Revised for September 13, 2020
I don’t think any of us call ourselves Christians with the idea of becoming less like Jesus as our goal. We’re all in it to become more like Jesus. Sometimes, it’s hard, though, isn’t it? Sometimes we’d like Jesus to let us off the hook a little bit, tell us what we are doing is good enough, pat us on the head and let us get on with being a little less like him. Right? But it never seems to work that way.
Jesus always calls us gently toward greater perfection. Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook, because we’re all he’s got. Christ depends on us, as he reaches into this troubled, broken world of ours, to show people what it means to follow him into the Kingdom of God.
We matter. And what we do, how we treat one another, matters. How else will people who are in pain, who need God, see the difference that following Christ can make in their lives? How else will they know that they matter to God?
In today’s passage, we pick up the conversation between Jesus and his disciples right where we left off last week. Jesus has been teaching us how to live in the Kingdom of God, and he has urged us to be reconciled to those who have wronged us.
Last week, we learned how to resolve conflict between two believers, and in the UMC we call that process the Rule of Christ. It’s a way to confront a brother or sister in love when we disagree. First, we are to examine our own contribution to the problem, then go directly to the one who has hurt us and tell that person what is wrong. If they don’t listen, or won’t be reconciled to us, then we may bring in another believer to act as mediator or advocate, and if the other party still will not listen, we are to call upon the resources of the whole church.
Once we’ve tried everything, if there is still no resolution, we are to treat the other person as a Gentile and a tax collector – in other words, as an outsider. Some traditions interpret this to mean we are to exclude, or shun, the person. But Jesus included outsiders in his life and work, and he invites us to invest ourselves in similar ministry with people we might be tempted to exclude.
These three steps for reconciliation reflect a common practice of first century Jews. It was understood that three pardons were enough – a fourth offense did not need to be forgiven. If I forgave you three times, and you wronged me again, I could hold a grudge against you, yet still claim to be righteous.
The disciples may have interpreted Jesus’ words in this way. But Peter knew better. He knew that with Jesus, it was never that simple. With Jesus, the old order of things was never good enough. So, to clarify things, he asked a question, hoping that – for once – he had guessed the right answer in advance.
Then Peter came and said to him, “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.” (Matthew 18:21-35)
Peter thought that surely, if the standard was forgiving up to three times, seven ought to be more than enough to satisfy Jesus. Seven was a perfect number, after all. When Jesus says, “Not seven. Seventy-seven” or maybe even “seventy times seven,” depending on how you read it, he’s asking Peter to go deeper in his understanding of forgiveness. And Jesus invites us to go deeper, too.
You see, the issue isn’t a number at all. And Jesus makes this clear in the parable he tells to explain his point. Here we have a king and his slave. The slave owes the king an enormous amount of money. We don’t know how he came to be a slave, or came to owe the king so much money. The important thing is that this debt is so huge, he will never be able to pay it.
A talent was equal to about 130 pounds of silver, or about 15 years of wages for a laborer. At 10,000 times that amount, it would take the slave 150,000 years of work to pay off the debt. Impossible.
Yet, when the slave begged for more time, the king had pity on him, and not only withdrew the sentence, but actually forgave the entire fortune the slave owed. The king showed mercy.
But what does the slave do after receiving such generosity from his master? On his way out of the king’s presence, he runs into a fellow slave who owes him the equivalent of 100 days of wages. Not 150,000 years, but 100 days. A manageable sum. A realistic debt.
You would think that the first slave would be feeling generous, having just received a very sweet deal from his master, but instead, he grabs his fellow slave by the throat and demands payment. The second slave falls into the very same posture of humility, and uses the very same words the first slave used to beg for a little more time. But this time there is no mercy. There is no pity. There is no generosity.
And some of the other slaves see how wrong this is. Even without benefit of social media, the word gets back to the king that this slave he forgave will not forgive. The king is furious, and rightly so. Not only is this behavior wrong, it reflects badly on the king for one of his own slaves to behave so badly.
It makes the king appear weak when he shows mercy to a scoundrel who apparently doesn’t get the concept of ‘paying it forward.’ So the king rescinds the original pardon, and the first slave suffers the consequences of his own lack of mercy. If he won’t forgive another, the king won’t forgive him.
