Tag Archives: Parables

Matthew 18: 21-35 A Forgiving King and Community

By Domenico Fetti – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=150920

Matthew 18: 21-35

21 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?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 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. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

This parable is unique to Matthew’s gospel but is well known as the parable of the unforgiving servant (or slave). In the individualistic culture of modernity it is natural that we focus primarily on this one slave who has an incredible debt forgiven, but the placement of this parable within a chapter that is focused on forgiveness and reconciliation within a community setting should alert us that something beyond an individualistic interpretation which neglects the surrounding community is insufficient. In Matthew individual actions and communal responsibility go together just like forgiveness of sins/trespasses and the forgiveness of economic debts. We have already seen Jesus model for the disciples in Matthew 6: 12-15 where in the Lord’s prayer the disciple asks for God to “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtor.” And follows this with, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you.” In response to Peter’s question about forgiveness these statements are given narrative form in the parable.

Peter’s question, narratively prompted by the practices of reconciliation with a member of the community of Christ who sins against another member, about the limits of forgiveness and Jesus’ response about the expansiveness of forgiveness provide the foundation for the world of the parable. Peter’s question of limits is a practical one in discerning when a fellow member of the community is beyond redemption, when a lost sheep should remain lost of a fellow member be perpetually condemned as a Gentile and tax collector. Jesus’ answer invokes the figure of Lamech and stands in direct opposition to Lamech’s way of retaliation:

Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech listen to what I say: I have killed a young man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4: 23-24)

Lamech, the descendant of Cain, responds to violence with greater violence, Jesus responds to sin and violence with the offer of forgiveness and reconciliation. As David Garland can state, “Under Lamech there was no limit to hatred and revenge; under Moses it was limited to an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life; under Jesus there is no limit to love, forgiveness, and mercy.” (Garland, 2001, p. 197)

Entering the parable, we have the kingdom of heaven placed alongside a king settling accounts with his slaves. Although the slavery imagined in this parable is different from slavery as it was practiced in the United States, the people ordered by the king are not merely servants who are bound by an economic arrangement that either party could terminate. The slave, their relationships and their property are ultimately the property of this king who has the power, as we will see in the parable, to dispose of as he sees fit. On the other hand, this king delegates incredible economic authority, and presumably power as well, to the first slave in particular. In settling accounts (literally settling words) with the slaves of the king only one debtor is significant enough to bear mention for the story. We can become fixated on how to communicate the value of 10,000 talents, but both the word for 10,000 is like seventy times seven, a number too high to account for and the unit of measure, a talent, is too large for most of Jesus’ hearers to ever possess. As M. Eugene Boring can state:

A talent is the largest monetary unit (20.4 kg of silver), equal to 6,000 drachmas, the wages of a manual laborer for fifteen years. “Ten thousand” (mupia,j myrias, “myriad”) is the largest possible number. Thus the combination is the largest figure that can be given. The annual tax income of Herod the Great’s territories was 900 talents per year. Ten thousand talents would exceed the taxes for all of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria. The amount is fantastic, beyond all calculation. (NIB VIII: 382)

For Matthew debt and sin are closely related and so it is a short jump from a question of forgiveness of sin to a narrative where an unpayable debt is owed and forgiveness is granted on account of compassion and mercy. In the narrative the king is entitled to sell of the slave, his family, and his possessions to regain as much of the impossible amount that this slave is unable to pay back. The slave prostrates himself and asks for patience, the king responds with compassion and grants a release from the loan and from the impending punishment of himself and his family.

The first slave forgiven the impossible debt then encounters another slave who is indebted to him for a realistic and repayable amount (1/600,000 of the forgiven debt if one wants to be literal). The violence of the forgiven slave’s action towards the debtor where he grabs him and is choking him as he makes his demand for repayment stands in contrast to the king’s summoning. While in the world of court political intrigue where the forgiven slave is attempting to reassert power over his subordinates may make sense in a normal kingdom (Carter, 2005, p. 373) it is anathema to the kingdom of heaven. It is helpful to remember that a parable is a narrative world based upon but not dependent upon a concrete reality, a real king or an earthly kingdom. The forgiven slave claims a power the king did not use initially, the power of violence and threat, the power to imprison and demand. The still indebted and choked slave responds to the assaulting slave with the exact stance and words used before the king, asking not for forgiveness but time. Yet, this former debtor shows no patience or mercy to the current debtor. Instead he imprisons him, perhaps to demonstrate his own power or to sooth his own ego. Regardless of the reason it impacts the community of those who serve the king.

