Proper 19a, September 17, 2017

September 18, 2017

The Mathematics of God

Matthew 18:21-35

 21 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?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 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. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 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.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 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. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”


If you’ve ever spent a night in a cabin with 8 to 10 middle-school boys you begin to wonder how literally you can take this advice from Jesus about forgiving someone 77 times. I can remember being the chaperone at such a retreat and felt certain my capacity to forgive was approaching that magic number. Can you start pounding on someone if they offend you 78 times? I don’t expect that’s what Jesus had in mind, but if I ever find myself in a confined space with an abundance of unrulely boys I’m going to let them know that I’m not responsible for my behavior if they manage to offend my sensibilities 78 times.


There’s actually some debate among the Greek scholars as to whether Jesus said we should forgive someone 77 times or 70 times 7 times, but the point is pretty clear, and the point is he didn’t intend for us to keep count. I think we all know the importance of not keeping such counts. If you’re counting you’re going to have trouble


I used to watch that sitcom, “Home Improvement” pretty regularly, and I think I’ll always remember what Tim Allen said to one of his friends when he found out his friend was about to get married. Tim Allen didn’t give him any advice, he just said, Let me hear how well you can say “I’m sorry”.


I’ve never shared that line with any of the young people who have asked me to officiate at their wedding, but I’m guessing it’s a familiar phrase within most marriages. There’s that famous line from the movie, “Love Story”, where the woman says to the man she loves, Love means never having to say your sorry. And that’s a great line in a movie where the significant other dies young, but I’m more inclined to think Time Allen is right. Love means you’re always needing to say your sorry. I’m not sure what couples talk about if nobody is ever sorry about anything.


Of course the appeal for forgiveness is the easy side of this equation. Now it’s not always easy to acknowledge fault and seek forgiveness, but I find it to be so much easier to plead for forgiveness than to grant it. I want understanding in response to my failures. I want retribution when others commit offenses against me.


I really like the way this issue of forgiveness is examined in these verses. I think Peter was thinking he was being very generous in his estimation of how many times we should make the effort to forgive. He probably thought he was being wildly generous when he asked if we should forgive someone seven times, but when asked to establish a policy, Jesus stretched the number until it was off the chart.


There is so much truth in the parable Jesus told to illustrate the importance and the difficulty of forgiveness. I think the first scenario in this parable is one that we can all appreciate. The notion of a king forgiving the debt of a servant is like the plot of a Disney movie, but what those of us who live in a world of dollars and cents don’t immediately recognize is the extent of the debt that this king forgave. The amount of money that this servant owed was an unfathomable amount of money. Ten thousand talents was like bazillion dollars. It’s inconceivable that a servant could have built up such debt, but that isn’t the issue. The point is that the servant had no chance of repaying what he owed, but instead of punishing the servant in a crushing way, the king had compassion and gave him another chance.


There’s some hyperbole going on here. The extent of the forgiveness of debt is far beyond anything imaginable, but that’s the mindset Jesus wanted us to have in regard to forgiveness. We aren’t to be calculating when it comes to forgiving. This isn’t an easy thing to incorporate in to our economy. It would be hard for any business to stay afloat if they were to be so generous, but Jesus didn’t want us to have hard and fast rules about the amount of forgiveness we should exercise. He wanted us to be more forgiving than what seems reasonable.


This story of the master granting this unfathomable degree of forgiveness is a nice story, and I like to think it illustrates the way God will treat us all. It reaffirms the concept of our world being in the hands of a benevolent God who understands our capacity to get in over our head, and who chooses to give us a lift when we are unable to help ourselves. It’s a reassuring concept, but the story doesn’t end there. There’s this next episode that sort of shatters my sense of wellbing.


The servant who had been forgiven that unfathomable amount of money refuses to forgive his fellow servant who owes him a couple of bucks. This was some ugly behavior, and when the master hears about this he comes down on the unforgiving servant in a relatively satisfying manner. This feels like some nice justice, and it makes sense that this greedy servant would get what’s coming to him, but there’s something a little unsettling about this.


I think there are times when we all like the idea of there being some sound accounting taking place. We want those people we know who have done ourselves and others wrong to get what’s coming to them. But I’m not sure how to mesh the end of this story with the beginning of the story. Clearly there is this point that gets delivered quite clearly at the end of the story that there are some terrible consequences in store for us if we fail to be as forgiving toward others as God is forgiving of us, but the math doesn’t really add up.


