Rev. Adrianne M. Meier
St. Thomas Lutheran Church
15th Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Matthew 18:21-35
Our family fell hard for Hamilton this summer. We’ve watched the recording of it several times; the soundtrack is on repeat in the car. When we watched it for the first time, I was moved most by the moment when Eliza Hamilton, whose husband has publicly admitted his infidelity, and whose son has recently been killed while dueling over his father’s good name… I was moved when Eliza, in her grief, was able to forgive. In that moment, the music stills, and says, “Forgiveness, can you imagine?”
I wonder, what about forgiveness is so hard to imagine? Is it because we ourselves are creatures of habit? We get what St. Paul says, in Romans, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Is it because we believe people don’t change? We’ve been hurt again and again by the same tricks and lies? Is it because compared to others we haven’t been so bad, haven’t been done so bad? Is it because revenge really is sweet? Is it because our idea of forgiveness has been so distorted? Is it because we, like Peter, see loopholes everywhere, so…what’s the point? Is it so hard to imagine forgiveness because, in reality, we have no idea what it means to forgive? We struggle to imagine because we see forgiveness as an event, something we can check off a list, rather than a way of life.
In today’s gospel lesson, Peter is responding to Jesus’s teaching about discipline within the church. Peter says, “Okay, Jesus, I get it. First I’ve gotta talk to the guy, then I gotta bring a couple of folks with me, then the whole lot of us, and if that doesn’t work, then I treat him like a tax collector. I’m not really sure what you mean that, to be honest, because I prefer to shame and ignore tax collectors, but you, like, eat with them and stuff. But here’s my question. Say we go through the whole rigamarole, and the guy repents, and then a few weeks go by and bam, they do it again. How many times do we have to go through the same procedure for the same person? Like, one for every day of the week?”
Do you think Matthew edited Jesus’s response here? I mean, don’t you think it is possible Jesus looked at Matthew and said, “Rock-head, what makes you think it won’t be the other way around?” But maybe not, maybe Jesus looked at him, with his fingers crossed, quietly hoping for a little number, “Oh, Peter, not seven, but seventy-times seven.”
Seven and seventy are numbers of Biblical importance: numbers that signify completeness. For example, a few centuries before Jesus the Hebrew Bible was translated to Greek by seventy independent rabbis whose translation, according to the Talmud, was identical. Seven is, of course, the number of days in a week; it is the day of the week on which God rested. It is the number of times Joshua led the Israelites around Jericho. It is a symbol for completion. So, while you’re certainly welcome to try and county exactly 490 identical offenses and forgive them, and see where it gets ya, perhaps what Jesus is saying, is that forgiveness isn’t about a thing done over and over and over again; forgiveness is a way of life. In fact, it is the way of life in God’s kin-dom. The theologian Henri Nouwen said, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.”
To illustrate his point, Jesus tells a story about a person who owed a gajillion dollars but was forgiven. What does he do with his forgiveness? Beats up someone who owed him pennies. Honestly? I get it. Even when I know that I am forgiven, I still hang onto what has been done to me. For years.
The Good News is all about setting people free: from sin, from death. We so often forget that forgiveness is freedom. When we hold onto something, we are not free. When we hang onto the foul comments of internet trolls; when we hang onto other people’s hatred and intolerance; when we hang onto the snipes and jabs that weigh down our days, we are not free. But more: some of us are walking around with greater traumas – tragic deaths, violence, pain. How can we forgive the pain caused by racism? How can we heal the wounds of people thrown out of their homes and churches because of their sexual orientation? This week, many of us heard about a tragedy in our own community – an entire family killed by their father’s hand; he took his own life. How will we forgive this? I do not know. I do know that forgiveness won’t change what has happened, but, as a Jewish proverb says, “Forgiveness is the needle that knows how to mend.” When we can and do forgive, we have the privileged vocation of working with God to mend the world.
Beloved, we aren’t called to be perfect forgivers. We aren’t called to ignore the pain in our lives or the lives of others. To the contrary, we know what God is like most when we see God on a cross – standing in solidarity with the pain of this world. We aren’t called to ignore that. We’re simply called to be menders, healers, forgivers – workers who make the world more like God’s kin-dom.
Matthew 18:21-35, NRSV
Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus replied, “Not seven times, I tell you, seventy times seven.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with the slaves. At the outset of the reckoning, one who owed ten thousand talents was brought before the ruler; and, as the slave could not pay, he was ordered to be sold— along with his wife and children and all their possessions— so that payment could be made. So the slave knelt before the ruler, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ Out of pity for the slave, the ruler released him and forgave the debt.
But that same slave, upon leaving, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing that one by the throat, the forgiven slave said, ‘Pay what you owe!’ The other slave fell down and pleaded, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But the request was refused, and the first slave went and threw the second one into prison until the debt would be paid. When all the other slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to the ruler all that had taken place. The ruler summoned the first slave 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 debtor, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger the ruler handed him over to be tortured until he would 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.”