The community knows what has happened in its midst, it grieves exceedingly the violence and injustice done to one of their own. In their grief they report it to their lord, hoping that their lord will intervene. The slaves of the king are heard and noticed, and this type of activity within the king’s reign, especially in light of the previous forgiveness, is unacceptable. The king’s will is to show mercy and to have mercy shown (perhaps a strange king but what normal king is like the kingdom of heaven). It is necessary to forgive others as one has been forgiven in this community. The forgiven slave may have a claim on the slave indebted to him, but the king of both has the final claim. The king finally responds to the previously forgiven slave in the same manner he responded to his debtor.

Some modern interpreters and many modern Christians are troubled by a God who judges. We may either believe in the distant god of modernity which is an unmoved mover, or we may imagine a god whose love excludes punishment of any kind. Neither of these gods are the God we encounter in scripture. God does take sides and God does judge and this is a corollary of God’s love for God’s people and the creation not in opposition to it. A community committed to reconciliation and doing the hard work of advocating and including lost sheep, Gentiles and tax collectors and debtors is an alternative to the ways of power in the world. The kingdom of heaven is not like a regular king, but a forgiving one. At the same time, it is still better for a millstone to be hung around the neck of those who place barriers for the little ones of the kingdom for God judges what the community cannot. The community of Christ may have the hard work of binding and loosing on earth, and God values that work, but it is always directed towards a community of forgiveness and mercy. Just as Christ is present where two or three are gathered, so the community’s cries when an individual or group does not practice forgiveness are heard by their heavenly Father. There is an edge to God’s dwelling with the community that does not practice the life God calls them to. This is the edge in the prophets’ voices as they spoke to Israel when they did not live in accordance with God’s covenant for them and this is the edge of the parable when a community or individual does not forgive as they have been forgiven.

 

Matthew 13: 1-23 Parable of the Sower

Red Clawson Wheat Seeds, image from https://greatlakesstapleseeds.com/products/red-clawson-wheat

Matthew 13: 1-23

Parallel: Mark 4: 1-20; Luke 8: 4-15

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears listen!”

10 Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 13 The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ 14 With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:

‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive.15 For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn — and I would heal them.’

16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.

18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

In Matthew’s gospel we are almost at the midpoint of the gospel when we encounter this first block of parables. This is the third of the blocks of teaching in Matthew (previously we have encountered the Sermon on the Mount and the Mission Discourse) but now we encounter three groups of parables grouped together with explanations of why Jesus teaches the crowd in this manner and explanation to the group of disciples. This first parable and explanations is mainly shared between Mark, Matthew and Luke with Matthew adding the text alluded to in Mark.

Our word parable comes from the Greek prefix para (along-side, together with) combined with the verb balo (to cast, to throw) and in Greek they are stories that cast two things alongside one another metaphorically. They are related to a long practice within and outside the bible of mashal, short stories used in instruction and teaching. They are not necessarily allegories where individual items represent something else (although the parable of the sower and the parable of the weeds below are disclosed as allegories by the interpretation provided in the gospels). Most of the parables we encounter will stand on their own without interpretation often acting like metaphors placing two things alongside each other to either reveal (or perhaps conceal) something about what Jesus is saying.

Unlike the Sermon on the Mount or the Mission Discourse where the primary audience is the disciples, now the primary audience is the crowds which approach Jesus. The teaching takes place while the crowd stands on the shoreline in Matthew while Jesus, and presumably his disciples, sits on a boat. It is likely that Jesus, like most storytellers, probably used these stories on multiple occasions and that they were an important part of his method of addressing the crowds that sought him. As a reader of the parables we are invited into the role of the disciple who has been given to know the secrets (literally mysteries) of the kingdom of heaven rather than the crowds who stand on the shoreline and many of whom, in the words of this first parable, will not grow deep roots or will endure only while it does not provoke trouble or tribulation.

