Proper 19, Year A, RCL
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s easy to forget when you live in the Triangle area, but we live in a state that’s sometimes referred to as the buckle of the Bible belt. In this part of Durham, it might seem that brunch trumps church as a Sunday morning activity. We’re reminded of our location, though, when we get out on the interstate and see the cars with various and assorted religious bumper stickers. “My God is an awesome God,” proclaims one. Another popular bumper sticker says “Honk if you love Jesus.” I don’t know how you feel about this one, but if I hear someone honk while I’m driving, the idea that they love Jesus isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. As a former New Yorker I associate a honking horn with the message, “Hurry up, stupid, before the light changes again.”
The bumper sticker that I find most intriguing says, “Christians aren’t perfect—they’re just forgiven.” I kind of like this one, though I think I’d like to amend it to say, “We’re all not perfect, but we’re all forgiven.” Exactly why I’d like to make that change is a topic for a whole other sermon. What I’d like to talk about today is that we’ve all received God’s free gift of forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is ours. We may accept it, or we may reject it; the choice is for you and me to make. God’s forgiveness is a done deal, from God’s point of view, at least. The question for us is what do we do with that forgiveness. This question is at the heart of our Gospel lesson for today.
Peter asks Jesus a seemingly simple question: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” How many times should I forgive, Peter wants to know. Seven? More than seven? It’s a question we ourselves might ask. Those of us who have to deal with difficult people in our lives—and that’s all of us—have asked ourselves that question seemingly endlessly. How many? Asking “how many” means that we’re counting, wondering what the magic number is that means we have done enough and can go back to being mad.
Jesus’ answer puts Peter’s question into another perspective altogether: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” If you’re thinking that seventy-seven times means that you just have to keep on forgiving forever, that’s exactly the point that Jesus is making here. What he’s doing is telling Peter to forget about counting, to forget about keeping track. If we’re counting how many times we’ve forgiven, we’ve actually not forgiven at all. Counting means we’re just waiting until we can say we’ve had enough and can exact whatever penalty we’ve been planning all along. What Jesus is telling us when he says seventy-seven times rather than seven is that calculation has no place in forgiveness.
After this exchange between Peter and Jesus, Jesus tells the disciples a parable. Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. The first slave in the parable owed the king ten thousand talents. How much, exactly, was ten thousand talents? A talent was the largest monetary unit in Jesus’ time, and one talent was equal to the amount a manual laborer would earn in fifteen years. Ten thousand talents was an impossibly large number to owe. The annual tax income for all of Herod the Great’s territories was 900 talents per year. There is no possible way for this slave to ever be able to repay ten thousand talents, so the slave begs for compassion. The king forgives the slave’s debt and lets him go.
No sooner is the slave released from his debt to the king than he demands that a fellow slave pay him back the hundred denarii that this slave owes him. A hundred denarii wasn’t a trifling amount of money—it was equal to about 100 days’ wages for an ordinary laborer. But a hundred denarii was a trivial sum compared to ten thousand talents. The slave who had been forgiven his enormous debt wasn’t willing to extend the same forgiveness to his fellow slave that the king had extended to him.
In the parable, the consequence for the first slave’s failure to forgive is that the king withdraws his own forgiveness. Instead of being freed, the first slave is sentenced to torture. As Matthew tells the story, Jesus seems to be saying that those who fail to forgive others as God has forgiven them will suffer a similar fate.
Now this sort of judgment may seem harsh to you. It certainly seems harsh to me. At this time we might want to remember something about the divine inspiration of scripture. I’m not questioning that scripture is divinely inspired. The vows I made at ordination involved affirming that the Holy Scripture is indeed the word of God. But unfortunately divine inspiration doesn’t mean that the word of God came directly from God’s mouth to our ears or to the printed page. The mediator of God’s word, the person who wrote down the Gospel of Matthew, was a human being much like you or me. He was earnest and he was reverent, and he was probably something of a scholar in his time, but the man we know as Matthew was human and fallible. Because he was human and fallible he couldn’t resist adding a bit of Matthew to the story Jesus told. Matthew allegorized this parable. This means that he intended us to understand “king” to mean God and “slave” to mean human. In this understanding of the parable, God is as harsh as an earthly king might be.
