This is sermon two in this series. The audio is here:
Summer of Forgiveness: As We Forgive Those Who Trespass Against Us – Seventh Sunday After Pentecost – July 8, 2019 – Matthew 18:23-35
“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.”
One of the strangest things about the Christian faith has to be the ways in which it commands things that most of the world regards as mere feelings. For example, in our United Methodist wedding liturgy, nowhere does the couple say “I do” (present tense). Instead, they say “I will” (future tense). The question is not “Do you love him/her on your wedding day?” It is “Will you love him/her down the road when you have both changed and some of the gloss has worn off the marriage, or at least, some patina has developed.
Jesus loves this. He loves to command us to do things that we believe we only have to do when we feel like it. Love God. Love me. Love one another. Love your neighbor. Love your enemies.
Jesus has this way about him where he is able to command us to separate how we feel from what we do, as we have a tendency to keep feeling and doing a bit too close together sometimes. Forgiveness is no different. Forgiveness has little to do with our feelings or even our judgements; whether we feel like forgiving someone or whether we feel like they deserve our pardon.
Rooting forgiveness in our feelings and our judgements can pretty easily keep it hidden away forever, so in today’s text, Jesus removes forgiveness from our feelings and judgements and roots it in something deeper and eternal: the depth of the forgiveness of us by God.
I recently had an opportunity to have a conversation with a pastor of a local congregation of another denomination who, out of the blue told me about something her church had just experienced. They are a very small congregation, so small in fact that they were unable to maintain the upkeep of their building, so they decided to sell it and meet in people’s homes. That way, they reasoned, they would have the proceeds from the sale of the building and land to invest in ministry to the community.
However, a member of her congregation somehow managed to maneuver the process in such a way that he was able to pilfer money the church made through this transaction, some $250,000. The man is a wealthy attorney, a well-connected man who the congregation did not have the resources to battle in court. Therefore this small church decided that their best (and really, only) option was to let it go, to move on, and to do ministry as best they could within their unfortunate new reality.
Yet they only did so after writing him a letter. The letter told him that they still loved him, that there would always be a place for him in that congregation of God’s people. They told him that, even if he did not decide to return all or even a portion of what he had taken, that they had forgiven him.
Then each member of the church, including the smallest children signed their names to the letter, and they mailed it to him.
Just like that: a quarter-million gone and all those hopes and dreams and plans for the future, all gone. All of those ministries that would never be born, and nothing except an offer of incredible forgiveness so show for it. It was one of those moments for a community of faith when their belief in their beliefs was put to the test, and they did what they believed the gospel commands all of us, including you and me, to do.
I thought about that story for the rest of the day: a quarter of a million dollars. It made me kind of hurt and rather angry, and it was not even my church. It brought to mind a time years ago when someone stole from a church I was serving at the time. She was a nursery worker named Stephanie, who, I discovered, was committing wage theft. I learned she was submitting, and being compensated for hours she had not worked. Towards the end, she was even turning in hours for days the church was not even open. It made me absolutely furious.
I thought about this story for the first time in years in the light of the story about this church that forgave someone who stole hundreds times more from them than Stephanie stole from my church. At worst, she perhaps got a few hundred, maybe a thousand dollars. To me, back then, my case against her was a righteous cause. She had taken from the people I loved, and I felt like I owed them something, and that I could only pay back the debt in anger and doing my best to get that money back.
Then one day, I was telling this story to a Presbyterian colleague who gave me this warning about forgiveness:
He said, “Most clergy are very protective of their congregations, and as such, feel a real need to be very aggressive in situations like this one. I suggest you tread lightly and take the long view, for your own sake, and for the sake of the people you serve, the people you are charged with leading into embodying the grace of the gospel.”
Stephanie probably took 1/500th of what was taken from that forgiving little church here in Richmond, and still, it was hard at the time for me to let go, all while I confused my bruised and embarrassed ego for a principled stand.
This morning’s text picks up immediately where last Sunday’s reading stopped, where Jesus has just finished teaching on what to do if someone in the church sins against you, laying out several steps involving wider and wider circles within the community of faith, designed to lead the offended parties to forgiveness and reconciliation. As was noted last week, Peter responds to this teaching with a question: “How many times must I forgive someone in the church who sins against me?” and Jesus responds saying that we are to forgive (depending on the translation) either 77 times or “seventy times seven” times.
Jesus then, in today’s text, tells a three-act parable about a king and two of his officers, saying “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.”
A talent was the largest monetary unit in Jesus’ culture. It’s value was equal to just under 45 pounds of silver. Another way to look at it was that it was worth 6,000 drachmas, or 15 years of manual labor. This servant owes 10,000 of these.
Ten-thousand was considered to be the largest number in this culture; a synonym for “countless” or “innumerable.” It is from the name for this number that we derive the English word myriad. This poor servant owes a myriad of lifetime wages to the king.
The annual tax revenues of all of the territories of Herod the Great was 900 talents. The amount of debt in this parable would be greater than the tax revenues of all of Syria, Judea, Samaria, and Phoenicia combined.
