Sermon given by Rev. Patrick Crocker at First Christian Church in Las Cruces on September 17, 2023.
Let’s hear anew what the Spirit is saying to the church.
At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, “Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?”Matthew 18:21-35 (The Message, Eugene Peterson)
Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.
“The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. He couldn’t pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market.
“The poor wretch threw himself at the king’s feet and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt.
“The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, ‘Pay up. Now!’
“The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ But he wouldn’t do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king.
“The king summoned the man and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?’ The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. And that’s exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.”
Let’s pray. Oh gracious God, shepherd the words of my mouth, and the thoughts and meditations in each of our hearts, that they may grow pleasing in your sight and transformative to our spirits. Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
The questions for us to have in the back of our mind this morning and our homework for the week to come: What images of forgiveness come to mind? How do we live that out as individuals and as communities?
Do recall that this scripture this morning follows immediately on last week’s Scripture when Jesus says, If someone in the church offends you, go and tell them. Go and speak to them one on one and work for reconciliation.
And if they don’t listen, take one or two others so that things can be honest. And if they don’t work out there, take it before the entire church. And if it still doesn’t work out, treat them like a Pharisee or tax collector. Which, given who Jesus ate with tells us not, “cut them off.” It says, “start over at the beginning.”
And out of that, Peter asks, “okay, if someone in the church offends me, how often do I have to forgive? Seven’s a holy number. How about that?” The law says only three. The law says, If I forgive someone three times and they continue to offend, then I don’t have to forgive them anymore. So double that and one more, that’s good, right? And Jesus says, no.
It can be read either 77 or 70 times seven and that’s one of the things where numbers have also evolved from where we were there when this was written to now.
While I like Eugene Peterson’s translation, this is one that I have to argue with because he’s not thinking big enough. The numbers that were used in the Scripture, the talent is the biggest unit of money there was. And 10,000 was the biggest number that they had. The entire gross domestic product of the Kingdom of Israel at that time would not add up to a 10th of what Jesus was talking about there.
So instead of thinking a servant who owed $100,000, which is extreme, but doable, imagine a servant owing $23 trillion. That was the gross domestic product of the U.S. a couple of years ago. And then someone owing him $10,000, a significant amount, but a whole lot less. Doable.
Forgiveness. What does forgiveness mean for us and for our communities?
Rabbi Kushner tells a story. A woman in my congregation comes to me. She’s a single mother, divorced, working to support herself and three children. She says to me, since my husband walked out on us, every month is a struggle to pay our bills. I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies while he’s living it up with his new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him?
And I answer her, I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t. He was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter, angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is physically, but you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to resentment, but you are hurting yourself.
What does forgiveness look like if we go with our modern sensibilities of counting 77 times or 490 times? We’re not forgiving, we’re biding our time. After all, revenge is a dish best served cold or so we’ve been told by our culture. What does forgiveness look like?
Philip Yancey in his book What’s so amazing about Grace says that forgiveness is ultimately an act of faith, that God’s justice is better than ours. With these images, let’s use our holy imagination and walk into a better life together. Amen.