As Much As It Takes

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John Mann | September 13, 2020

Matthew 18: 21-35

It doesn’t take long in life before somebody does you wrong. Somewhere along the journey of life someone will sin against you; someone will incur a debt; someone will trespass on your boundaries. 

It could be a small irritation, or it could be a major life and death event. 

We pray, “Forgive us, as we forgive.” If anything is easier said than done, it is forgiveness. 

I think I know what Peter wanted when he asked Jesus, “If my brother or sister sins against me, how many times should I forgive them?” As many as seven times? Peter wanted to know, what’s the reasonable limit? There has to be a limit, doesn’t there? It’s a reasonable question. 

Most of us feel pretty good if we forgive someone once or even twice. In reality if we had to forgive someone seven times, we might wonder why we let ourselves be exploited or abused over and over again. Seven is a huge number when it comes to forgiveness. That’s an act of forgiveness for every day of the week. 

Jesus answered by saying, not seven times, but seventy times seven. That’s 490 acts of forgiveness. Basically, what he was saying was, forgive now and into the unforeseeable future. If reach 490 times and you’re still keeping an account, start over at the beginning. 

Most of us can probably think of people we have been called upon to forgive. Sometimes people will apologize for their misdeeds and ask our forgiveness. Then we have to decide. Sometimes our conscience will pester us, saying “what about that?” I would imagine that we can all think of times when we’ve responded by saying, “That’s asking too much.” 

I can’t. Or, I won’t. He or she or they don’t deserve my forgiveness and they certainly haven’t earned it. I am completely justified in my position. 

Jesus told a parable about forgiveness. He said that the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. We often have a tendency to jump to conclusions with these parables and assign values and identities. There are two keys that unlock the meaning of parables.

The first key is context. The framework of the story is Jesus’ words interpreted through the church community represented by Matthew’s gospel. It was a community trying to define itself as distinct from Judaism. It is a parable about life in the faith community. Which means like any analogy, or example by illustration, you can only take it so far. Stories like this one have been mistakenly used to justify abusive situations. 

Another key to the interpretation is in the set-up to the story. The kingdom of heaven – not – God may be compared to… but the rule of life God makes possible. Jesus pointed to it in his life and teachings. He said it is within you; it is among you. It is new life, with a different set of expectations as well as possibilities. It is life transformed. 

So, God is not the king, rather this life God makes possible is like the story of a king who wanted to settle accounts. People owed money. Some owed more than others. One guy owed an amount described as “10,000 talents.” That was a huge sum. A talent was the amount that a labour could be expected to earn over 15 years. When you consider the life-span people lived in those days, a talent was pretty much a career’s worth of earning. 

Ten thousand talents would take you 150,000 years to earn. Basically, it was an impossible sum. Who knows how someone gets that far into debt. There was no way the servant could pay it. The king ordered that the man’s assets be liquidated and sold. His assets included him and his family. 

But the man begged and even promised the impossible, that he would pay it back. The king took pity and forgave him. So off went the servant, debt free. 

He encountered a fellow servant who owed him money. A hundred denarii. A hundred denarii was a fair amount of money. It would take some time to put that kind of cash together and some months of working. It was a big, but not impossible sum.

The servant who had been forgiven the impossible debt grabbed the guy who owed him a possible debt and demanded payment. And since he didn’t have that kind of money just lying around, the first guy had the second guy thrown in the slammer until things could be settled. 

Word got back to the king and he called the servant to account. He rescinded his previous forgiveness and had him thrown into prison along with the guy who owed him the hundred denarii. 

Jesus said that’s what will happen if you don’t forgive from the bottom of your heart. 

That’s really a strange story. Does it imply that if we are once forgiven, of even some huge insurmountable debt to God, that if we hold some little grudge against somebody, that our sins will come back to haunt us? Which would make God’s forgiveness entirely dependent upon our constant vigilance that we hold not the slightest debt against our brothers and sisters. 

We can feel the outrage of the king and our sense of justice resonates with the punishment meted out to the ungrateful servant. But where in this story do we gain some sense of the life God makes possible? 

When Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, he often said things like, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” It is a way of living where the status quo is turned around, if not upside down.

The parables Jesus told were often about people or situations of powerlessness. The people he spoke to and lived amongst were oppressed by a political and religious system. If we identify anyone as the key player in the story, it is the second servant. 

He’s going along, minding his own business when suddenly his life takes a sharp turn in a direction over which he has no control. He ends up in prison and the one person who had the power to release him, gets thrown into same cell. Now he’s really stuck. He’s being punished for his debt, and because the king took back his mercy, there is no hope for him. 

So the point of the parable as a comparison to the way things work in God’s realm of expectation and possibility is simply: don’t do it like these people; rather, authentic forgiveness is without condition or limit. Mercy is mercy. 

What we often wrestle with in trying to forgive someone is that we are often very much justified in holding onto our grudge. We have good reasons for not forgiving – 

The pain we experienced. 

The injustice of it. 

The downright wrongness of it all. 

And how can we forgive someone if they are in no way sorry for what they did to us? Or if they even realize or admit they did something wrong? 

Are the reasons we hold back on forgiveness good enough? Another way to look at forgiveness is that a grievance against someone comes with an emotional and spiritual weight. Little grievances don’t weigh much and are easy to carry. Some of them are so light that we get used to carrying them around and they become part of our baggage. But if you have too many, they will weigh you down. 

Some grievances are heavy burdens, so much so that carrying them becomes who we are. It would seem like the right thing to do to let them go, to not carry such a heavy burden; but sometimes the thought of letting go of that identity of the aggrieved party carries too much risk. There are times when it’s more convenient to be a martyr than to live in the realm of mercy and grace.

In the parable, the king handed over the ungrateful servant to be tortured until the entire debt was paid off. He’s not saying that God is going to punish us unless we forgive; rather I think he is getting at the idea that we torture ourselves by hanging on to grievances past their sell by date. 

The difficult part of the story is in the “how to.” There are no easy steps to forgiving someone. Stories about what other people have done don’t necessarily make it any easier. Sometimes it boils down to the simple dictum, life is too short. We all have to come to terms with the wrongs that have been done to us, the wrongs we’ve done to others and figure out what it means to seek mercy. Forgiveness is freedom – both when we are forgiven and when we forgive. 

It is easy enough to say, “You need to forgive.” 

The real meaning is found in the words, “I need to forgive.” 

Once – seven times – seventy times seven times – as much as it takes. Amen.

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