Vincent van Gogh, The Sower with a Setting Sun

In contrast to the other parables in this chapter the parable of the sower is not placed alongside the kingdom of heaven explicitly in its proclamation. The short story told to the crowd simply begins in the familiar picture of a person sowing seed in anticipation of an eventual harvest. Without jumping ahead to the explanations that the gospels provide let’s look at this short story on its own. Hand sowing is done for wheat, barley and other grains and would’ve reflected one of the primary means of farming in the Middle East. Many of the festivals of the Jewish people are oriented around the harvest times for these sown crops and they were essential for the diet of the people Jesus speaks to. Although modern farming attempts to remove some of the variables in the soil by introducing fertilizers, planting at a preset depth and field preparation, even modern farmers will see areas of a field underproduce while others produce abundantly. But the sower in this parable casts the seed upon the field and its surroundings indiscriminately and the seed falls both in areas expected to provide growth and those that would be typically avoided (hardened paths or areas of brambles and thorns). The reality of rocks and undesired plants growing in a field may have been unavoidable, and yet, the sowing in portions of the field that are not anticipated to be good earth is probably intended to be the portion of the parable which introduces the dissonance to normal, more careful practices of preserving one’s seed where harvest is most likely.

Following the parable are two sets of explanations to the disciples. The audience has changed and those who are in the presence of Jesus are the ‘little faith ones’ who continue to follow him through his work and proclamation. The disciples, even in Matthew which has a more positive evaluation of them than Mark’s gospel, hardly prove to be paragons of understanding and yet it fits within the paradoxical world that Jesus proclaims where the Father has, “hidden these things from the wise and revealed them to infants.” (Matthew 11: 25). These ‘little faith ones’ are given the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. Matthew takes the allusion in Mark to Isaiah 6: 9-11 and makes it explicit. Isaiah 6: 9-11 is a part of the call of Isaiah which is less frequently heard where God says to Isaiah that paradoxically the lack of reception for Isaiah’s prophecy is a part of the divine plan. Here Isaiah and this first parable are brought together to speak to the reality of that God’s proclamation often falls upon dull hearts, closed ears and shut eyes. The call still goes for those who have ears to hear, eye to see and hearts to turn and yet even in the midst of places where the harvest is great, there will be surprising places where the word of the kingdom is not received, where faith is not found, or where the depth of understanding is shallow or where distractions or alternative values strangle the nascent faith.

The explanation of this parable as an allegory provides a key to understanding the parable. This may not be the only way that the parable was heard, but as readers we are invited to hear ourselves with the disciples as those who receive the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. The seed becomes the word of the kingdom, the proclamation of Jesus or the proclamation done by his disciples, which goes out into the world. We have already seen times where Jesus’ message is received with hostility and resistance and this will continue to be a reality, including later in this chapter in Jesus’ hometown. For those who are charged with casting this word into a waiting world one of the gracious pieces of this parable is that reception is not their responsibility. They are not responsible for preparing the soil, they are merely sowers casting the seed into the receptive or unreceptive earth. Some of the proclamation may have no perceived effect and lay lifeless on the ground to be snatched away by the forces opposed to the kingdom, at other times there may be a joyous reception followed be dashed hopes as the shallowness of the faith is revealed as times become difficult, sometimes other persuasive alternatives will turn people away from the kingdom. I’ve always found the description of the thorny ground as ‘the cares of the world and the lure of wealth’ enlightening for I think many modern Christians who follow a prosperity understanding of the gospel would think that being wealthy and being engaged in the world are fertile soil rather than soil that grows strangling weeds. Nonetheless, there continues to be a harvest for the times the proclamation meets those receptive, who are people where the seed can germinate and bear fruit and continue to give life to the world around them. In our modern mechanical understandings of farming, which reflect our modern understandings of our world, the farmer would probably force the field to yield its harvest, but these artificial methods have their cost to the long-term health of the field. Perhaps we modern proclaimers have also tried to force a reception of the kingdom only to find it shallow, choked or non-existent. Perhaps, in this ancient wisdom there is a permission to a more cooperative approach where both the seed and soil must work together and the sower in not ultimately responsible for the harvest, for that lies in the hands of the Father. Like in the Mission Discourse the sower, when they find a field that is not receptive to the seed, is simply to shake off the dust and proceed on to another field where the seed may thrive.

Forgiveness in a Graceless World-A Sermon

Depiction of the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Scot's Church Melbourne

Depiction of the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Scot’s Church Melbourne

Ernest Hemmingway tells in one of his short stories called “The Capital of the World” an episode about forgiveness which goes like this:

Madrid is full of boys named Paco, which is the diminutive form of Francisco, and there is a Madrid joke about a father who came to Madrid and inserted an advertisement in the personal columns of El Liberal which said: PACO MEET ME AT HOTEL MONTANA NOON TUESDAY ALL IS FORGIVEN PAPA and how a squadron of Guardia Civil had to be called out to disperse the eight hundred young men who answered the advertisement.

