Sunday, 14 September 2014

Is there a limit to forgiveness? Matt 18

Both last week’s gospel reading and this week’s gospel reading have to do with us getting along as the church. Jesus assumes that this will be an issue. I take a certain amount of comfort in that because it can be disheartening to witness Christians not getting along because the church is supposed to be such a beacon of light and hope for the world. If we can’t even get along then what business do we have attempting to be a beacon? If our light isn’t bright, we aren’t much good as a lighthouse. But, it is reassuring to see that Jesus assumed that we will have problems amongst us in the church. We will sin. We will hurt each other. It will happen. This is not news to Jesus. When Jesus taught his followers to pray he said “forgive us our sins”, so he assumed that we would sin on a regular basis even as we were attempting to follow him. It is a sad reality, but it is also comforting that he knows and wants to give us guidance when we sin against each other.
Last week we read that Jesus placed a burden on the person who was sinned against to confront the person who sinned. It is their responsibility to approach them, not for revenge or to appease their own anger or their wounded ego. No, they are to approach the sinner out of a desire or healing and wholeness for the soul of the sinner so that they can be fully restored to the community. When we are sinned against we are to approach the one who hurt us in love knowing that they have wounded their own soul through their own sin. We are to avoid both the extremes of getting revenge, and of ignoring the sin. Out of concern for our brother or sister we are not allowed to ignore sin.
In today’s Gospel reading we receive further instruction on what to do when a member of the community sins against us. Peter comes to Jesus wondering when his responsibility to forgive ends. He asks, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" No doubt Peter thought seven times would be extravagant. Seven is the number that represents completeness, so surely seven times would fulfill his responsibility. The rabbis of the time taught that you were not obligated to forgive a member of the community more than 3 times for a purposeful sin against you.
Jesus responded to Peter’s exaggerated number by saying, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times”.  Jesus blows Peter’s number out of the water, which is basically to say it’s not about the number. The New Testament scholar and bishop, N.T. Wright, has said, “If you’re still counting how many times you’ve forgiven someone, you’re not really forgiving them at all, but simply postponing revenge”. Peter’s question is about a legal process. Jesus wants him to change his heart from thinking about his legal responsibility to thinking about dealing with a fellow human being created in the image of God in a world where we all struggle with sin.
To induce this heart shift in Peter Jesus tells a parable. He tells him to imagine a king who wants to settle accounts with his servants.  One man was brought before him who owed him ten thousand talents. A talent was the largest monetary unit of the time. One talent was worth more than 15 year’s wages of a laborer. To owe ten thousand talents is to owe a debt that is impossible to pay back. There is a record from the 4th century BC that the taxes collected for the Roman Empire from Judea, Samaria, and Galilee was a total of 600 talents. This man owed ten thousand! That is the equivalent of billions of dollars. This man owed more money than was in circulation at the time.  There is no possible way he could repay this debt. The idea is that when we sin against a holy and perfect God, we create a debt that we have no way of paying back.
 The king ordered the man and all he owned to be sold to recover some of what was owed.  But, the servant fell on his knees, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' The man asked for more time. More time to pay off an impossible debt is pointless. So the king has pity and gives the man more than he asks for. He releases him and forgives the impossible debt. It is the equivalent of giving the man billions of dollars out of compassion. … It is worth letting that sink in. How would you feel if you owed a debt you knew you could never pay off and that it was likely your children and grandchildren would be saddled with your debt for numerous generations? … Now imagine that debt is forgiven. Imagine the freedom and relief you would feel. You would feel like you and your family have been released from slavery.
Jesus is saying we are in a similar state as Christians. Whether we are aware of it or not we have been forgiven a spiritual debt that runs in the billions of dollars, and that spiritual debt has been forgiven because of what Jesus did on the cross for us. Now this is a critical point because talk about sin has gone out of fashion in some circles and some think of it as being a rather depressing thing to talk about, but unless we grasp our own spiritual debt and the forgiveness we have been granted, we will become the wicked servant in this parable.
