Today’s sermon is based on Matthew 18:21-35. Within the text Peter asks Jesus to clarify how many time we are called to forgive someone who sins against us. Jesus responds far beyond Peter’s expectations, and shares the parable of the unforgiving slave. Within the sermon I explore Jesus’ response and just how we are to respond within our own lives.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen
Last Tuesday afternoon I ended up in Neola at the community center, cranking out a pint of blood for the Red Cross. As I sat there with my feet up chatting with the nurse, I was transported through a montage of my childhood…because playing in the background was an extended playlist of 80’s music. I heard Madonna and Tears for Fears and Prince just to name a few.
The nurse and I were joking around about it, both being children of the 80’s and the next I knew we were talking movies…and perhaps I’m biased…but I tend to think that the 80’s produced the best batch of “classic movies” out of any decade…and one in particular comes to mind. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off…arguably the pinnacle of John Hughes’ career.
If you’re unfamiliar, Ferris Bueller, a high school senior from Chicago decides that he needs one last day off from school before he graduates…and not only does he pull it off with his parents, but crazy hijinks ensue while the whole day, his principal tries to bust him…starting off with a phone call to Ferris’ mother.
Mrs. Bueller, are you aware that your son is not in school today? Do you know how many days he’s missed this year? Oh I don’t know 3 or 4? 9 times…9 times? NIIINNNNEEE TIIIMES? (pause). Within this conversation, the principal is very intentional about quantifying the number of absences of our hero…Mr Bueller.
And its this notion of quantity…of assigning a number that draws me into todays gospel lesson…Directly following last week’s passage, when Jesus gives guidelines for being reconciled with a brother or sister that has sinned against, Peter…ever the impulsive one, asks a question of clarification of Jesus…and I can about imagine just how that conversation really went. (pause)
“So, Jesus, just how many times should I forgive? Like, seven?” (thumbs up, gesturing up) “More than that, my friend.” (pause) “Ok, like seventeen?” “Not even close.” (pause)“Wait, like twenty-seven?” “Keep going.” (pause) “You’re kidding, right? Thirty-seven?” “Try seventy-seven times.” (pause) “But that’s ridiculous! Impossible! Seventy-Seven times?” “SEVVVEEEENTYYYY SEEEEVVVVINNNN TIIIIMES.” (pause)
Now clearly this is a shocking number for Peter, regardless of if we read it as 77 or 70 times 7…either of which are valid translations of Jesus’ response…but as we think about it, perhaps we begin by questioning Peter’s motive for his question in the first place. Jesus is talking about forgiveness…and he has told us to offer it…to be reconciled…seems pretty open and shut so just why does Peter ask in the first place?
Well, perhaps its his Jewish heritage…obviously Peter as well as the other disciples would be familiar with the law…they had the 10 commandments not to mention the rest of the over 400 laws handed down in the Old Testament…so perhaps Peter is just trying to get the specifics…making sure he’s got his bases covered…and so he offers a legitimate question of quantity…how many times must I forgive Lord? Even as many as 7 times? (pause) And interestingly enough, I think Peter is actually considering this to be a pretty generous amount…Seriously Jesus…if my brother wrongs me 7 times and I forgive him, that outa be enough right? (pause)
But Jesus, in his divine wisdom, reacts in much the same way he usually reacts to a question of this nature…but tossing it right back at the individual in a way that tends to blow their understanding right out of the water. No Peter…77 times…or 70 x’s 7…either way its an enormous amount…and think about it…are we really going to forgive someone that much? Do we have that capability…or is Jesus just throwing out some astronomical number to get us to think WAY bigger. (pause)
Now before you come up with an answer in your mind on that question…or before I try to offer you one…let’s switch gears…just like Jesus does…because for Jesus…the question of forgiveness doesn’t get a quantity. (pause)
And so Jesus switches into a parable…which he’s known to do, because he knows that we have a REALLY hard time getting past our own limitations…and in his normal style…he tells a story…a story about a king…and two servants…each who owes a debt.
And let me offer you a little perspective here…about just how different these two debts are that we hear in the story. The first servant…owning a debt to the king…that Jesus says is ten thousand talents…and the second guy, well he owes the first guy 100 denarii…and now perhaps you’re thinking “that’s all well and good pastor, but we don’t know what those values add up to.” And so…perspective…
The federal minimum wage is current $7.25/hour. Now a talent…that’s the equivalent of 15 years worth of wages…and this guy owes the king ten-thousand of them…and at $7.25/hour, 1 talent equals about $226,000 dollars…and if you multiply that by 10,000, we find the first guys debt at a little over…2…BILLION…dollars…let that sink in for just a minute. (pause) OK, and now the second guy, well he owes 100 denarii, which is the equivalent to a day’s wage…1 day…so his total debt is roughly…$6,000. No laughing matter of course…but something that’s doable…something that he could…given enough work…pay off. (pause)
That’s what we’re looking at…and interesting enough…when faced with judgment day…when faced with their debt being called in…these two men…respond the exact…same…way.