Now the joke is all about the ubiquity of the name Paco in Spain, but it also expresses a deep seeded truth that I think many of us can relate to about our desire for forgiveness to be received. For I think we all have those times where we wish we could change an action that hurt someone in the past, or to be able to take back the words that we said. We wish those words could be like the cartoon bubbles that we could pull back into our mouth to where they were never uttered in the first place. SFC Rubley who was my platoon sergeant while I was a platoon leader in the army used to talk about wanting to be able to lasso the words and say come back. But there is no bringing them back, there is no undoing the past, there is no way to go back and take back the words that were said or put in words that needed to be said. And the reality is that there is truly no future without forgiveness, there is no way forward without a new start. In fact, while forgiveness is one of the hardest things we are called upon as followers of Christ to do it is also at the very heart of our faith. It is right up there with loving the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself, in fact it is necessary for both of these for there is no way to love one’s neighbor without forgiveness. We might think that the world of the bible it might be easier to live into forgiveness, but that would be mistaken for you see the bible is written in the same world that we live in. The Old and New Testaments are full of stories of brokenness, unreconciled differences, and woundedness. Even very early in Genesis (Genesis 4) we encounter the story of Lamech which is the opposite of forgiveness, “I have killed a man who attacked me, a young man who wounded me. If someone who kills Cain is punished seven times, then the one who kills me will be punished seventy-seven times!” Or the very first family we follow for a long journey in Genesis, Abraham and Sarah or Abram and Sarai as they start out, is a story of brokenness-yet we don’t often think of it that way. God’s promised child had been a long time in coming and Sarai says to Abram ‘we’re not getting any younger, why don’t you sleep with my servant Hagar and have a child through her and that can be the child we have been waiting for.’ And so Abram does and Ishmael is born, and yet later-after God has changed their names to Abraham and Sarah and the promised child Isaac is born there is no longer, at least in Sarah’s view, anyplace in the household for Ishmael and Hagar and the image is from a sculpture of Abraham saying goodbye to Ishmael, Hagar is facing away and Sarah is watching from behind the rock to ensure this son of Abraham from Hagar will be sent away. Ishmael will never return until both Sarah and Abraham are dead and only then will Isaac and Ishmael be reunited to mourn the death of their common father. But just because the people that God works through in the bible don’t live out God’s vision of forgiveness-that doesn’t mean that is who God is.

Abraham_thumb

As Psalm 103 says:

6 The LORD gives righteousness and justice to all who are treated unfairly.

 7 He revealed his character to Moses and his deeds to the people of Israel.

 8 The LORD is compassionate and merciful, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.

 9 He will not constantly accuse us, nor remain angry forever.

 10 He does not punish us for all our sins; he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve.

 11 For his unfailing love toward those who fear him is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth.

 12 He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west.

 13 The LORD is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him.

 14 For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust.

The God who removes our sins as far as the east is from the west, who doesn’t remember them anymore and who is tender and compassionate as a father is to his children. This is the God that the bible points to again and again and again and yet it is so easy to try to transform God into something different, something less gracious and more judgmental. One of the things I find interesting is that there are a number of Christian theologies out there that try to understand God as somehow bound to a system of rules and laws that God must act in accordance with- and if anything the bible contrast God against the rulers of the nations around them that are like that.

