The Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35
Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
“For this reason 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; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! 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?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Prayer: Lord, you have promised that when two or three gather in your name you will be present with them. We depend on that promise today and pray that you will move among us. Lord, we pray that you have inspired Mike's preparation, that you will enliven his presentation, and that you will empower our application. Amen
The Message: So, can I just say that this Gospel passage from Matthew is one of my least favorite Gospel readings that we encounter? Now, I know I am not supposed to have favorites.
But let's be honest there are ones that roll around and we just go "Yay! I understand this one. I get how I can apply it. I recognize how I can be working on making it a reality in my life."
When it comes to this passage from Matthew this morning I just shake my head. First of all, Peter asks the question we all want to ask and just don't know how to. I mean how many times have we found ourselves "back in that same old situation" with some individual who we thought we had processed and dealt with? Only to find that we are again, back where we were before, and everything is difficult and unrelentingly hard.
Now, I have to say that sometimes that is because of my actions, sometimes it is the actions of the other person. Then sometimes it is just a memory loop that I get stuck in and can't find my way out. I am associating what has happened with something that happened in the past and it has all come back again. Those memories can be as vivid as the actual incident.
Let's admit it forgiveness is hard!
It is no wonder that Peter is seeking the Lord's help in understanding forgiveness. Peter says "Should I forgive seven times?"
Peter probably thought that he was being particularly spiritual when he offered seven times. He probably was referring to the study of scripture known as the Midrash. Peter would have known that the Midrash from his life in Judaism. The term Midrash denotes the exegetical method by which those who study the Jewish oral tradition, interpreted and elaborated on the scriptural text.
According to a Midrash, "All sevens are beloved": There are seven terms for the heavens and seven terms for the earth; Enoch was the seventh generation from Adam; Moses was the seventh generation from Abraham; David was the seventh son in his family; Asa (who called out to God) was the seventh generation of Israelite kings; the seventh day (Shabbat), month (Tishrei), year (shmita) and shmita (jubilee) all have special religious status.
Jesus answers Peter in an astounding way. He says: "Not seven times but seventy-seven times." Jesus almost seems to put forgiveness in the realm of the achievable.
Then he goes on to tell a parable. Oh good, we think. This will help us understand what Jesus is saying. But this parable is challenging and to some extent even more difficult to understand than the answer he gave Peter. In some ways, it is more an illustration of unforgiveness and it is forgiveness. Now, I have preached on this parable before and I have worked to understand it, but it is always tough.
So, when it comes right down to it we have to admit today that forgiveness is hard! What are we supposed to take away from this Gospel passage?
The commentators I listened to this week took a completely different approach to anything I have ever heard before. They said that perhaps we needed to understand that forgiveness is hard, and that is something that we need to be continually working on to achieve.
They spoke about forgiveness in terms of it being an ongoing spiritual work. They used words and phrases like the spiritual practice of forgiveness and the art of forgiveness.
I got thinking about what spiritual practices and art have in common. Both are, in one way or another, a discipline. Not discipline as in how we correct or admonish someone, but a discipline, as in a branch of knowledge. The way that we talk about art or creative endeavors.
For example the discipline of painting, pottery, stained glass, or creative writing. All of these things are disciplines that people study and work at. When someone commits themselves to the art form, and to the necessary time, effort, and concentration they should improve in their ability and skill. Now it may be that in the process the student has failures and disappointments in their creative endeavor. But, if they don't give up, over time their proficiency in the discipline will improve. In other words, these disciplines demand a commitment to the study and practice of that particular art form.
The commentators suggested that we as Christians need to understand that we need to be committed to the art, to the discipline of forgiveness. It is in exercising forgiveness that we get better at forgiving. We may stumble and fail, and we may find ourselves disappointed in our ability to forgive, but it is by being committed to forgiveness that we will grow more skilled in forgiving.
Which brings us to the question: "Why is it important to forgive?" Well, I don't want to make too much of one short verse, but the last verse of the Gospel this morning is stunning and powerful.
"So, my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."
Jesus uses the example of the servant in the story to set up or illustrate, how the way his followers forgive will be used as the measure that the Heavenly Father will use with regard to them.
Or as we say each Sunday in the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us, as we forgive those, who..."
There is also great freedom for us when we are able to forgive someone else. When we hold unforgiveness we often find that we are trapped in a cycle of constantly remembering what has happened. The emotional drain on us wears us down and often means we live our lives constantly watching out that the same thing won't happen to us again. We find it difficult to trust, we find it difficult to be open and caring with others.
We sometimes find it difficult to forgive because we somehow think that releases the person and they will not have to face the consequences of what they have done.
I want to encourage us this morning in the belief that forgiveness releases us to live full and rich lives. Forgiveness enables us to walk free from the burden and guilt that so often entraps our lives.
May the Lord give us the strength and courage to forgive today. That we might experience the fullness of our life in him.
Bishops & Father Mike