pray for this person who has become your enemy, and pray, “O God, at the final judgment, do not condemn them for my sake.” This places forgiveness at a distance and even a hard heart can often manage the small prayer of forgiveness at such a distance.(2)
The times in which we live may be characterized and summarized by one word: division. We are divided not only along racial lines, but politics lines, and ideological lines. Lots of people are talking about the elections that are coming up. It’s not a pretty picture. “What”, you ask, is the answer all this division? Is it not forgiveness?
When Jesus admonishes Peter to forgive not seven, but seventy times seven, he was echoing the establishment of the jubilee year in the book of Leviticus (25.8) where according to the law of Moses, every 49 years all debts were forgiven and ownership of the land was restored to whom it belonged. It is because of the jubilee which Jesus has established that forgiveness can reign in the church.
It is in and through the Church and the practice of forgiveness that Jesus is giving us an alternative politics to the politics of envy, hatred and revenge that characterizes life in our world, a politics that we need now more than ever. (3) Amen.
1. Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew ( Grand RapidsL Brazos, 2006), 166.
3. Stanley Hauerwas, 166