A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock
Exodus 14:19-31; Romans 141-12; Matthew 18:21-35
I think that you know by now that I am big on being clear about the words we use. Knowing what we’re talking about matters. For instance, I regularly (incessantly, some would say) ask what a familiar word means because I have found that while we may be familiar with a term and can spell it, this is not the same as being clear about its meaning and, therefore, its use. So, from today’s gospel lesson it should be clear that what we are confronting is the issue of “forgiveness”. And since the word “forgiveness” is so very familiar to us, the central question remains: What is it? And there are other attending questions about “forgiveness”, as well: such as, What does ‘forgiveness’ mean? How does it work? Mostly, what does it take to forgive? In this sermon I want to address these “forgiveness” questions and use what Jesus says about them in today’s gospel reading so that we may be clearer about forgiveness and have it as a resource for our faithful lives. First, to start with, a working definition: the best one I know: “Forgiveness is remembering without resentment.” I have appreciated this understanding of forgiveness largely because it flies directly in the face of human nature and that awful (yet so commonly uttered lie): “Forgive and forget”. Typically, “forgiving and forgetting” is a faint cover-up for not taking seriously the issue of forgiveness and its need in our lives. The truth is that such a perspective attempts to dodge the reality of forgiveness, its need, as well as its challenge. In other words, “forgiving and forgetting” is a matter of denial and avoidance and cowardness. More to the functional point, what kind of sucker would a person need to be to forget about what broke your heart or injured your life? How many times does one need to be robbed or betrayed or lied to before that person realizes that there is something vitally important to learn from all these experiences? There is some wisdom in the common saying: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” So it is that seeing forgiveness as a matter of “remembering without resentment” challenges us to consider taking another road, one less taken: namely, still remembering what happened to break the relationship but at the same time not harboring the toxicity of resentment. “Letting go” is how our culture speaks of this; but how does one “let go” without pretending nothing happened? Is it possible? Is it helpful? Is it even practical? Enter as our guide the figure of Peter from our gospel lesson. In his interaction with Jesus on the subject of “forgiveness”, I think Peter senses both the significance of forgiving and its difficulty; and I want to give him his due because when he asks Jesus “Lord, … how often should I forgive?” he seems to be wrestling with two serious points. One is that forgiveness is the necessary element that all human relationships must contain if they are to provide life. Remember last week’s gospel, where Jesus promises that wherever two or three are gathered in his Name, the Risen One will be in their midst? And the corollary I suggested: “Whenever two or three are gathered in Jesus’ Name, there is the distinct possibility of a fight”? The point is that being in relationship – with God or with one another – necessitates the availability for forgiveness; or else there is only separation and death left in our lives. Put another way, how much amputation can a body stand before it is reduced to a stump? In his question about how often he needs to forgive, Peter seems to realize that in the context of relationship forgiveness is not and cannot be a “one and done” sort of thing. But I also sense another glimmering of insight in Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive someone. I think that Peter’s response of saying that he might have to forgive even to the outrageous level of “seven times” seems to indicate that in addition to this forgiveness stuff not being a “one and done” sort of thing; true, Godly forgiveness requires of us lots and lots and lots of practice – maybe (as Jesus rabbinically suggests) approaching up to 490 times before forgiveness’s reality begins to sink in. To cement this consciously exaggerated point about forgiveness’s reality sinking in, Jesus tells another parable. And we already know from our experiences with Jesus’ other parables that we are in for a surprising ride with this story and its focus on forgiveness. The ride stems from our definition that “forgiveness is remembering without resentment” and then asking to what extent this describes the king’s behavior in the parable, as he settles his accounts. As with all of Jesus’ parables, the Lord intends to illustrate what the God-life is all about, that life on God’s terms contains good news and bad news. The good news is that life with God provides true and lasting life – no matter what. The bad news is that God's life often seems to be “upside-down” to the way we live and the way the world works. The surprising and unpleasant bite in Jesus’ parables is the upsetting point that it is our sense of reality and our behaviors that are “upside-down”, and they need to be turned “right-side-up”. So, how does today’s parable do this? More importantly, what is our reaction to its “right-side-upping” of the way we think and live, especially with respect to forgiveness? Obviously, the parable pivots on the figure of the king who shows unfathomable