Matthew 18: 21-35
September 17, 2017
“Take my lips, oh Lord, and speak through them; take our minds and think with them. Take our hearts and set them on fire, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
“And in anger the 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. “That doesn’t sound like good news to me. What are we to make of it? The Gospel lesson for today challenges us to think about forgiveness. How are you are about forgiving? Some day’s I’m not especially good at it. A friend makes a cruel remark or spreads gossip or passes on something said in confidence. Someone breaks the trust I had in them by abusing power in some way and it hurts deeply. It is so much easier to hold a grudge or to react with anger. Not helpful perhaps, not especially healthy, but easier and, frankly, more usual. But that certainly is not what Jesus clearly says we should do. This statement from the gospel According to Matthew presents us with several problems. First, from talking with others, and knowing myself, I am not convinced that the ability to forgive is one that is especially common. Perhaps you too have seen the bumper sticker that proclaims: “Don’t get mad, get even!” It seems the more common human attitude. Here’s another problem I have with that statement about forgiving others. It feels like a set up for failure. It gives the false impression that we, all by ourselves, can be so much better than we seem to have been created to be. And another thing. That statement gives us a seriously inadequate picture of God. What kind of god is it who on one hand would create and call us good and then punish us for doing something so ingrained in our nature? Don’t get me wrong, I am NOT saying that, since we cannot forgive as God does we shouldn’t even try to imitate God by working and praying to forgive, not at all. God does in fact ask us to forgive just as we have been forgiven. Further, it looks to me as though forgiveness is absolutely essential to continuing healthy human relationships. Living in any kind of community is impossible without forgiveness.
We simply cannot keep from hurting one another, and without forgiveness those hurts deepen, fester, and become fatal. Fortunately for us this is a kingdom parable. One that serves to tell us something about what things are like in God’s Kingdom, “that ancient prophetic vision of a world of justice and peace”; to quote former presiding Bishop Schori. That vision of God’s Kingdom points to what God is like. Here’s the thing. What we think God is like is enormously important. It’s basic to our faith and our living. What we think about God shapes our relationship with our Creator. It shapes our behavior toward others and toward ourselves for that matter. So, what does this parable tell us about God? Let’s turn back to it. “Once there was a king, he found one of his servants owed him ten thousand talents.” I don’t know how the servant came to owe that much. It was a huge amount of money, something like the national debt of a small country. The king, wanting his own back, ordered the man to be sold, and ordered all his family to be sold as well. It wasn’t enough to pay the debt but it was something at least. But make no mistake. It was also extremely bad news for that servant. It would break up the family which would hurt the kids. And, who knows what use the poor wife might be put to, especially back in those days. The servant begged: “please give me time, I will pay it all.” It was a ridiculous promise to make. The man certainly could never keep it. But this is where the story gets really interesting. Instead of insisting on at least having some kind of payment plan the king simply forgave the debt entirely, no strings attached. Wow. It sounds as though Jesus is telling us that forgiveness is grounded in God’s nature. What is God like? God is forgiving, and forgiving on an astounding level. So it is in the Kingdom of God. Those who wish to be part of that Kingdom must also forgive and receive forgiveness as well. The problem, of course, is that we cannot, all by ourselves, imitate God so perfectly. So, where does that leave us? Let’s go back to the beginning of the story. We didn’t hear it today but just before telling this story Jesus taught that the only way to enter the kingdom was to become like children. Understand, that was a real insult back then and I’m not sure that we are any easier with that teaching today. But there it is. Only when we acknowledge our utter dependence on God can we get beyond our human need to get back what is owed to us, to have our own way. Much as it was foolish for that servant to say he would pay back what he owed the king it is also foolish for us to think we can earn God’s forgiveness by forgiving others. Beyond that, what kind of God would stoop to behaving as we do and find some way to get back at us? That just simply isn’t how God works. That is making God in our image instead of remembering ourselves made in God’s image. I wonder sometimes if the problem isn’t mostly our pride. It’s so very hard to see ourselves as dependent on another or even on God. And much as it’s hard to put down our pride and forgive someone who has hurt us it’s every bit as hard to put down our pride and accept forgiveness, whether for those things we have done or for those we have left undone. As far as I can see all of that lands us squarely at the foot of the cross. The cross is, when all is said and done, God’s final act of love and forgiveness.
What God did through Jesus doesn’t fit with our notions of legal or right or correct. It’s not just, it’s not fair, not at all. Instead it’s pure grace, pure love. The thing is, God is unfairly and abundantly good. We might not feel easy about it. We might not like it one bit. But we are forgiven no matter what. I don’t know how it is for you, but this gospel left me revisiting those things for which it is hard to accept forgiveness and those grudges I find hard to let go of. Thankfully this is the God I know, the God I confess. God is creator of all, the Holy One who creates us new every day. God was willing to stoop down, to come and be one of us and so forgave us once and for all. God is perfectly able to sustain us in grace as well. It’s not so much that God loves us unconditionally, though that’s true enough, But that God knows us intimately, knows the very worst of us, and loves us despite that knowledge. Loves us enough to forgive us entirely. We can depend on God our Creator to answer when we call. We can depend on God, our savior, to point us in the right direction, helping us to grow in faith. We can depend on God, the Holy Spirit to give us what we need most to forgive both ourselves and others and go forward into God’s new day.Thanks be to God. Amen