Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
September 14, 2014
This is one of those weeks when events in the news bang up hard against the Scripture for this Sunday. To ignore it might be more comfortable, but some of you would certainly make the connection and wonder how I missed it or why I avoided it. With all of the attention that has gone to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack 13th anniversary and the national and global struggle to respond to the violence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, even if you are not a football or sports fan, you could not miss the upheaval around Ray Rice’s violence on his now wife Janay. All of this is a jarring challenge to Jesus’ strong mandate for unlimited forgiveness.
I am not going to comment on the response of the NFL – either Roger Goodall or the Ravens – or the news media, or on the relationship between Ray and Janay Rice. But I can’t escape recognizing that Jesus’ telling Peter to forgive 77 (or 70X7) times has been misused by pastors to urge abused women to return to their husbands for more abuse. I would suggest that rather than striking out for real or imagined offenses, forgiveness calls perpetrators of violence to a gateway for repudiating all abuse.
To appreciate what Jesus said in Matthew 18:21-35, we need to start by recognizing that people were listening to what he said, not reading what he wrote. He was purposely catching them off guard with unexpected and even humorous ironies. Like an improve comedian, Jesus depended on interactive responses from his hearers, so I will interpolate some so we can get his message. Last week we heard Jesus explain how to confront each other for our failings. Peter recognized that rather than judgment this was in invitation to forgiveness.
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. Laughter rippled.
23“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. They would have thought of a hated pagan despot such as Herod Antipas or Tiberius Caesar, not God. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents (We might say many gazillions of dollars.) was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay (of course not), his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. Collective Groan! 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ Laughably impossible! 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. Really?!
28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; (We would say ‘a few bucks” and expect him to forgive.) and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. In good melodrama tradition, all boo and hiss.
31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, (of course) they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ Shouts of “Yes! Yes! Yes!” 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. All gasp knowing he will never escape his torture.
35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Jesus caught us in a gotcha moment.
Forgiveness does not excuse or diminish the offense, nor does evade its consequences. Our forgiving someone does not exempt them from needing God’s forgiveness. Only forgiveness accounts for the full seriousness of the offense. As we forgive when we disagree and hurt each other, our character is increasingly infused with God’s forgiving nature.
Joann Lee, associate pastor of House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, MN wrote, “Because we disagree – and because we often hurt one another in our disagreements – we must also learn to forgive.” (Christian Century, September 3, 2014, p. 19) Whether the offense seems huge or slight, none of us deserves forgiveness, but we all need forgiveness.
Forgiveness is about relationships. When we extend forgiveness to someone who has hurt our relationship, we open the door through which they can respond by receiving forgiveness and restoring the relationship.
Here and in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:12; Luke 11:4), Jesus connected our receiving forgiveness from God with us extending forgiveness to those who have hurt us. This is more reciprocal than conditional. Having been forgiven, we can extend forgiveness. Having forgiven others, we are better able to accept that we are forgiven.
A woman who had carried a family wound for decades once told me she thought Jesus was wrong because some people don’t deserve to be forgiven. But by refusing to forgive, she continued to be tortured captive to the one who had hurt her deeply. When we forgive, even someone who refused to acknowledge their offense, we are liberated from the grip in which we are held captive.
As we forgive when we disagree and hurt each other, our character is infused with God’s forgiving nature. Forgiveness in our relationship with God is also reciprocal. Forgiveness is essential to God’s nature, so when we forgive we are acting more and more like God.
By bringing this ironically humorous story around to being forgiven by God, Jesus stung with a supreme gotcha moment.
Psalm 103:3, 10-14 “Bless the Lord, O my soul, …who forgives all your iniquity. … He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.”
Psalm 130:3-4 “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.”
The interim journey calls for living as people of forgiveness.
Disagreements about where the church should be heading and how to get there are common, as are disagreements about the kind of pastor to call. New pastors often find themselves embroiled in disagreements about what the church expects. But if we take the two passages we have heard today seriously, disagreements need not divide.
Paul urged those who disagreed in Rome to be fully convinced in their own minds. He also told them to respect people who disagreed and assume they were seeking to honor the Lord. On your interim journey, assume that those who disagree with you really want the best for the church and not impugn their motives. This is not easy once you are convinced in your own mind.
Joann Lee also observed that Paul encouraged a centered faith that rallies people around Jesus and is open to learning from each other rather than trying to convince each other, instead of a boundaried faith with detailed definitions of who is included and who is excluded. Thus your interim journey can be an opportunity for forgiving when we disagree and hurt each other, so our character will be infused with God’s forgiving nature.