“Forgiving” Colchester Federated Church, September 17, 2017, (Matthew 18:21-35) Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Last week we explored conflict resolution, and today we’re talking about forgiveness.  Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?”  Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”[1]  That’s a whole lot of forgiveness!  Then Jesus tells us a parable to bring the message home.

There’s this king who wants to settle accounts with his slaves.  One of the slaves owed him 10,000 talents and since he couldn’t pay, the king ordered him to be sold along with his wife and children and all his possessions.  There’s debate if these characters should be translated as “slaves” or “servants.”  Though the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible uses “slaves” so that’s what we’ll use today.  The king here represents God and the slaves represent you and me, all of us.  God has the power here.  And we depend on God’s mercy in our lives.  As Jesus teaches in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”[2]

Now to put this situation into perspective, a denarius was a day’s wage for a common laborer and that laborer may work 300 days a year or so.  One talent would be worth about twenty years of wages.  So the amount the slave owes the king is 200,000 years wages for one person or a year’s wages for 200,000 people.  The amount owed is astronomical.  There is no way on God’s good earth that anybody could repay it, period.[3]  It’s no wonder that the slave falls to his knees upon hearing the amount owed the king and says, “Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything” even though he knew he couldn’t repay even half this amount.[4]  The king does have pity, releases him, and forgives him the debt.  The king basically says, “Yeah you owe me 200,000 years’ worth of wages, but we’re good.  It’s cool, man.  All’s forgiven.”  That’s worth noting here—the slave isn’t simply given an extension (which is what he asked for in the first place).  He is forgiven the debt entirely.  The slate is wiped clean.  That’s far more than he would have hoped the king would do for him—extravagant mercy is extended.

And with that remarkably generous act, you would think that this man would pay it forward, right?  Just as he received mercy he would show mercy to others.  “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”  Instead, he sees a fellow slave who owes him 100 denarii and demands immediate repayment.  That debt owed would be about four months’ wages and it would be possible to pay off this debt.  But it would take some time.  They would need to figure out a repayment plan and some patience would need to be shown.  The slave who just had his astronomical debt forgiven shows no mercy, seizes this other slave by the throat and demands payment now.  When that can’t happen and the fellow slave pleads, he has him thrown into debtors’ prison until the debt could be paid.

Now their fellow slaves saw all of this go down and tell the king what happened.  The king summons the slave and says, “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”[5]  And the king has the slave handed over to be tortured until he would pay off his entire debt—which we remember is impossible, right?  It’s a terribly uncomfortable ending to the parable and Jesus intended the lesson to sink in for all of us.  Forgiveness is essential for living a Christian life.

We know if we have ever been wronged by someone that forgiveness isn’t always easy.  Sometimes people hurt us and the resentment builds within.  But as a friend once shared—holding onto resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.  You’re drinking that poison and slowly hurting yourself.  There’s only so much energy any of us have in our lives.  And if we’re directing our finite energy toward something so negative, it hurts us.  It doesn’t restore our spirits.  It starts killing our spirits.  It’s hard to let go of hurts in our own families and with our friends let alone in the church.  Though we have to keep in mind that sometimes we are the ones wronged, and other times we are the wrongdoer.

It reminds me of a time when I was the wrongdoer and had to seek forgiveness from my older sister (my only sibling) Maureen.  One Fall day when Maureen and I were both in elementary school, she and I were outside playing.  Maureen said something really mean to me and instead of walking away or verbally responding, I decided to seek revenge another way.  Looking on the ground and noticing that the tree I was standing near was shedding burrs all over our yard, a plan hatched in my little mind.  Bending down and picking up a handful of those prickly burrs, I lunged at my sister who never saw me coming.  Knocking her down and pinning her to the ground I took my handful of burrs and tangled them as well as I could in her thick blonde hair.  Maureen laughed at first at my immaturity; I hadn’t hurt her too badly.  But when she tried to pull the first burr out of her hair and realized that it wasn’t going to budge, she ran into the house to get help.

