September 17, 2023

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 17, 2023

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

From the Gospel according to Matthew: “Peter … said to Jesus … ‘how often should I forgive?’” I speak to you in the Name of God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifying Sustainer. Amen.

     I find Jesus’ parable in this morning’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew difficult to embrace. On the surface, it appears straightforward. It echoes the theme of the Lord’s Prayer: Christians are to forgive others as often as we, ourselves, have been forgiven by God and each other. Sounds straightforward to me. It’s the reality this parable describes that is difficult to embody, let alone live each and every day.

See, Peter’s question how many times he should forgive suggests that there is or at least should be a limit as to how many times we can forgive someone especially if they continue to hurt us. A literal reading of this text would suggest that there is a limit. And that is where we get it wrong and risk missing the whole point of Jesus’ story.

Now, scholars disagree as to the exact words Jesus spoke here. Did he say forgive “seventy-seven times” as our translation reads, or are the words in the wrong order? Should they be read as “seventy times seven?” That is the more accurate translation. And that means we must forgive someone not seven times as Peter suggested and Hebrew custom affirmed, but 490 times (that is 70 X 7). And therein lies both the danger and the bewilderment that arises when one interprets this text solely in terms of numbers as if forgiveness is something that can be quantified and limited.

    Sometime ago, I read an article about a church that was in deep distress. The pastor had such a fragile ego that to disagree with him resulted in tirades about loyalty and faithfulness not to God, but to him. What’s more, he publicly berated and named his detractors from the pulpit. Now as horrible as this situation was, the saddest comment came from one of the parishioners who was keeping track as to how many times he had forgiven this pastor. He was quoted saying, “Jesus said we have to forgive 490 times. So, I am keeping a tally so that I will know when I can finally and biblically walk away.” In the meantime, he was treated like a doormat. That is not what this parable is about.

But, you know what? I think many of us tend to do the same. While some might resent being asked to forgive someone’s offense for the umpteenth time, they are happy to keep track of the value of the gifts their child receives versus another, or how many times someone returns to the buffet table for “seconds.”  It seems human nature to keep track, to keep score. And it is because of that human nature, we must look at this parable more closely and ask what is Jesus talking about here? So let’s go deeper.

You might be surprised to know that a “talent” in 1st Century Palestine was the equivalent of 150 pounds of silver which was equal to about fifteen years’ worth of a laborer’s wages. So, the slave who owed 10,000 talents actually owed 150,000 years of wages. In other words, his was an impossible debt to repay. Now a denarius was the equivalent of just one day’s labor, one day’s wages. So, the second slave owed about one hundred days of wages. That was still a hefty sum, but minor compared to the other’s debt. So, from a numbers standpoint, we can understand how ludicrous it was to deny someone a minor debt when you have been forgiven something far greater.

But this parable is not a “numbers game.” It is filled with numbers, but that underscores Jesus’ point. To keep track of how many times someone forgives is to miss what forgiveness means, what forgiveness is about, and how forgiveness – both receiving it and granting it - can change lives.

You see, it’s not that Jesus was trying to get Peter to forgive more, but rather, to stop counting, stop keeping track altogether. Now this isn’t a story about holding someone accountable for breaking a law. No. this parable is not about laws or breaking the law. Jesus is trying to get Peter and, for that matter, all of us to understand that forgiveness cannot be quantified, it cannot be counted. Forgiveness is something far deeper and far more transforming.

So, when asked how often we should forgive someone who has wronged us and wronged us repeatedly, Jesus answers with a parable about a King. A slave begs for mercy and upon hearing the sincerity of his plea, the King forgives his debts. The King’s response is a perfect and, frankly, a costly demonstration of grace and mercy. But the story goes on: This same slave turns on someone who owes him and demands payment, threatens physical violence and, when repayment is deemed impossible, he throws him into prison. The King hears about it and intercedes. “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy … as I had mercy on you?” And the King, in his anger, hands him over to torture and imprisonment.

     Now, some Christians believe that the end of this parable proves God’s forgiveness is conditional and dependent upon our willingness to forgive. But Jesus does not suggest the King represents God. No. This story describes the awful and paralyzing or imprisoning burden we carry when we keep score: when we fail to forgive as deeply, sacrificially, gracefully, mercifully, and as often as God forgives us. You see, this slave’s punishment mirrors the condition in which he already lives. He is forever stuck keeping track, keeping score, rather than grasping the essence of mercy and grace at the heart of forgiveness. It turns out that what the King cannot forgive is one’s inability to forgive as they’ve been forgiven. Well, Father Allan, that sounds fine and dandy, but is such forgiveness really practical let alone possible?    

     Our Old Testament lesson tells us that God can do incredible things. The poignant message in today’s reading from Exodus with its story of the people of Israel crossing the Red Sea reveals the truth, as is told over and again throughout scripture, that all people, Jew and Gentile, all people enslaved by whatever powers controlled their lives, people who could not free themselves, by the grace and mercy of God were suddenly freed. God did for people what they could not do themselves. Why? Because mercy and grace is the very heart and essence of God and, therefore, should be the very heart and essence of God’s people. Now, that’s a tough one to embrace, isn’t it?

     St. Paul in today’s reading from his letter to the Romans says that all of us will stand before the same Lord on the last day. So, Paul says, who are we to judge our neighbors? We are called to live as Christ; called to pray, “Father forgive them.”  We no longer live for ourselves, but rather, whether we live or die, Paul says, we are the Lord’s and we are called to be his reconciling and forgiving presence, Christ’s light, in this world. In fact being willing to forgive is our baptismal promise.

    The good news of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is that fallen humankind which could not redeem itself from sin, has been redeemed by God and set free. God, through Christ, has said, “I forgive you” and “I still forgive you,” and “I will continue to forgive you again and again – forgive you every time you ask” because that’s what grace and mercy do. Grace doesn’t keep track. Mercy doesn’t keep score. Nevertheless, while we might have no problem asking God to forgive our sins, many struggle to forgive those who have sinned against them, especially when the wound is deep.

    This past Monday was the 22nd anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11 that killed thousands of people. So it was natural to see reminders posted on social media urging us to, “Never Forget.” And we must not forget. In fact, Jesus doesn’t suggest we forget at all, but we must forgive and always be willing to forgive no matter how badly we are treated. Why? Because forgiveness yields an abundance of grace and mercy not only for the recipient, but for us who grant it. And that’s where this parable touches and challenges our daily lives.

See, forgiveness is like love. It cannot be coerced or limited: it cannot be quantified because forgiveness is a relational gift. And as a relational gift, it offers to change how we see the World, how we see one another, see our enemies, and even our own selves. Forgiveness acknowledges that while we probably cannot change what happened, but what happened – even our own poor choices - doesn’t have to hold us hostage. In many ways, forgiveness ultimately determines our future. But here’s the real kicker in this story: forgiveness that truly changes the person receiving it and especially, the one granting it, is forgiveness that comes from the heart. That is the essence of our Lord’s Prayer and essence of this parable. In fact, it is the essence of who we are. In Jesus’ own words, forgiveness for people of faith, is an intentional choice – a choice of, and from, our hearts.

     Peter asked, “how often should I forgive?’” The answer lies not in how many times, but in our willingness to always show mercy, to show grace. And true mercy and grace comes from the heart: the very essence of God at work within us by, as our Collect offers, the power of the Holy Spirit. And therein, friends, lies our challenge, and our hope. Amen.