Unlike King Xerxes in the book of Esther, who while he is drunk summons his wife Vashti to appear before him, a summons which Vasti refuses, and so he passes an edict that she shall never again appear before him. Then he wakes up the next day realizing what he has done, but it is now a law and he cannot break it-God is not like that. Unlike King Darius in the book of Daniel who loves Daniel and yet is tricked by his advisors to pass an edict where everyone is to pray to King Darius and when Daniel is caught praying to God, Darius has no choice-he is bound by the law to throw Daniel into the lion’s den. But God is not like that, no God is like a shepherd who has 100 sheep, and then when one is missing leaves the 99 in the wilderness in search of the one, or like a woman who has 10 coins and losing one searches the house until the one is found and then calls all her neighbors to rejoice. Or like a father who has two sons, and one of the sons, the younger one, says to his father in effect, ‘dad I wish you were dead, give me what is mine after you will be gone so that I may go away from you, away from my family, and away from all that has defined me.’ And the father grants him his request and when the younger son finds himself in a foreign land starving, feeding pigs (doing that which is completely against what he was before) and wishing for what the pigs eat and no one gives him anything and he says to himself, ‘you know my father’s servants are better off than I am’ and so he goes back home and he is expecting to be a servant-but the father seeing the son rushes out to meet him, wraps his arms around him, puts a robe on him and a ring on his finger, slaughters the fattened calf and throws a party to reestablish this son with the community. And welcomes him home not as a servant, but as a son-against every rule of the way things should be. Yet there is another son in the story, the older son, who knows the way things should be, the way the rules say they should be and so he stands on the outside of the party refusing to go in and enter the celebration. So the father goes out to this son who says in effect, ‘father, I wish you were dead, for welcoming back in this younger brother who brought so much dishonor, who broke all the rules, who did everything I haven’t done” and yet the father loves both sons. The son who has gone away, who was lost-who went away and who came home again and the son who never left but now stands on the outside of the party unwilling to go in, dealing with his own anger and unwillingness to forgive and his own woundedness.

Pompeo Batoni, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773)

Pompeo Batoni, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773)

We serve a God who relationships are always more important than rules and people are more important than ideas. Unfortunately, sometimes the very people who should be most receptive to this are the ones who understand this the least. Take for example the story of Jonah, Jonah is sent by God to go to Nineveh-but Jonah hates the Ninevites and doesn’t want them to turn but wants them to receive God’s wrath and so Jonah goes on a ship in the opposite direction towards Tarshish. But Jonah cannot escape the God who won’t give up and so in the midst of the storm Jonah asks the sailors to give him death, to throw him into the sea because Jonah would rather die than see mercy given to the Ninevites, and yet God refuses to allow that to happen and so God sends the fish and then places him back on land and Jonah goes to Nineveh and the people turn and Jonah pouts.

In the story of les Mis, whether you’ve read it in the novel or seen it as a musical or on the big screen there are two major characters throughout the story. There is Jauvert, the lawman whose life is bound to his dependence on the law for order. The main character though is Jean val Jean who begins the story in a prison camp having served twenty years for stealing a loaf of bread. Upon Jean val Jean’s release from prison he is defined by the reality that he has been a prisoner and that there is no one who will hire him, he is a thief-and to everyone it seems he will always be a thief until when he actually does steal from a bishop and after being captured the bishop says, ‘but you left the best’ and gives him the golden candlesticks as a part of the gift. A gift which allows him to start a new life with a new identity as Misseur le Mer, and yet in the eyes of Jauvert who continues to track him throughout the story he is always the thief, and even at the end of the story when Jean val Jean spares Jauvert’s life-Jauvert cannot live this new story, he would rather die than to forgive and live in a world where the law fails him and so he does die, he commits suicide rather than forgive.

There are many people who would rather die than forgive, who would rather carry their enmity to their grave rather than let go of it, rather than let something that they have that they can hold over someone else be given up. For that is what forgiveness is, forgiveness states that I refuse to let the actions which caused me harm in the past to define our relationship going forward. Forgiveness gives us freedom from having to seek a better past. It allows us not to be defined by the things that we have done, but rather to be defined by the relationships that have been opened to us. That’s what God does, God comes and brings that forgiveness that we need even before we are ready to accept it, in the hope that we will begin to live into it. But forgiveness is not easy for us, I know a person who is a Lutheran pastor now but she didn’t grow up in the Lutheran church and going for the first time to a Lutheran church she heard at the end of the brief order of confession and forgiveness, “as a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ and by his authority I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all of your sins,” and she turned to the person next to her and said, ‘that’s it!’ For God indeed, yes that is it, God has already made the journey of forgiveness, but for us many times the journey still lies ahead.

In our gospel today we hear Peter wrestling with this forgiveness that Jesus is talking about:

 Matthew 18 21 Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” 22 “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!

At seven times Peter probably thinks he is being generous, but Jesus’ response of seventy times seven takes the world of power and revenge and retribution and turns it on its head. The world of Lamech is reversed. And it is not a point of counting up to 490, the calling is to forgive.

and then Jesus also answers with this parable (Matt 18: 23-30)

23 “Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. 24 In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars.