I wonder why that slave would not show mercy, don’t you? Whatever the reason, the grace this slave had received had not transformed him in any way. The change in his circumstances did not bring about a change in his behavior, or his outlook on life. It did not change his heart. He suffered the consequences of his actions, and was thrown into prison.
And Jesus says, “This is what will happen to you if you don’t forgive from your heart.” It isn’t the numbers that matter; it’s what we hold in our hearts that really counts. Seven or seventy-seven or seven times seventy doesn’t matter. 150,000 years of wages or 100 days of wages doesn’t matter. What matters is the stuff that goes on in the depths of our hearts.
It’s hard to let go of the habit of keeping track, of counting out what we think is fair. As we hear Jesus tell this parable about forgiveness, it might seem like the moral of the story is simply to do a better job of forgiving each other. End of story.
But that isn’t the end of the story, is it? Because Jesus knows, no matter how hard we try, we can’t do this business of forgiving each other again and again on our own. And maybe that isn’t even the point of the parable.
Later on in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will tell his disciples something we don’t hear from any of the other gospel writers. On the night in which Jesus will be betrayed, handed over to Pilate, and hung on a cross to die, he will offer a cup to his disciples and tell them, “Drink from this all of you, for this is my blood … poured out for the forgiveness of sins.” Matthew is the only New Testament writer who includes these particular words about forgiveness.
These words, “spoken on the evening when his disciples will betray, deny, and abandon him, standing like a promise that even when we fail to live into the grace Jesus offers, even when we fall short of extending to others the forgiveness we have received, … God is still there, forgiving, loving, beckoning us home.”
If we accept the forgiveness that God offers us through his Son’s death and resurrection, we become new people. We are changed. And if we are changed, our behavior changes. The way we look at life changes. The way we treat other people changes. Our capacity to forgive others changes. There is no room for holding grudges in a heart that has been touched by God’s unmerited favor.
Remember that this passage belongs with the one we heard last week about confronting one who has wronged us. Confrontation without forgiveness only serves to make a conflict worse, but confrontation is necessary in order for forgiveness to bring reconciliation and healing.
You see, forgiveness is really a decision to accept what you can’t change in the past, so that the past no longer has power over you. When you cannot forgive, the past puts you in prison. Forgiveness allows you to let go of the past, and walk into the future.
And isn’t that good news? Isn’t it worth sharing the good news that forgiveness, like God’s love, is without limits? But we have to be willing to accept the offer for it to go into effect. And when we accept Christ’s offer of forgiveness, it changes us into people who offer forgiveness to others.
Just like those servants who ratted out the ungrateful slave, people will be talking – but they’ll be talking about how forgiveness is so much a part of our DNA, it’s changed us.
That’s how we reach others for Christ. We respond to God’s grace by offering grace. We answer God’s forgiveness by forgiving the people who have wronged us. And the word gets around.
We like to count, to calculate, to keep a tally of rights and wrongs. Maybe we do this in the hope that our rights will at least balance out against our wrongs. Maybe it’s our way of trying to maintain some control over our lives, to justify ourselves when deep inside, we know we don’t deserve mercy. We like to count. And we aren’t alone – notice how Peter starts this conversation with Jesus? He asks him for a number.
But Jesus isn’t interested in a numbers game. He wants us to stop counting altogether. Because forgiveness can’t be counted. It isn’t a legal issue or a transaction, like pardoning a crime or forgiving a loan.
Forgiveness is an act of love. And if Jesus could love us enough to forgive us for all the thoughtless, selfish, unkind things we do and say to each other, is it too much to ask for us to love as Jesus loves?
So, are you ready to stop counting, and start following the One who forgives and loves you without limit? Are you ready to set aside your tally sheet of wrongs done to you, and forgive again and again? Because friends, believe this good news: in Jesus Christ, you have been forgiven.
 Matthew 26:27b-28
 David Lose, http://www.davidlose.net/2020/09/pentecost-15-a-the-puzzle-riddle-and-parable-of-forgiveness/
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