At the beginning of this passage Jesus tells his disciples to be endlessly forgiving, but it ends by portraying this servant getting pounded because he immediately failed to be as forgiving as he should have been. And the final line is that this will be the case for us all if we don’t forgive our brothers and our sisters from our heart.


This is a powerful little parable. On one hand it reinforces the notion that there is no limit to the amount we can be forgiven, it calls for us to exercise unlimited forgiveness, and then it points to God’s willingness to exercise swift, eternal, and painful punishment. This is some funny math. There’s unlimited forgiveness in the kingdom of God, but it’s possible to have an attitude that is virtually unforgivable.


I’m pretty sure Jesus was sort of messing with us in this parable. It seems to me that there are two messages in this parable and each message sort of cancels out the other. It portrays God as being unfathomably forgiving and in doing so to reinforce our need to be have that same attitude toward others, but it also portrays God as being pretty quick to condemn someone who doesn’t live up to the proper standard of forgiveness.


On one hand, I think Jesus wanted to keep us a little off balance. Not unbalanced in a bad way, but I don’t think he ever wanted us to become so sure of ourselves that we become quick to judge other people and to decide who is in for what at the end of time. Clearly the threat of eternal pain can serve to motivate proper behavior, but I don’t think anyone is ever really motivated to love other people in order to avoid endless eternal torture.


I think Jesus wanted us to see the value of operating with boundless forgiveness. I think Jesus wanted us to recognize that this is what will enable our community to flourish. Without forgiveness, we are almost guaranteed to do ourselves in. If we don’t function with an abundance of forgiveness, our trespasses will do nothing but escalate and our community will deteriorate. Learning to forgive from the heart is truly the fuel for lasting and loving relationships.


But there is this other message about the need to not take forgiveness for granted. Forgiveness isn’t just a get-out-of-jail-free card. It’s not a form of divine enabling to do whatever we please. Jesus wanted us to exercise forgiveness in a boundless manner, but he also wanted us to have some fear of those privileges being revoked.


In our passage this morning, Peter was asking how much forgiveness they should be expected to exercise within their own religious community. And the answer was that it requires a heroic level effort to maintain relationships within a caring body of people. We know what Jesus said about the need to be insanely forgiving, but we also know that this hasn’t played out so well within the Christian community. The number of wars, factions, denominations, sects, and different United Methodist Churches is an indication of the difficulty of exercising forgiveness as liberally as Jesus called for it to be practiced. So it’s not hard to see how difficult it is to forgive people who live far away and ascribe to different ways of living and serving God.


It’s pretty hard for me to imagine how world tension is going to deescalate in the years to come, but I think it would be helpful if those of us who ascribe to Christianity would hear what Jesus had to say about the value of forgiveness – which is about the hardest thing we are challenged by Jesus to do. Politically speaking, I think it’s probably easier to call for people to engage in life-threatening operations than it is to try to understand our differences and to exercise forgiveness.


Our parable points to this truth that I think we’ve all experienced on a personal level, which is that forgiveness is a wonderful thing as long as you’re on the receiving end of it, but it is an unfathomably hard thing to exercise when you are on the giving end. We want others to understand why we found it necessary to do what we did, but somebody needs to pay when harm has come our way. It’s a natural instinct, but it’s not what Jesus taught us to do.


Jesus wants us to see the way in which God measures things, and it’s not normal math. What’s most valuable to God is not what we generally think will give us the most satisfaction – but it is the thing that will bring us the greatest sense of peace. What Jesus had to say about the value of forgiveness may well be some of the most challenging words that we hear from him, but the reason he instructed us in this way was because he wanted us to find our way into the good grace of God, and out of the pain of living in service to ourselves.


It’s a hard teaching, it’s a powerful teaching, and it’s the source of true peace.


May God provide us the grace we need to practice the forgiveness that we have already received.

Thanks be to God.






One Response to “Proper 19a, September 17, 2017”

  1. Earl Says:

    I agree that there is a need for forgivenes, from the agreeved and the other party. On the other hand, hard to forgive that jurk in North Korea.

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