Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year A – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – September 17, 2017
Last week, we heard Jesus explaining to the disciples how to forgive and how to tackle conflict in the community – the community that Peter will be leading and guiding in the future. Today we hear Peter trying to figure out how exactly this life together in community should work. “Ok, Jesus, I totally get that we’re supposed to forgive other members of the church. Awesome. But like how many times should I do that before I can say I’ve done my bit? Is like seven times a good number? Cause like that’s the number of perfection, so that should be good, right?” I can almost hear Jesus sigh, can you? “No, Peter. Not seven. Seventy-seven times.” At this point, I hear not Jesus’ sighs, but the sound of Peter’s jaw dropping and hitting the floor. “WHAAAAAATTTTTT?! But….Jesus…..why….?!”
Well, not much has changed, has it? We hear this passage and I think it tends to make us a little squirmy. Because forgiveness is no light-hearted subject. It has to do with relationships. With our egos and our pride. With feeling right or righteous. With justifying our actions and trying to take revenge, even in some petty way. With risking admitting that we might have a part to play in the brokenness we experience around us. With daring to trust others again – maybe not right away, but opening the door a crack in the hope that things can change.
That’s a tall order. And I would be a liar if I said I had it all figured out. I fall short. I sin. I get frustrated and irritable. I say things I wish I could take back. I struggle to let go of things. To respond with love and compassion when I’ve been wronged. And so I go to my brothers and sisters. I bow my head and pray. I come to the font. I come to the table of grace. And I try again to both receive forgiveness and give it. And rinse and repeat!
This should be familiar. Hopefully I’m not the only one struggling with this! But Jesus’ parable sheds some more light on forgiveness, especially in the context of community. The king forgives his head slave of an enormous debt. A financial debt equivalent to about 150,000 years of labor, something the slave could never hope to pay off! In the society of the time, this was a move a king could do to show his magnanimous nature and secure the enduring loyalty of the one whose debt he forgave. But it also was supposed to start a chain reaction – a time of jubilee – of the forgiveness of debts of all of those under the king’s rule. However, this slave breaks the chain and disrupts flow of mercy. He wreaks violence on his fellow slave and ignores his pleas for patience and more time to repay his much smaller debt of a day’s wages. And in doing so, the head slave mocks the very goodness and benevolence of the king. It is no wonder that the king hands him over to be tortured until he can repay, which is impossible.
But this seems incredibly harsh, doesn’t it? Especially when Jesus says, “‘So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’” Ugh. What am I supposed to do with that?! The thing is, God’s forgiveness and our forgiveness of each other go hand in hand. As Jesus says earlier: “‘If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.’” And when teaching the disciples to pray, Jesus says, “‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.’” We often pray those words, thinking that since God has forgiven us, we should forgive others. But Jesus’ words are even tougher than that. Our forgiveness of others and God’s forgiveness of us are bound up together. In Paul’s words, “‘Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.’” We don’t belong to ourselves alone, but to God and to each other. What we do and what we don’t do affects our neighbor.
When Jesus says, “‘if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’” maybe it’s more about our ability to receive the Father’s forgiveness. If we are closed off and hard-hearted with others, are our hearts really ready to receive the good news of forgiveness for ourselves? If we cannot forgive another, perhaps we are less able to believe that God is actually willing and able to forgive us our sins.
Forgiveness does not mean excusing or accepting the way in which we’ve been wronged. It doesn’t mean we forget. But it does mean we don’t let it entrap us. That we do not let that event, experience, or encounter dictate our relationship with our neighbor. Because when we fail to forgive, it not only affects those from whom we’re withholding our forgiveness, it also affects us. It traps us in a cycle. We think about the wrong committed against us. We go over it again and again in our head and in our heart. We let it become a tape we continue to replay. In short, we find that we have become caught in the event and cannot free ourselves. Remember, the head slave’s lack of mercy didn’t end up affecting the other slaves in the long run. Instead, he ends up being tortured for his lack of forgiveness. To be unforgiving, then, ends up being a torturous scenario.
We want forgiveness, but we don’t often want to give it. Or, at the very least, we struggle mightily to be as generous with our forgiveness as God has been. The head slave was ecstatic to have his tremendous debt forgiven, but he couldn’t and wouldn’t forgive the smaller debts or trespasses of the slaves under him. He was given an amazing and unspeakable gift, but he was completely unmoved. Instead of gratitude, he took the opportunity to demand money from another. Forgiven of all our sins, how often do we withhold forgiveness from others? How often do we demand that they meet certain criteria before we will forgive?
Legendary guitarist and blues singer B.B. King and rock band U2 sing this in “When Love Comes to Town:”
I was there when they crucified my Lord
I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword
I threw the dice when they pierced his side
But I’ve seen love conquer the great divide
When love comes to town I’m gonna catch that train
When love comes to town I’m gonna catch that flame
Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down
But I did what I did before love came to town
Love has come to town in Jesus Christ. Through his death and resurrection he has conquered the divide of our sin and the ways in which we withhold love and forgiveness from others. The flames of his love and forgiveness are burning brightly for all of us.
God has graciously forgiven you each and every single one of your sins. God holds nothing against you. And that forgiveness frees us and opens up new possibilities for us to live with love in the world. Our forgiveness may and will not be perfect, but with God’s perfect forgiveness, each dawning day presents new opportunities for us to live in a redemptive way in the world. The question we all must sit with is this: knowing and experiencing the beautiful outpouring of God’s love and mercy, how will you embody that in your relationships with others? Will you keep that grace for yourself? Or, will you allow it to flow from you into your relationships and into the world? Will you let God’s mercy and peace go forth from your life to touch the lives of others and lay the groundwork for hope and love to flourish?
The words of the hymn “Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive” sum this up so beautifully:
‘Forgive our sins as we forgive,’ you taught us, Lord, to pray;
but you alone can grant us grace to live the words we say.
How can your pardon reach and bless the unforgiving heart
That broods on wrongs and will not let old bitterness depart?
In blazing light your cross reveals the truth we dimly knew;
How trifling others’ debts to us; how great our debt to you!
Lord, cleanse the depths within our souls and bid resentment cease;
Then, by your mercy reconciled, our lives will spread your peace.