You want me to forgive how many times? – a sermon

Today’s sermon is now on the Saint Paul’s Website or you can read it below.

Peter is often impetuous.  He jumped out of a boat in the middle of a stormy sea to walk toward someone he wasn’t sure was actually Jesus.  On the night Jesus was arrested, Peter pulled out a sword and cut off the ear of one of the High Priest’s slaves.  When the crowds rushed in to see what was happening on that first Pentecost Day, Peter stood up and preached the Church’s first sermon.  When Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter shouted, “You are the Messiah!”  And when Jesus told him that being the Messiah meant dying at the hands of Rome, Peter was just as quick to shout, “God forbid it!”  Here, in the middle of Jesus’ teaching on what life is going to be like after he’s gone, Peter wants to be absolutely clear that Jesus is saying what he thinks Jesus is saying.  And so he asks, “Lord, how often do I have to forgive?”

Our Gospel lesson this week follows immediately after last week’s story.  Jesus has just finished laying out for his disciples how they should handle the inevitable conflicts that come when people gather together.  He has told them, “Treat that one as a Gentile and a tax collector,” and Peter thinks Jesus just commanded them to love even the unrepentant sinner.   Not being shy about confronting Jesus, he looks at his Rabbi and with all the chutzpah he can muster, says what the rest of the disciples were probably thinking: grace is easy to accept and really hard to give.  “Let me get this straight, Jesus.  You’re suggesting that we offer grace to those who have offended us, that we continue to love them and continue to seek reconciliation with them, even, or maybe especially when they won’t listen?  Lord, how often should we forgive?  … Seven times?”

I imagine a long and painful silence between “how often should we forgive” and Peter’s hypothetical suggestion of “seven times” as he racked his brain for a wildly irrational number. “Second chances?  OK.  Maybe even a third, but seven chances for the same person?  Not even Jesus could expect that from us.”  Unfortunately for Peter, and for us, Jesus wouldn’t let him off the hook that easily.  “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times” Or, as other versions suggest, “seventy times seven – four hundred ninety times.”  Peter is often impetuous.  It takes an awful lot to render him speechless, but Jesus has done it here by suggesting that mercy isn’t about keeping a forgiveness ledger for everyone in your life.  With only a blank stare looking back at him, Jesus goes on to explain what mercy really looks like by way of a parable.  Mercy is about forgiving because the debt that has been forgiven of us is beyond even our wildest imagination.

The main character in this parable is a slave who owes his king a considerable sum of money.  I mean a lot of money.  Ten thousand anything would be a lot for a slave to pay back, but ten thousand talents is like owing the king the Powerball.  One talent was roughly equal to three thousand seven hundred fifty denarii or fifteen years’ wages for the average laborer.  This slave owed the king ten thousand fifteen years.  That’s one hundred fifty thousand years’ worth of wages.  To put that in perspective, the average general laborer in Foley makes about twenty five thousand dollars a year.[1]  To match that debt, they would have to owe someone three hundred seventy five million dollars.  That’s a lot of money that this man owes and that the king, out of sheer pity, forgave him entirely.  Jesus says that’s what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.

If I owed a penny for every sin I’ve committed in my life, I might be close to three hundred seventy five million dollars by now.  Out of sheer pity on my human frailty, God has forgiven that debt.  In response, you’d think I’d be ecstatic – that I might go around everywhere forgiving everyone, but alas, I’m still a human.  We’re all still human.  So the story continues and this now totally forgiven slave runs across a man who owes him 100 denarii.  40% of an annual salary is not chump change, to be sure, but it is only twenty seven hundred thousandths of a percent (.00027%) of what the slave owed the king.  Do you think he’s going to forgive the man’s debt?  Of course not.  No, he is still human and so he has him thrown into debtors’ prison until the debt is paid.  Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is not like that.  Instead, those who claim to be of the Kingdom but do not forgive their neighbor from their heart, they will be cast out into the darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Or worse.

As the parable comes to an end, Jesus has moved from suggesting we forgive seventy-seven or even four hundred ninety times to three hundred seventy five million times.  Which is to say, forgive until you can’t forgive anymore and then do it again.  Let’s be clear, Jesus is not calling his disciples to be doormats.  There are consequences to our hurtful actions.  Being treated as a Gentile or tax collector means being loved, but it also means being removed from the community.  Tragically, this text has been used to tell abused women to forgive their abusers and stay in their marriages.  Forgiving and staying are two very different things.  Jesus commands the one, but certainly not the other.

Still, Jesus does call on us to forgive those who have hurt us, and as a culture we are really not very good forgiveness.  Just a quick gloss of the news this week reminds of this.  Lord, do we really have to forgive Ray Rice?  Do we really have to forgive the Baltimore Ravens, Roger Goodell and the NFL?  Do we really have to forgive Osama Bin Laden, al-queda and the men who attacked us thirteen years ago?  Do we really have to forgive ISIS and Boko Haram? Yes, yes, three hundred seventy five million times, yes.

To forgive another doesn’t mean to excuse their behavior.  It doesn’t mean to let them off the hook for the harm they’ve committed.  It doesn’t mean to forget.  Forgiveness means to refuse the right to hold on to bitterness and anger.[2]  Forgiveness means refusing to allow the hurt to continue to hurt you again and again.  Forgiving your enemy, to borrow from our Romans lesson a few weeks ago, is removing the burning coals from your heart and heaping them upon their head, which if we’re honest with ourselves, is a really nice side effect because the reality is that forgiveness is really, really hard.

Which is why, most every Sunday, we do two things: confess our sins and pray the Lord’s Prayer.  We confess ours sins to God, making known the times which we have refused to forgive our spouses, our parents, our children, our friends and neighbors, our politicians, our celebrities, and our enemies.  We ask God to forgive us those times that we have failed to forgive.  And then, just before we receive our reminder of God’s love and forgiveness in the body and blood of our Lord, we pray in the words our Savior taught us, asking God to help us forgive as we have been forgiven.

Peter never lost his impetuousness, but in time, Peter learned what it felt like to be forgiven.  In time, Peter learned how to forgive without reservation.  In time, Peter learned to live in the Kingdom of Heaven even while still on earth.  And we can too.  As forgiven and beloved children of God, we are specially equipped to do the work of forgiving those who have trespassed against us: seven, seventy, seventy times seven, even three hundred seventy five million times. Amen.

[1] http://swz.salary.com/SalaryWizard/General-Laborer-Salary-Details-36535.aspx

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2165

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