After a while of staying outside alone, I headed into the house to face the music. Walking into the kitchen, I found my sister sitting at the kitchen table glaring at me through angry tears.  Our mother was hunched over her with a can of peanut butter on the table and her hands tangled in my sister’s hair gently attempting to find all the burrs and slide them out after applying some peanut butter to each knot.  Looking down at my feet, I mumbled my apology and our mother shot me an angry glare sometimes only mothers can give their children and said, “Lauren Ashley Lorincz, look what you did to your sister.  You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

Truthfully, I was ashamed of myself.  What I did that day to my only sister was awful.  Yes, we were in elementary school, but I was old enough to know better.  I hurt her on purpose and stubbornly refused to respond to her verbal insult in a more mature way, letting my temper get the best of me.  It took a while for my sister to forgive me.  There was more than one apology sincerely said on my part.  And the forgiveness probably came once her hair no longer smelled of peanut butter.  But she did forgive me, and we can all laugh about this story now.  Though I was just home in Wadsworth, Ohio at my parents’ house a few weeks ago and that tree is still standing in the side yard shedding burrs as it naturally does around this time of year.  It’s a reminder of a natural quick temper that I’ve done some work on since childhood days with Maureen.

We’ll have times when we are the ones who need to forgive someone.  And we’ll have times when we are the ones who have to seek forgiveness because we were in the wrong.  Jesus shows both sides of the story in this parable.  The slave is forgiven at first by the king.  And then has the opportunity to forgive someone else and pay the mercy forward, but he doesn’t.  This parable does end harshly and it’s meant to make us think.  If we expect people to forgive us when we wrong them.  Then we had better be willing to forgive others when they wrong us.  Forgiveness has to go both ways.

Here’s something to keep in mind though.  Jesus telling us to forgive as many as seventy-seven times has to be in conversation with the Greatest Commandment Jesus ever taught.  We have to be vigilant in contemplating the implications of Christian teachings.  Otherwise serious harm has been and continues to be perpetrated by certain leaders of the Church in the name of God.

Telling a domestic violence victim to stay in an abusive relationship because Jesus said to turn the other cheek and Jesus said to forgive if people sin against us is the last thing Jesus would ever want of his beloved children.  Because it goes against the Greatest Commandment that Jesus taught: love God, love your neighbor, and love yourself.  It’s spiritually wounding and theologically lazy to not engage with what Jesus meant when he taught to turn the other cheek if anyone strikes you or forgive someone seventy-seven times.  We spend time every week looking at our Christian faith and asking important questions because what we believe and what we’re taught in church has consequences.  Getting to the heart of Jesus’ message matters—love of self matters in addition to love of neighbor and love of God.

We can forgive those who hurt us and let that anger and that pain no longer be at the center of our lives.  That’s for us to be healthy and to keep God at the center of our lives as opposed to the wound.  Doesn’t mean you have to stay with the person who hurts you.  That’s not the only outcome or sole intention of Jesus’ words here.  God willing, the outcome is peace—peace for God’s sake and peace for ourselves.  Author Marianne Williamson once said, “Forgiveness is not always easy.  At times, it feels more painful than the wound we suffered, to forgive the one who inflicted it.  And yet, there is no peace without forgiveness.”

At the end of the day, we figure out what extending mercy looks like in our lives in order to have peace.  We figure out what receiving mercy looks like.  Peter’s original question and the parable Jesus tells about the king and the slaves is a call to examine our own lives and figure out how forgiveness works.  Knowing that we don’t have infinite time and energy, any more than that slave had 10,000 talents to repay the king.  So what can we do to live the lives God intends for us?  How does forgiveness play out in our families, with our friends, at work, in our church?  Do we hold onto grudges and never let stuff go?  Do we say we’re sorry and mean it when we’ve been in the wrong?  This is a two thousand year old story Jesus told, and this story continues to challenge.  Just remember, for these words are true: “blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 18:21-22, NRSV.
[2] Matthew 5:7.
[3] Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary, 23.
[4] Matthew 18:26.
[5] Matthew 18:32-33.