Now the millions of dollars is actually downplaying the size of the debt owed, in modern conversion we are probably talking billions, it was as one scholar put it the amount of money a worker could expect to make in 150,000,000 days-and if you want to figure out how many years that is-it is far more than you will ever live. It is a debt that is so large it could never be paid and this man find himself in a crisis. The story continues on:

 25 He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold– along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned– to pay the debt. 26 “But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ 27 Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.

He didn’t do what the man asked for, the man asked for more time ‘give me more time and I’ll pay it back’ but the master released him from this debt and gave him a chance to start over

 28 “But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. 29 “His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. 30 But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.

So many times I believe that is the way we may want to react, what’s in my best interest. It allows me to be the insider and the other person to be the outsider. Frequently the biggest critique of Christians is that they act, not like God, not like the Father in the parable of the prodigal son, but rather like the older brother or the forgiven slave. Forgiveness is good for me but these other people are still sinners, they still owe me, the things they have done still define them as people who need to be punished, shunned, set aside. I’ve got to be honest that in a lot of my conversations with people outside the church the most common reason they are no longer a part of the church has nothing to do with any philosophy, or anything on TV, radio or the internet and everything to do with how they were not met with forgiveness by others within the church. Somehow they were marked as the sinner, the outcast, the untouchable. And so it shouldn’t be surprising that the story continues with Matt 18:31-33 and the horror of the other slaves seeing how this forgiven slave acted in light of the incredible forgiveness he received.

 

31 “When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. 32 Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’

You see God wants to meet us in grace, God wants to meet us in justice and it goes back to us not living out the love and grace we have been given. And I think it wounds God when we abuse the gifts that have been given to us, when we set ourselves up as better than everyone else. When we receive grace and turn to the rest of the world in judgment. And I think God wants to meet us in grace, but I also have come to believe that if the only place we can meet God is in law, justice and judgment, then God will meet us there as well. The parable concludes:

 34 Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt. 35 “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”

I’ve got to be honest, I don’t like the end of this, it makes me uncomfortable. Yet, I know that there are times where God has to come to me and remind me, ‘Neil this is not the life you are called to.’ ‘This is not who you are called to be, you are called to be on the journey of forgiveness.’ And it is a journey, and there are times where you may say ‘I forgive something’ and then something comes up and you realize you are still viewing your neighbor in terms of things they have done in the past. I had to learn this in my own life and journey, and I still bear scars from where I have been wounded. The reality is that there is a risk that comes with forgiveness, that you are opening yourself up to the possibility of being hurt again. And what happens if the other person doesn’t accept the forgiveness you offer. That doesn’t exempt you from the calling to be forgiving, and to be on that journey yourself. Forgiveness opens the possibility of reconciliation happening. And I know that there are wounds that may be too deep to forgive at that moment, but we are called to be on that journey. A person who I’ve learned a lot from is a man who grew up in the former Yugoslavia and is Croatian in background, a man named Miroslav Volf, and those who know a little of the history of Europe in the 1990s, this was the area of Bosnia and Kosovo where the Serbians and Croatians were in a conflict, an ancient conflict that had its roots hundreds of years earlier that was brought to the forefront in the 1990s when the Serbians were in power and began to move towards wiping out the Croatians, destroying entire villages, committing incredible atrocities and killing thousands while displacing tens of thousands. Sometime shortly after the events in Bosnia, Miroslav was working on his PhD in Germany working through the idea of forgiveness and embracing the enemy when another well known scholar, Jürgen Moltmann, said to him Miroslav could you embrace a chětnik, the very soldiers who had done all this to your people? And Miroslav’s answer was I believe an honest one, “No, but I don’t believe that is where God calls me to be.” Even genocide requires forgiveness. Doesn’t mean it is an easy journey and there may be something that is so horrible where our answer is also, “No, but I don’t believe that is where God calls me to be.” As Archbishop Desmond Tutu could say in the midst of the Truth and Reconciliation committees after Apartheid in South Africa, ‘There is no future without forgiveness’.

Forgiveness is the one thing we are called upon to do in the midst of the Lord’s prayer: to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, or forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Or as one of my friends who is a pastor in Washington State related a story to me of a young girl learning the Lord’s prayer, and not knowing what trespassing was she said, “Forgive us our trash-passing as we forgive those who trash-pass against us.” The wisdom of children, so forgive us our trash-passing as we forgive those who trash pass against us.

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