mercy toward his debtor: “unfathomable” because the king’s debtor owes the king an enormous amount of money. The text reports the amount to be “ten thousand talents”. Now generally speaking, a “talent” was what a worker earned in a year. So, what the parable’s king is dealing with entails a debt that is the equivalent of 200,000 years of labor or 60 million work hours: estimated to be in our money about $3.48 billion. Well, you have heard the story. You know what unfolds. The king not only gave his debtor the opportunity to make good on his promise to pay back everything he owes; but with “unfathomable” forgiveness, the king forgave his debtor’s entire debt. In spite of being given such an overwhelming and heretofore unthinkable act of mercy and compassion, the king’s forgiven debtor moves to squeeze everyone who owes him any money. The stark difference between the two accounting sessions is that the king’s debtor did not show the same merciful “patience”, not to mention “compassion” with his debtors as the king gave to him. And so, the parable‘s plot thickens. Of course, the climax of the parable arrives when the king hears about his debtor’s hypocritical shenanigans. Calling him in to account for his merciless and stone-hearted behavior, the king’s rage is impossible to miss; and to the extent that the parable’s “king” represents God, what are we to make of how this story ends? "You’re a scoundrel of a servant! … I let you off the whole debt because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have taken pity on your colleague, like I took pity on you?” His master was angry and handed him over to the torturers, until he had paid the whole debt. And that’s what my heavenly father will do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother or sister from your heart."1 This ending is troubling to most of us: The king is the metaphor for God and the entire parable being an insight into the God-life. Jesus says as much in the opening sentence of the gospel reading: For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be comparable to a king who wishes to settle accounts with his servants. And in Jesus’ brief explanation of what is going on in his parable, he states that if we, his followers, don’t forgive one another from the heart, our fate will be the same as this “scoundrel of a servant”. Was our mid-eighteenth century Northampton neighbor, Jonathan Edwards in tune with this parable, when he wrote his famous sermon: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”? Is this what we are to learn from Jesus’ parable? Yes and No. I say “yes” to the extent that the parable and Jonathan Edwards speak to the truth that the God-life entails consequences for our choices and behaviors. However, I profoundly disagree if that is where we leave the matter, which too often we do. Two quick reasons why I say this. In terms of “Jesus’ wild math”, the point seems to be a lesson in God’s mercy: that is, in the gift of NOT getting what we DO deserve. The servant of the parable’s king “pleaded” with his lord for “patience” in repaying his debt. As the text says, “out of pity for [the servant], the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.” This, indeed, is an act of divine mercy, and of NOT getting what we DO deserve. It illustrates perfectly what I have suggested as our three-point theological template. Remember? God-in-Christ gives us what we need and cannot provide for ourselves; say “thank you” for the gift; share (don’t hoard) the gift. The king’s servant gladly received his lord’s mercy, but the stumbling block of the parable rests with the fact that he did not, would not share what he himself had been given. Hence, the problem: the servant was convicted by his own standard of behavior, which cast him into utter darkness. He didn’t share the gift he was given and modeling that forgiveness transforms the forgiver. The second point of the parable’s conclusion posits an overriding truth: God refuses to abandon us, even if it takes us 490 times to receive what God gives. This is so because God’s mercy and God’s grace are rooted in and reflections of God’s love. Yet, in refusing God’s life and love, we are left with the reality of living our lives based on the standards by which we have lived, with those “unredeemed” standards. As the poet has said, “We hand folks over to God’s mercy, and show none ourselves.”2 And what we are left with then are our own dead lives. As I say, to forgive changes the forgiver. True forgiveness stems from the heart, as Jesus suggests in the conclusion of this parable. This is the reason that in my morning prayers I zealously offer this psalm’s verse: “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit in me.”3 My clinging to my need to be in the right or my need to be the injured one clogs my own heart, to the extent that not forgiving tragically makes me the prisoner of my own lack of compassion. The source of a “clean heart” lies in having the right spirit: namely, being aware and thankful for the mercy we have been given. And this, it seems to me, is the reason it may take seventy times seven experiences of forgiving finally to let the reality of God’s forgiveness to sink in. Because you can’t give away what you don’t have. I pray that St. Philip’s, that our life together, will always be a place where we practice Jesus’ special math, receiving and giving it. Amen.
1 N. T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone. page 38 2 George Eliot, Adam Bede 3 Psalm 51:11