So the servant in this text could die or go to prison, but he could never, ever, repay the debt. He somehow thinks he can. In desperation, he pleads with the king: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything!” The king has pity on him, and his wife and his children are freed, and they are able to keep their possessions, and that unimaginable debt is forgiven.
Yet the first person he sees after his enormous debt is forgiven is one of his fellow servants who owes him but 100 denarii; one hundred days wages for a common laborer, some 1/600,000th of the debt the first servant just had forgiven by the king. The second servant begs with the same words as the first, and he receives the same punishment that the first servant just avoided.
And then we remember that this is a parable, and in this parable, the king is God and the two servants are members of the Christian community. The hypocrisy of this text is obscene, yet it powerfully reminds us as the community of faith to remember that we only wear the mark of Christ, that we only claim that he claims us, because we’ve been forgiven a tremendous debt as well, and that our lives are to lived as people who exemplify the our own prayers that God will forgive us, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
In my first church out of seminary, I was in my office working one day when I heard the door open and the mailman enter the building and walk to the secretary’s office. They were acquaintances and exchanged some pleasantries before he said, “Oh! By the way, I preached at my church last Sunday!”
Genuinely excited by this, my secretary said, “Great! What did you preach on?” And as he left the building to continue delivering the mail, he shouted back over his shoulder to her, “Damnation! What else?”
And I sat there at my desk and I thought about that statement. “Damnation! What else?” and then I thought, “How about salvation?” How about new life? How about the new creation we become in Christ? How about proclaiming that no one is out of Christ’s reach? How about hope? How about love? How about grace? How about forgiveness?
How about the fact that God loves us so much that God gave God’s only Son so that whosoever believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life? How about a God whose prophet Isaiah proclaims, “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.” How about a God who loves you this much, and there is nothing you, or I, or this world can do about it?
How about proclaiming a God who tells us that all of us, male and female are made in God’s image, fearfully and wonderfully made? How about proclaiming a Savior who is good news for the poor, freedom for the oppressed, and recovering of sight to the blind, and who invited us, you and me, into this mission for the sake of a world in need? How about forgiveness? How about redemption?
What if? What if the churches of Jesus Christ were known, first and foremost, not for the magnificence of our architecture, the glory of our music, the passion of our preaching, the practicality of our programs, the size of our budget, the capacity of our buildings, the soundness of our doctrine, the efficiency of our polity, or even the beauty of our worship? What if we were known first and foremost as a place of refuge where one goes to experience peace and reconciliation, within one’s own life, between one another, and between ourselves and God?
What if church were a place known not for our condemnation, but instead by the wounds and the burdens one is able to lay down here?
Friends, it is about so much more than simply preaching damnation. In twenty-one years of pastoral ministry, I have found that perhaps the greatest gift that the church can give to individuals and to communities is the gift that we discuss the least: a soft place to land, a safe place and loving Christian friends who allow sinners like us to work things out with one another and with God, a place to get right so that the past does not have to dictate and dominate the future for any of us.
If we are not careful, we can make the mistake of making today’s text all about us and our duty to forgive those who have harmed us, and the great consequences if we do not forgive. Indeed, Jesus does give us a clear commandment to forgive others. Yet, listen again to the way in which Jesus describes to God who is doing the commanding: Jesus describes God as a God of mercy, of pity even. Jesus likens this God’s forgiveness to the highest number anyone in his day could imagine; like a debt equal to all the money in the world, a debt forgiven.
Over the course of the past two decades, people have come into my study, have dropped by the parsonages I have lived in, have invited me into their homes, have seen me in the jails and prisons and have confessed to me deep, painful, embarrassing, destructive sins. And while I do not mean to in any way downplay the real harm of what people can do and have done, what I can offer, we all of us can offer, is that when we bring the worst of ourselves to God, we are bringing the worst of ourselves to a God of such profound mercy that there is hope for the sun to rise again the next day, for life to begin anew in so many ways, for our past to not have to be what defines us.
It is not about there being a God who can forgive us for what we cannot forgive ourselves. It is about our trusting a God who already has forgiven us. The epistle of 1 John 4:19 tells us that “we love because God first loved us.” Perhaps the same is true of forgiveness, that we can only hope to forgive others because God has forgiven us, and that in so doing, God has made it possible for us to live in a new, almost counterintuitive way.
In our hymnal on page 342, there is a hymn text written by Methodism’s co-founder Charles Wesley, probably soon after the conversion of his brother John on May 24, 1738. It is called “Where Shall My Wondering Soul Begin,” and the last two stanzas read as follows:
Come, O my guilty brethren, come, groaning beneath your load of sin;
his bleeding heart shall make you room, his open side shall take you in.
He calls you now, invites you home: Come, O my guilty brethren, come.
For you the purple current flowed in pardon from his wounded side,
languished for you the eternal God, for you the Prince of Glory died.
Believe, and all your sin’s forgiven, only believe–and yours is heaven.
This is the kind of God we have, a pardoning God: the God of new beginnings, the God of new life, the God of hope, the God of redemption, the God of resurrection. Ours is the God who calls us to that hard, hard work of true forgiveness, to live and to love and to forgive as people who have already been forgiven for it all, myriad upon myriad.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.