BE PATIENT WITH ME…AND I WILL PAY YOU EVERYTHING… (pause) Now the guy who 6 grand…maybe that’s not surprising…he probably could…but the other guy…roughly 6 billion in debt…yah right? Unless he’s on good terms with Warren Buffet, I kind doubt it…but yet these guys both seem to think that somehow…some way…they can pay it off themselves…that they can somehow free themselves of this cost…of this burden…
And isn’t that our normal tendancy….it must be part of the human condition…to think that somehow…someway…if we just work hard enough…or if we just say the right thing…or sway our reality with enough force that somehow, we can manage to overcome…we think it in moments when it might actually be possible…and we think it when the reality is so far beyond impossible that its not even funny…And that is the response of both of these guys today.
But what’s really interesting to note in Jesus’ story…is the response of the king…He recognizes the impossibility of the first servant ever managing to even put a dent in it…and he…forgives it…completely…its like the debt never existed in the first place…and yet despite that…this man…newly freed…cannot do the same with even a tiny amount…he can’t show the same mercy….and because of that…because of this inability to mirror the mercy first shown to him…he is punished…and Jesus tells us…that we face the same choice. (pause)
This story is all about forgiveness…but for Jesus…for God…forgiveness is not about quantity no matter how much our limited human understanding wants to make it that way. Jesus tells us, that there is no limit to the forgiveness and mercy that we are to offer our brothers and sisters…no limit…but rather that we are simply to mirror the grace offered by God when HE forgave our unpayable debt. (pause)
The apostle Paul tells us in the book of Romans that the wages of sin is death…this is the cost…the debt…the burden that we bear because of the presence of sin within our own existence…and just like that first servant…there is no way that we can do it…we are completely unable do anything about it…and not just because it is some astronomical amount of money…but because the ability to atone for sin is beyond our human ability…and so in His unfathomable mercy…God showed us grace and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our immeasurable debt is paid…and we are called to mirror that same mercy…that same grace for others. (pause)
But as I say all that…I’m struck by the truth of the situation…by the truth of forgiveness…and I fully realize that there are situations in our warped reality where forgiveness…is REALLY hard…and it may even seem impossible.
Sometimes it might be easy to offer…and that’s great…but what about those other times? (Pause) A few days ago was September 11th…when we as a nation remember the horror of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers…when a force of unknown individuals broke the tranquility of our lives…and when thousands of lives were needlessly lost…and imagine if you were a family member of one of those people…and you were trying to forgive the horror of their death…that’s just one example. What about a murder of a loved one…or a betrayal of trust…or the destruction of a marriage…there are countless ways that we as individuals can do what might seem to be utterly un-forgivable to one another.
So what do we do with that? (pause) Valid question…because I think…at one time or another…we all face this reality on one side of the table…or the other…and in all likelihood, we face it from both side of the table at one time or another…I know I have.
For me…it was the inexcusable loss of a winter job…when my old boss knew full well of my intentions of working for him through the season before returning to my summer job…I had made no secret of that…and yet, out of the blue, he fired me…and I fumed over that situation for years…I always said I was over it…but anytime it came up in conversation…the person I was talking to could tell I wasn’t over it…and I hadn’t forgiven him…and even now today, as I stand before you and think about it…it still gives me pause…and I still get a bitter taste in my mouth over it. (pause) And likewise, I know that I done equally hurtful things to other people…and I know that they have struggled to let go…and to forgive…and in recognizing my own faults…my own failings…I too struggle to offer myself forgiveness…and perhaps you can understand…perhaps you face similar situations in your own lives…and so together we wonder just how to go about this whole forgiveness thing that Jesus is talking about.
And I don’t want to stand here before you today…looking down on you…and telling you that if you just believe enough it should be easy…because it’s not easy…and there is no surefire way…no amount of faith that is big enough to overcome our inability to heal and let go of the past…because even though the phrase is forgive and forget…we have a really hard time with that whole “forget” thing don’t we? (pause)
But maybe…just maybe…in order to begin the process…we must first acknowledge the pain and hurt caused between us…I read this week that forgiveness can be defined when we acknowledge that the past…hurtful as it may be…cannot be changed…when we acknowledge the reality of what has happened and that it will be forever a part of our history…and only then can we even begin to move forward.
And perhaps…the reason that Jesus tells us that we are to forgive 77 times is because we need to forgive the same thing over and over again…and maybe…just maybe…today if you have something eating at you…a past hurt…you need to simply say “Today I acknowledge it…and right now I’m gonna let it go.” And maybe it will come back in 5 minutes…or in a day…or in a month…or a year or a decade…and in that instant…when you recognize it again…and realize that we can’t change it…we let it go again…and maybe Jesus is telling us that we have to forgive the same thing over and over again…
And perhaps on the flip side, when we were the ones in the wrong…and we struggle to offer ourselves forgiveness, we need to do the very same thing…admit that we can’t change it, but repent of it and let it go…and remember that we must do the same the next time it comes up again.
Maybe forgiveness really is an ongoing process simply because we are flawed and we lack the ability to ever really let something go…but find hope in the fact that God can…and not only can he…He already…HAS…and you better believe it…because Jesus himself said. IT IS FINISHED…and you know what? There’s hope in that…but even in those times when we fail to see that hope…well…Jesus forgives that too…because that’s the quality of God’s forgiveness…for you. Amen
 Credit for this little exchange belongs to Karoline Lewis in her commentary on the Working Preacher website