The forgiven servant soon comes across a fellow servant who owed him 100 denarii. One denarii was equal to a day’s wage for a laborer. So he owed him something like 1/3 of a year’s wages. It’s not a small debt, but it’s not an impossible debt. It is thousands of dollars, but not billions of dollars. It took 6000 denarii to equal one talent which gives you a little bit of a sense of the difference between the debts.  This servant owed 100 denarii, compared to the previous servant’s 10,000 talents.
If we have no real sense of our own spiritual debt it is very easy for us to become like this servant. We can become very easily offended by the sin of another and think that they are so much worse than us and we find it very easy to judge them. If we believe Jesus then we have an incredible spiritual debt that God has forgiven us. When we sin against someone there are really at least 2 people that we have wronged. One is the person directly involved. If I have said something mean to you, I owe you an apology. I am spiritually indebted to you in a way. But, the other person I wronged is actually the primary person I wronged. That’s God. If I spoke cruel words to someone then I have attacked the image of God, a child of God, and a part of God’s beautiful creation. Take all the little sins I do every day- I neglect the beauty of the day, I’m unthankful for my health, I’m not mindful of someone’s feelings, and so on. All these produce a spiritual debt over a lifetime. We live in a world drowning in sin and when we swim in it we can become complacent in our sin. It becomes normal to us, so we convince ourselves we don’t really sin. Real sinners are people like Hitler, or people in jail. But N.T. Wright says that, “from God’s point of view, the distance between being ordinarily sinful (what we are) and extremely sinful (what the people we don’t like seem to be) is like the distance between London and Paris seen from the point of view of the sun”. Being conscious of our own spiritual debt and how much we have been forgiven is essential in order to have the capacity to show mercy.       
So how does the servant who has just been forgiven billions of dollars in debt react to this fellow servant who owes him a few thousand dollars? … He grabs him by the throat and tells him to pay him what he owes. The other servant responds using almost the exact words he used in response to the king, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” All he was asking for was more time, not for the debt to be forgiven. But, he wasn’t even willing to give him more time and has him thrown into prison. The servant seemed to have no empathy for the one who owed him the debt.  It is as if the servant was not conscious of how much he had been forgiven, or he was not truly grateful.
The other servants are shocked and tell the king what has happened. The king scolds the servant for being so cold and unmerciful. The assumption is that if someone has mercy on you, you should also have mercy on others. The king then changes his mind about forgiving the debt and throws the man in jail until he can pay his debt, which he will never be able to pay.    
Then Jesus offers the chilling conclusion to the parable, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."  Forgiveness is not a static thing. It has to flow. It is like breath entering the lungs (another image from Wright). The air has to flow in and out for it to work. God has chosen that forgiveness will work like breathing. It has to work both ways. In order for it to be received it has to be given. Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our sins and we forgive those that sin against us”. One requires the other. If we are unwilling to forgive, then we are cutting ourselves off from receiving forgiveness. I would even say that to forgive well also means knowing what it is like to be forgiven.     
This is not to say that forgiveness is easy, or even that it happens in an instant. More and more I’m coming to believe that forgiveness is a process. It is an unwillingness to close the door on the relationship. It is leaving room for hope and for healing. It is not sweeping the problems under the carpet and pretending everything is okay. Forgiveness is looking straight at the sin with the other person and working through it together. It is stark and loving honesty in the face of sin.
Jesus calls us to be a community that recognizes that sin is a part of our relationships, even in the church. We are to be a community that looks at sin honestly, but as people who have personal experience being sinners. We look at sin not as sinless judges, but as patents recovering from sin-sickness who are able to empathize with other patients. We are not called to be a community of perfect people. We are called to be honest and loving people who care about each other so much that we are willing to name sin, not to judge, but out of love for the other.  Jesus faced sin. He did not hide from it. He named it when he saw it, but it was always in love for the other as a doctor would diagnose an illness as a part of making the patient well. May we have the courage and love to deal with sin well realizing how much we have been forgiven and willing to be merciful to those who sin against us.     


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