This Sunday was our congregation’s big fall fundraising meal, at which we served 793 turkey dinners (41 turkeys!). That meant we had a larger Saturday service, and a single very small Sunday morning service.
The sermon texts from the lectionary for this week are Matthew 18:21-35 and Genesis 50:15-21.
Grace and peace from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
One of the things that’s surprised me as a pastor is how often when I meet people, they apologize for not going to church. I can almost guarantee it will happen tomorrow/today at lunch. How are you supposed to react to that? Obviously, I do wish people would come to church more often, and some of the excuses people give, myself included, for staying home from worship are ridiculous.
But I’m not here to guilt people into coming to church, and I hope you’re not either. For one thing, it wouldn’t work for very long, and really, what an awful reason to come worship God! There are some very legitimate reasons to miss worship, and seriously, God doesn’t love you more if you’re here or less if you’re not.
It’s hard, though, when the reaction people have to the church and the pastor is a need to apologize. As we’re reminded in all of our readings today, our job is not to make people feel guilty. Our mission is not to pass judgment on others, but to declare the good news of God’s forgiveness.
In Matthew 18, Peter is starting to get the idea from Jesus’ teaching that forgiveness is good. We should forgive people. In fact, probably not just once, but a few times.
So he goes to Jesus and presents his big, generous idea. “So Lord, if someone sins against me, how many times should I forgive them? If I’m feeling really generous, would 7 times be too many? I mean, that’s like every day for a week. Is that too much?”
And Jesus’ response blows Peter’s generosity out of the water. Not just 7 times, but 77 times.
You know how sometimes taking the Bible too literally is a problem? This is one of those times. I’m quite confident Jesus is not saying we should forgive people the first 77 times, but give up on them the 78th time. He’s saying we ought to keep forgiving. In fact, as Christians, we need to keep forgiving.
The challenge is that this parable can make forgiveness feel transactional, like Jesus is saying we need to forgive, or God will stop forgiving us. It’s like that line in the Lord’s prayer that can feel like a trap: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It feels like there’s some numerical formula to be followed, or some specific procedure we have to do or it won’t work.
But I think that’s giving us too much power. Forgiveness is about what God does. I don’t think we have the ability to stop God from forgiving. Forgiving is God’s nature.
As we learn in the story of Joseph, even what we intend for evil, God can use for good. We can hold on to our guilt and refuse to accept God’s forgiveness, but we can’t stop God from giving it.
What this parable shows is how important forgiveness is. The wealthy servant in Jesus’ parable owes 10,000 talents of silver. A talent is a measure of weight, around 130 pounds, so he owes the monetary value of 1.3 million pounds of silver.
For a typical worker of that time, it takes about 15 years to earn 130 pounds of silver. The servant then owes about 150,000 years’ worth of income. Again, though, the numbers aren’t really the point; he owes far more than he could ever repay. His situation’s hopeless.
I’ve been paying off student loan debt for years now, and I’ve still got a way to go. But there is an end in sight. I suspect many of you are paying off some kind of debt too, maybe not student loans, but car payments, mortgages, credit cards, whatever it might be.
Even if you don’t have any debt, you understand how owing money to someone else can change your priorities. Debt is a form of bondage, because it ties your hands on what you can do with your money. It takes over some portion of your life, forces you to make certain decisions.
If that’s true for small debts, imagine what it would be like to owe 150,000 years of income, to have no hope of repaying it. Imagine your entire future being consumed by just paying off a tiny fraction of what you owe. How would you react if that debt were forgiven?
It wouldn’t just be like a weight lifted off your shoulders, it’d be a whole new life. It’d be a pardon from a death sentence.
For the king, it actually makes sense, in a way. There’s no way a debt this big is going to be repaid, so why not forgive it, and receive the eternal gratitude of a forgiven servant?
In the parable, it turns out there’s a right way and a wrong way to respond to forgiveness this enormous. The wrong way is to turn around and demand repayment from others who owe comparatively minuscule, tiny debts. The right way is to pass on the forgiveness.
Of course, Jesus is talking about more than monetary forgiveness. This story comes right after last week’s reading, where Jesus talked about resolving conflict within a community. The forgiveness Jesus is talking about has to do with restoring wholeness, making things right.
At the Wednesday morning men’s breakfast this week, someone shared that when he was growing up, he and his sibling would fight, and they’d be made to sit in chairs facing each other until they apologized and forgave each other. Another example was making children hug each other for multiple minutes until the parent felt forgiveness had been achieved.
I don’t know if those are good parenting techniques, but I am pretty sure you can’t command someone to just forgive. Real forgiveness, from the heart, like Jesus says, is not a little thing to check off a to-do list.
Not only that, but forgiveness looks different in different situations. Sometimes it does look like forgetting all about whatever happened and going right back to the way it was before.
Other times, though, forgiveness can take a lifetime of praying for your enemy, and full reconciliation might never happen. And although forgiveness is good, there’s a line between forgiving and enabling. If you’ve been abused by someone, Jesus is absolutely not saying forgiveness means going back to that person. Forgiveness is intended to lead to wholeness, not to more harm.
The point of this story is how we react to God’s forgiveness. When we understand the enormity of God’s forgiveness of our sin, when we grasp that it’s so far beyond anything we could do, we have to respond. Not so God will keep forgiving us, but because God has forgiven us. We love because God first loved us, 1 John 4:19. It’s a “Pay It Forward” kind of thing. It’s life changing.
Pastor David Lose puts it like this:
“The failure of the first servant is not simply that he won’t forgive his comrade, but that he has just experienced an utterly unexpected, completely beyond-his-wildest-dreams, life-changing moment of grace, and he seems absolutely untouched by it. And for this reason, he lives devoid of any sense of gratitude. His whole life changed…and he didn’t even notice.”
How hard it is for us to get this good news through our thick heads. God really does love you! God really does forgive you! God’s forgiveness is beyond our human understanding. Maybe the best way to describe it is something ridiculous, like as far as the east is from the west.
Our mission as a church is to react to God’s forgiveness by forgiving others. Over and over again, we hear the good news of God’s love, and we’re sent out to share it with others.
We get a great opportunity this weekend with all the people who will be here for Country Time. How will we proclaim God’s forgiveness to the people who show up today who come into this building once a year?
How about to each other as you serve and work together? How will we use the money we raise to proclaim God’s forgiveness?
May you begin this week to grasp God’s love and forgiveness for you in a new way, and may you find opportunities to share that love and forgiveness with others.