a sermon on Matthew 18:21-35
The Irish writer Oscar Wilde offers us some wisdom that seems quite appropriate for the events of today and our reading this morning: “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.” So maybe the outcome of today’s parable might have been a bit different if only they had come to our fall picnic for a good meal first!
On this day of celebration, as we begin a new year in our life together, kick off the annual restart of Sunday school, commemorate the beginning of a new school year for our children and youth, and gather after worship for a festive picnic, it seems strange to turn our attention to a parable that ends with two men thrown in prison and the rest of us threatened with a similar fate. Wouldn’t it be nice if all of Jesus’ parables ended happily ever after? Can’t we just have one nice, happy story from Jesus every now and then? Isn’t the gospel supposed to be filled with good news anyway?
Alas, that is not the kind of story that is before us. Like much of the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, this parable and all its surrounding reflection are focused on forgiveness, even though the good news about forgiveness here is a bit more conditional than most as it explores how human and divine forgiveness get balanced out in the great equations of life and living. Jesus told this parable in response to one of Peter’s many questions to him. They had been talking about the importance and process of forgiveness for a good while now, and Jesus had paid special attention in his teaching to how the disciples would deal with one another when there was conflict between them. This process focused on individual attention to wrongdoing that would escalate to a broader confrontation only when reconciliation was unsuccessful, and it insisted on accountability for sinfulness while also encouraging a graceful approach to wrongdoing and especially wrongdoers. And this parable comes after Jesus instructs his disciples that they must take up their cross and follow him, so it quickly becomes clear that part of this call is to pay attention to forgiveness and reconciliation.
In the midst of all this, when Peter asked Jesus how many times he must forgive someone who sins against him, I can’t imagine that he expected anything quite this generous. “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” That’s a whopper of a number. Forgiving someone seven times is enough already to ask, so forgiving seventy-seven times is just flat-out ridiculous. But Jesus clearly meant what he said to Peter and so defined the balance of forgiveness in the parable at the center of our gospel text today.
The parable is strangely simple, as it portrays the interaction between two debtors and the men that they owe. Despite owing very different amounts—one an astonishingly large amount, perhaps even beyond what could ever even be owed, and the other a very tiny, nearly insignificant, amount—both debtors plead with the men that they owe to seek some sort of patience or relief. Here the two stories diverge. Strangely, the man who is owed the larger debt, worth many times more than a lifetime of wages, relents and not only gives him more time to pay but forgives the debt entirely. But the man who is owed the much smaller debt is ruthless in his insistence that he immediately be paid what he is owed, and when his debtor cannot do so, he has him thrown into prison.
The parable brings these two stories together because the man who is forgiven a large debt is the one who is owed a much smaller debt. The one who receives incredible forgiveness cannot offer even a little of it to others. The one who seeks generosity for himself cannot find a way to share that gift with another. When the one owed the greater debt hears of this outcome, he immediately rescinds his offering of grace. “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” He then hands “him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.” Then Jesus closed his telling of the parable with a warning about the balance of forgiveness: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Such a warning does not feel like good news to me. The gift of forgiveness from God in Christ seems to come without conditions such as this. The hope of new life seems a little less hopeful and a good bit less new if we have to worry about how our actions toward others will be judged along the way. And while the promise of divine retribution may be entirely reasonable and even deserved, it can leave us trembling in our boots over potential bad acts even as we examine our actions more closely.
Even when we enjoy incredible forgiveness from God, sorting out the balance of forgiveness with those around us is not easy. It is far easier to bear grudges against others than to address the things that keep us apart as part of the process of reconciliation. It is far more normal in the eyes of our world to end a relationship over the perceived sins of those around us than to work through the challenges of new life together. And it is even at times necessary to insist that those around us face the consequences of their actions that have harmed us.
Over this past week, we have been reminded of the incredible challenges of domestic violence in our culture as a professional football player brought the culture of violence learned on the football field into his relationship with his then-fiancée and now wife. Even after video was released that showed him punching her in an elevator until she became unconscious, she has insisted that she forgives him and that he should not be punished severely. Could Jesus really have meant that she needed to forgive his harm to her seventy-seven times? Was he really suggesting that she ought to put up with such behavior and place herself at greater risk?
The balance of forgiveness that is at stake here isn’t quite as simple as what Jesus portrays in the parable, and I cannot reasonably suggest that he would insist upon the abused returning to the abuser or immediately offer forgiveness to those who have deeply wronged us when they are unprepared to admit their wrongdoing. Yet in the light of Jesus’ instruction to take up the cross and follow him, the balance of forgiveness requires that we seek some sort of reconciliation, that we not build our lives on the grudges we carry against others, that we stop placing our focus on keeping score or sorting out who is more right or wrong and seek a new and different way of living together, that so much as is possible we set aside the anger we carry toward those who wrong us and so open ourselves to new and right and safe relationship with them along the way, even if that means stepping away from them entirely for our own safety or for the safety of others.
This kind of approach to life and living can be transformative for us. Imagine if the first misstep did not immediately result in the end of a relationship. Imagine how the connections between nations would be different if we approached difficulty not with guns blazing but with cooler heads and an openness to listening and forgiveness. And imagine how the controversies that so easily swirl in our world over the smallest slights could be transformed through open acknowledgement of the places where we all have gone wrong. As much as anything, I think Jesus is calling us in this parable to do our best to live in this way with one another, to make it clear that when we deal with others, we approach one another with grace and mercy at the forefront, and to embody the kind of forgiveness and love in our interactions that he shows us each and every day.
So as we work to make this parable good news in our lives and our world, as we seek to find the right balance of forgiveness amidst the difficulties we face, may God open us to this new way of life with one another, may God help us to be gentle and gracious in our actions toward others, and may God work in us and through us and in spite of us to bring reconciliation to this broken and fearful world until all things are made new in Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God! Amen.