Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile

Fifteenth after Pentecost

September 13, 2020

Psalm 103:1-12

Of David.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits—
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

The Lord works vindication
and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger for ever.
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 towards those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.

Matthew 18.21-35

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?’  Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.  When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 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.  So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”  And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.  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.”  Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.”  But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt.  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.  Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “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?”  And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt.  So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.

Seventy times seven.  At first glance this just seems like another bit of completely impractical advice from Jesus.  In the same category as cut off your hand if it offends you.  Or, pluck out your eye.  Or, have no thought for the morrow.  Biblical scholars assure us that Jesus was the kind of storyteller who used exaggeration and comedy to make his point, and presumably that is what this is.  John Tinker used to call it typical Ancient Near East hyperbole.  The picture of a king so magnanimous that he forgives a huge debt, but then so incensed that he hands the first slave over to the torturer – the self-contradiction and absurdity of it – is simply to tell us that forgiveness is really important.  Jesus is saying to his disciples, think about it.

In our own lives, we can probably find lots of evidence that he is right.  It isn’t that we should try to be some kind of super-Christian – impossibly patient and forgiving, never angry, full of forbearance and mercy.  In some ways it isn’t about morality at all, it’s a practical matter.  If people don’t forgive each other for small offences and large, forgive each other again and again, time after time, the wheels just fall off the human enterprise.  Think of the number of times in a day some small thing goes wrong – someone cuts you off in traffic, or the clerk in a store is rude, or someone at home leaves the kitchen in a mess.  My father used to use the last ice cube and then put the ice cube tray back in the freezer empty.  It’s not a big one, but that is a sin.  I am sure that I myself must have forgiven him more than seventy times seven times over the years, let alone my mother, or siblings.  If we all stalled at every minor annoyance, demanding justice and reparation, we wouldn’t get through the day.  And if people didn’t forgive us for the small offences that we commit every day – the little fibs, the shortcuts, the momentary lapses – nothing would ever get done.  The world actually runs on the millions of small and easy pardons we offer one another.

And big offences need even more forgiveness – though perhaps of a different kind.  When one person has harmed another seriously, it may be that forgiveness is painful.  It can be difficult to forgive a deep betrayal.  And when you succeed, you often find that the first forgiveness doesn’t hold, even when it is completely sincere.  You may have to reactivate it in order not to fall back into anger and disconnection.  Sometimes you have to forgive the one particular thing seventy times seven times.  Not because they kept doing it, but because you kept remembering it.  The practice of re-forgiving is sometimes the only way to shed the burden of antagonism and move on.

In this passage Jesus is encouraging us to shed that burden for our own sake. Saying that it costs too much to carry around our hurts.  Nelson Mandela, a person who had every reason not to forgive, said that ‘holding resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemies.’  Jesus says, don’t drink that poison.

Instead, let the forgiven one carry the burden of being forgiven.  The memory of shame and failure.  The sense of caution about future missteps.  And this is addressed to us too:  when we are the one forgiven, we are to remember. We see in the parable that the first servant doesn’t want to remember, he is unchastened.  He refuses to recognize the obligation he now has to continue the work of compassion and generosity that the king has begun.

In the conversations about reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and about Black Lives Matter, those of us who are white have a large burden of forgiveness to carry.  As individuals and collectively we have all received forgiveness, and re-forgiveness, again and again, from people whose lives are still affected daily by systemic racism.

In the Psalm that Don read, we hear the promise that God holds the forgivers and the forgiven in one embrace, removing the transgressions that have harmed us.  Jesus calls us to a path on which we can ask and offer and receive forgiveness, seventy times seven.  And for this we give God thanks.  Amen.



Image Credit:  Lina Trochez –

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