Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Proper 19A

“One must, it is true, forgive one’s enemies. But not before they have been hanged.” ― Heinrich Heine

“Forgive others, and you will be forgiven.” — Jesus

TEXT: Matthew 18:21-35

So the slave fell on his knees before [the king], saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” (Matthew 18:26)

“Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” How many bankers and lenders have heard that? It would be hard to guess—but it is that very plea which, in today’s gospel lesson—illustrates Jesus’ most important teaching about the theme of Christian forgiveness.

In the church, the concept of forgiveness seems to pop up a lot. And most of us know why. Forgiveness is one of the most universally recognized—yet least frequently practiced—mandates of those who call themselves disciples of Christ. Jesus calls us to forgive, and forgive, and forgive again. Yet in our reasonably honest moments, we all know how almost impossibly difficult that can be.

When people hurt us, if there is one thing that does not come naturally, it is forgiveness. This is why Peter’s utterance is one of the most timeless of all biblical questions: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” It is our question today as much as it was Peter’s question way back then.

The New Testament sets our lesson within Matthew’s so-called “fourth discourse” of Jesus, comprising Chapter 18 of Matthew’s Gospel. This lesson—like the one for last week—has the community of faith as its context. Perhaps it is a lesson that needs to be heard by the church most of all.

In last Sunday’s gospel (Matt. 18:1-20), Jesus instructed his disciples about what they were to do when one of the members of the church sinned against them. Now Peter—presumably for further clarification—asks his all-important question: “… how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

Now, the usual rabbinical teaching recommended a three-time formula: the faithful Jew was expected to forgive a wrongdoer three times—and in exceptional cases—even four times. Peter, in his question to Jesus, goes far beyond that—and so he is showing great liberality in asking if seven times is enough. It’s important to make note of that, because we do not give Peter enough credit for his generosity in proposing seven-fold forgiveness.

Jesus’ response must have shocked not only Peter, but all those who were listening. “Not seven times,” he said, “but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Or, as some translations have it, “seventy times seven.”

What does Jesus mean? All of us know the literalistic approach to such a saying. We think to ourselves, “Let’s see, seventy times seven … Does Jesus mean 490 times we are to forgive?”

No. What Jesus means is that forgiveness in the community of faith should be infinite. Forgiveness should have no limit. In Scripture, the number seven represents perfection. For example, God created the world in seven days—and that represents God’s perfect work of creation. Thus, “seventy times seven” is equal to a perfect number of instances of forgiveness multiplied by seventy—a staggering number of times of forgiveness! What Jesus is trying to suggest, I think, is that forgiveness is not a matter of mathematics, but rather an attitude toward life and those with whom we share it.

To emphasize the importance of this principle, Jesus tells a parable to reinforce and illustrate his teaching about the nature of forgiveness. Jesus says that “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.”

Now, the first debtor brought before the king owes him an astounding sum. This slave’s debt is 10,000 talents. In Jesus’ day, a “talent” was the equivalent of more than 15 years of wages for a common laborer. This means that it would have taken this man more than several lifetimes to repay the debt. Obviously, he could never repay the debt; “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.” (v. 25)

At this point, the slave begs for more time. “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything,” he says.

Then the king does something amazing. Moved by pity, he forgives the slave his entire debt, and sends him on his way. If the parable had ended there, it would be a wonderful story about God’s boundless compassion and forgiveness. However, an odd thing happens as Jesus continues the parable that—for the moment—looks so happy in its ending.

The first slave—of whom the king has just forgiven a debt larger than King Herod’s whole treasury in Jesus’ time—now comes upon a fellow slave who owes him a mere hundred denarii. He grabs him by the throat and demands immediate payment.

Slave number two begs for mercy in words nearly identical to those that the first slave has just used: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.”

The first slave, however, will have none of this. He refuses the second slave’s plea, and has him thrown into prison for the hundred denarii. Now, a denarius was the usual day’s wage for a laborer—so the amount owed was about three months’ wages. It was a significant sum, to be sure—but nothing compared to the debt that had been owed to the king.

Well, the first slave is not only without compassion, but also, it seems, without any common sense—because he demonstrates his cruel selfishness in front of witnesses. And these witnesses—who had no doubt also witnessed the king’s act of mercy—are outraged. Immediately, they go and tell the king, and Jesus brings the parable to its conclusion:

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 should pay his entire debt. (vv. 32-34)

That would have been a life sentence. Jesus’ final words in today’s passage are chilling: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (v. 35)

One helpful word—among many that we draw from Jesus’ teaching—we find in our Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12).

For Jesus, forgiveness is at the heart of what it means to be a disciple. In last week’s gospel, he outlined our responsibility to hold others accountable; this week, he reminds us of our duty to forgive. Forgiveness of a bountiful kind is the foundation of the community of faith. Believers must practice it, if the community is to remain faithful and intact. The word to the church is a “threefold amen” about the nature of forgiveness.

First, the church is meant to be a place where forgiveness is not only spoken of, but also practiced. We are not to simply talk about forgiveness; we are to forgive.

Second, Jesus reminds us—by his use of the character of the first slave—that God has forgiven us a huge debt. Now, forgiven Christians must not withhold forgiveness for lesser offenses that creep into the fellowship of the church. My guess is that if most of us only remembered how much God had already forgiven us, then it would be a lot easier for us to let go of those nagging resentments that eat away at us.

Third—and this may be the crux of the matter—those who cannot accept God’s forgiveness will not likely be able to forgive others. Make no mistake about it: those who have not received love or charity from God will not be able to share it with others. You cannot give away to others what you have not first received yourself.

One of the truest proverbs of the last few centuries—even though it gets misused too frequently—is the one that tells us: “To err is human, but to forgive is divine.” By forgiving others, we participate in the divinity of Christ … and isn’t that what “being his body” is all about?

I’m not saying it’s easy. I know it isn’t easy! In fact, I think that—by our ordinary human capabilities—it is impossible for most of us. But through God’s grace, the impossible becomes possible. So let us pray for the grace to forgive, as we have been forgiven; in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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