I’m going to suggest a somewhat different reading of this text. From my own study of the scripture and from studying the best commentaries I can find, I don’t think that God withdraws God’s gifts. The God I know, love, and worship doesn’t act vindictively; my experience of God is that God’s way of operating in the world is through love, not wrath. Our tradition tells us that God is ultimately merciful. When we recite the Nicene Creed we say, “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” For us, not against us. God came down from heaven incarnate in Jesus for us and for our salvation, not to straighten us out. In the Prayer of Humble Access in Rite One, we affirm that God is “the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.”
What I’m going to suggest to you this morning is that God won’t stop forgiving you and me if we fail to forgive our brothers and sisters. Not at all. But, and this is a major but, if our hearts are so hard that we fail to forgive, God may just as well have not forgiven us for all the difference it makes to us. If our hearts and minds aren’t in a state where we can forgive others, neither will we be able to appreciate and experience the forgiveness that God has freely offered to us.
If we don’t forgive those who’ve wronged us or those who we feel owe us something, we might think we’re hurting them. We might feel that we’re giving them what they deserve. But if that’s what we’re doing, we deceive ourselves. Forgive seventy-seven times, Jesus tells us; get out of the accounting business. And by not forgiving, we’re ultimately hurting ourselves as much or maybe more than the one we won’t forgive. I love Anne Lamott’s words on this subject. She has said that not forgiving is like eating rat poison oneself and waiting for the rat to die. Not forgiving is worse than a pointless exercise. It hurts the other, it hurts us, and worst of all, not forgiving closes our hearts and minds to the possibility of God’s forgiveness.
But what if I’ve really been wronged? What if someone owes me a huge debt? That debt, by the way, may be monetary or it may not. When we say that something is the least someone could do for us, we feel like we’re owed something every bit as real as money and maybe even more important. Forgiveness isn’t easy, and it’s important to remember that forgiveness doesn’t mean we give someone the chance to wrong us again. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we pretend the wrong never happened. Forgiveness isn’t easy—this can’t be said too many times—and it might even seem downright unreasonable in certain circumstances.
What may help with the difficult or even seemingly impossible task of forgiving is remembering that we don’t have to do it alone. Our collect for today begins with the words, “O God, because without you we are not able to please you…” Also, do you remember what response we make to the things that are asked of us when we make and when we renew our Baptismal covenant? The answer we make is, “We will, with God’s help.” With God’s help. We don’t have to do it alone. God knows it’s not easy for us to forgive. God knows that we can’t do it alone, and God doesn’t expect us to. At times forgiveness requires a miracle, and where there is a miracle, there is God.
When I began to look at our lessons for today I was struck by the lessons that were chosen. It’s easy to connect the Epistle for today to the Gospel, but what about the Old Testament lesson? What could the parting of the waters of the Red Sea possibly have to do with forgiveness? I see a couple of connections. The first is that God was constantly with the Israelites in their journey; the Israelites were never alone at any point. Neither are we in our attempts to do anything. We are certainly not alone in our efforts to forgive.
The other connection between the Gospel lesson and the Old Testament lesson today is that the parting of the waters in Exodus is one of the great miracles that God works in the Bible. Forgiveness is another great miracle, and if you’ve ever struggled to forgive, and most of us have struggled mightily, you know what a great miracle reaching a place of forgiveness can be. Notice that in the Exodus story Moses stretched out his hand, but it was God who actually parted the waters. There is human and divine cooperation here. So too with forgiveness. We make the attempt to forgive and God makes the forgiveness possible. By God’s parting of the waters God liberated the Israelites from Pharoah’s oppression. By God’s making it possible for us to forgive, God liberates us from the tyranny of our own hardened hearts. Amen.