Peter, uncharacteristically, had been holding his tongue.
Chapter 18 begins the fourth of five major teaching sections in Matthew’s gospel. The Galilean ministry is finished; the story of the crucifixion is about to begin.1 The disciples – Matthew doesn’t say who – begin this section with an awkward question: "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" They were being human, jockeying for position, yet Jesus raised the standard. Greatness is not measured by power or smarts Jesus said. Become humble, like a child. Then he told them not to put a stumbling block before anyone – they were to help each other. Be like the shepherd who went out after the one sheep. The sheep shouldn’t have run off. But Jesus said we have to go after them. If one member of the church sins against you – as we talked about last week – sins against you – you have to do something about it. You have to reconcile.2
And you can feel something stirring in Peter. Jesus had hit a nerve. Faces flashed before Peter – people who had hurt him, people he might have upset or dismissed. And as today’s text begins, he asks for clarity: "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?" How about seven times, he says, which anyone who has worked to forgive knows is an awful lot.
No, Jesus says. 77 times. Then Jesus immediately begins a story about a king settling accounts with his slaves. He began with one who owed him 10,000 talents. The crowd would know that this was a comically large number, like saying someone owed us a ‘bazillion’ dollars. The annual tax income for all of Herod the Great’s territories surrounding much of the Mediterranean was only 900 talents per year.3 In the face of this hopelessly large debt – beyond any human capacity to pay, the slave begs. He pleads. He hears the words come out of his mouth even though he knew he couldn’t pay: ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ Simply, the text reports: out of pity, compassion, the king forgives.
This is amazing enough, but Jesus cranks up the drama even further. This same slave, who had JUST been forgiven a debt larger that the richest man in the world could pay, moments later, walks out, debt-free, and comes upon a fellow slave who owes him 100 denarii. This is 100 times the daily wage for a laborer, which is nothing to sneeze at, but miniscule compared with what he was just forgiven. This same slave lashes out, ignoring the same pleas he just made – Matthew frames them in almost exactly the same language – throwing the other in jail. You can feel the listening crowds’ fury as we are drawn in – this story always makes me angry, too, and we cheer as the king berates him: ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ The question hangs there in the air for a moment, as he is taken away to be tortured. Aha!, we rejoice. Justice has been done….then….as Jesus has sucked us in, as we begin to feel the satisfaction of an ending complete, loose ends tied up, Jesus looks us in the eye: "So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."
Whew. Ahhh….Jesus, we were doing just fine. The cruel and unforgiving slave got what he deserved – at least what we thought he deserved – and now you tell us this is about US? No matter what others have done, to you or anyone else, Jesus reminds Matthew’s community to not forget who they are. You must not, he says, forget that you are a forgiven people yourselves. This is fundamental to anything we ever think about forgiveness. As a Christian, everything we think about forgiveness, this complicated and messy topic, everything, is rooted in God’s grace and forgiveness and mercy given to us, demonstrated most fully through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This tells us a couple of things – one, in good biblical and Reformed fashion, as we say in the call to confession each week – that all of us fall short of the glory of God. ALL OF US do things we wish we hadn’t, or don’t do things we really wish we had. None of us get it right. The second thing is even more important – that we are beloved of God – created, shaped and formed, loved and redeemed.
Our men’s breakfast book group met for the first time on Thursday, and 18 of us gathered and had a really great conversation. On my way from the coffee shop where we met to the church I realized I had forgotten to eat, so I pulled into Bruegger’s to get a bagel. I walked in on the tail end of a woman berating the young girl at the cash register. I don’t know what had happened, but she was yelling about the place not running efficiently, "Yes, YOU," she said, pointing, "I am talking about you guys. This is an embarrassment." She got her coffee and left in a huff, stomping by me on the way out. I imagine you all have seen these kinds of encounters before. In addition to feeling bad for the girl at the counter, my other thought was sadness. I wondered why this woman is so angry so early in the morning, and that she was going to have a really, really long day. This encounter, and the great conversation we had had just beforehand, had me thinking about the general lack of grace that pervades our culture. Theologian Miroslav Volf chronicles this reality in his book of a handful of years ago, "Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace." Volf, a professor at Yale, sets the stage: "According to a Croatian saying, people talk about what they don’t have. We talk about forgiveness because we live in a sentimental but unforgiving culture. Consider the mushrooming litigiousness in the United States. Children are suing parents for rights, lovers are suing for unfulfilled romance… Christians are suing as a means to advance their political agenda, coffee drinkers are suing restaurants for serving drinks too hot for their sensitive tongues, and pedestrians who have slipped and fallen are suing homeowners for having left a pebble or two on their sidewalk. If we could," Volf says, "we’d sue God, it seems, for having created a world in which bad things happen."4
At breakfast us guys had been talking about domestic violence, particularly in the case of an NFL player, Ray Rice, caught on a horrendous video punching his then fiancée, knocking her unconscious. But the conversation quickly moved from the pain of domestic violence to violence throughout our society, bullying in schools, bullying as a part of our workplaces, firmly entrenched in male-dominated corporate culture chronicled by some folks who had worked on Wall Street and in medicine. We talked about the ways the world rewards swagger and physical intimidation. And I think there is something about what Jesus is saying about forgiveness that is connected, more generally, to how we interact with each other everywhere we are. Part of it is, for Christians, a spiritual problem. Back to Volf – being forgiven by God and being able to forgive another are inextricably intertwined, he argues. He writes that our inability to forgive might be a sign of a spiritual problem within ourselves – our own inability to see, understand, live into God’s real forgiveness of us. If we can’t believe, can’t grasp that God would forgive us, despite all we have been, said, done, then of course we are going to have trouble forgiving someone else. We must engage the internal work first, believe we are worthy of grace ourselves, before we can risk reaching out and offering it to others.
But as we move outward, I wonder if we might be the kind of people that can change the tone of the conversation. This may be, for you, about doing the difficult spiritual and psychological work of trying to forgive someone you have been angry with for a long time. You may have a specific instance, or issue, or person in your life, and Jesus’ words need to come as a challenge to you to forgive, or to ask for forgiveness from someone. In addition to a specific call, though, I want us to hear a broader one – in a world of too much violence – in our neighborhoods, in our homes and the homes of those we know. While domestic violence is slightly more likely to happen in poorer homes than in wealthier ones, this is not a problem for other people, over there, on the other side of town. It happens in our neighborhoods, too. As kids are bullied in the halls, as, with a presidential address this week as we march towards what seems like another war, might we be the kind of people that could have grace-filled interactions as we get a cup of coffee in the morning, with our families, with colleagues and coworkers, in the public and private spheres? We live in a world of anger, with grudges to be held. Might we show that the church is about a different way of living, that we worship a One who calls us to engage the world with open hands, to forgive and ask for forgiveness ourselves? To live with as much grace as we have been given.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Tom Long, WBC: Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), page 202.
2. Some of this summary comes from Roger Lovette’s "Reflections on A Scottish Church," in William H. Willimon’s Pulpit Resource, Vol 36, No 3, Year A, July, August, September 2008, p 47.
3. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p 382.
4. Miroslav Volf, "Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace" (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Press, 2005), p 125.