Proper 19 Year A
21Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church[a] sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven[b] times.
23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents[c] was brought to him; 25 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. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii;[d] and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 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. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister[e] from your heart.” (358)
A couple of years ago, during my first year at St Luke’s, I led a small group series on Forgiveness using guidance from Mother Barbara Crafton’s popular retreat series on that subject. It was a powerful workshop, and we all learned a lot from it. Reading today’s gospel brought those sessions to my mind, since this text wrestles with exactly that. I think the topic is particularly poignant right now, during this time of profound national disunity and distress. Perhaps many of you are struggling personally with how to be in relationship with those who disagree with you politically. I know I am. And even within groups who agree significantly on the general direction the country needs to go, there are still many divisions — so this question is not as simple as a left vs. right issue dichotomy.
One of the thoughts I had while reading Matthew’s text was that some things never change. If we look at the context in which it was written — we jump back 2 millennia into an internecine strife that was not dissimilar to the one we are experiencing today. Matthew’s gospel was written during a critical period when the Judean people were in the midst of profound self examination. It was a time when they were searching for answers to who they were and how they would move forward. The days of the United Monarchy under the storied kings David and Solomon were long past — further away from them than even our own hallowed founding fathers are from us today. After the time of the United Monarchy, the Israelites and the Judeans had been conquered and occupied by no less than 5 larger empires: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans — with only brief periods of self rule in the mix. Matthew was writing not long after the 2nd temple had been utterly destroyed by the Romans in response to the Judean uprising of 70 CE. So the questions they were struggling with were profound. What did it mean to be a worshipper of the one God now — now that the geographic grounding of the Temple was completely gone? How would they re-envision their relationship with God in the light of these events? How would God’s promise to Abraham be manifest?
We know from other parts of Matthew’s gospel that the disagreements about this were fraught and full of acrimony. Those who followed Jesus — those who traveled the Way — were only one voice out of many competing to offer hope in a time of darkness. That sounds funny, doesn’t it, the idea of competing to offer hope. But think about it — at the bottom of all of our discussions about politics — isn’t that what we are really hearing right now in our own discourses? Where should America go and what should America be? What does it mean to be an American? How can we find a new common narrative that will help us move forward past this period of extreme divisiveness?
I don’t think that is a question that will be answered anytime soon — indeed, ultimately, it will never be answered definitively. But as a country, we will eventually come to some level of consensus that will carry us along into a period of greater stability for a while. Right now, our job is a hard one — to hold the tension of so many competing voices shouting and to try not to panic while it all plays out. And so I find myself wondering how, in particular, as Christians, we can bear witness to in the midst of that struggle.
And it feels to me that one of our most vital roles will be helping others to understand what forgiveness is and what it is not. Because if we can’t forgive each other — we will never be able to move forward. Turning to the text, we hear the parable of the king and the unforgiving slave. This slave owes the king 10,000 talents — that was an unimaginable sum in those days. 1 talent was equal to 6000 denarii, and 1 denarius was a single day’s wage. So 10,000 talents — 60 million days worth of work for an average laborer. A sum so huge we cannot grasp it. Such exaggeration was typical of the hyperbole Jesus used in the parables. His goal was to shake us out of our complacency and help us understand.
Such an enormous sum. And yet the king readily forgives the slave of the debt. The inference is clear — so great is God’s love for us, that we too are forgiven, completely and utterly, for all of the wrongs that we have done, and will do. Over the course of a lifetime, there is so much that we do that we could have done differently and better. God sees it all. And yet God forgives us, God loves us as we are — incomplete, broken, and flawed. That is the radical nature of God’s love for us.
But what do we do in return?
According to this parable, we are like this same slave who, having been forgiven by the king, then refuses to forgive in turn the slave who owes him far less. We continue to sin by not extending that same forgiveness to those who harm us. We do not love one another as God loves us. We forget that those who have harmed us are also beloved by God, in all of their brokenness, just as we are. We forget that they too struggle with the forces of this world that wish to do them harm. We forget that they too carry the burden of the knowledge of the harm they have done, and that they too project it onto others, just as we do.
And one of the reasons we do this — is because we don’t really understand what forgiveness is. Turning to Mother Crafton’s series, and by the way, we could spend a long session of discussion on every point I am about to make, here is a very brief outline of some of the things forgiveness IS NOT.
Forgiveness is not a matter of degree. It’s not tied to the gravity of the crime itself.
I had this discussion with my son once — he was incredulous that I thought God would forgive Adolf Hitler. But yes, even Hitler receives God’s mercy. There are no unforgivable sins or people.
BUT — Forgiveness isn’t about forgetting. It doesn’t erase history or the past. We are not asked to forget.
AND — forgiveness is also not acquittal. When we forgive someone, we aren’t exonerating them. As Mother Crafton writes: to forgive does not mean to acquiesce in another’s evil, act, whether it was committed against me or against someone else. That I forgive something doesn’t mean I condone it. I always have the responsibility to resist evil.
And, in a corollary, forgiveness is not about putting ourselves in harms way. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take actions to keep ourselves safe — including, if necessary, suspension of relationship with those who have hurt us.
Forgiveness also isn’t a feeling — instead, it’s a process. We have to take it on, baby step by baby step. And we may have to re-engage with it again and again. It doesn’t mean that — shazam, in an instant — everything will be warm and fuzzy between you and those who have hurt you, forever and ever amen. Sometimes the process of for-giveness has to be restarted every day. That’s how hard it can be for us. That’s why the text speaks of 7 x 70 times.
And here’s perhaps the most important thing that forgiveness is not — forgiveness is not something we can do on our own. We need God’s help.
We can see that in the liturgy for the Reconciliation of a Penitent in the Prayer Book. The purpose of reconciliation is to ask God to help us forgive. We are inviting God into this difficult process. Extending that invitation is an act of will, not a feeling. Sometimes we are so deeply hurt that we don’t even want to. And that’s okay. Sometimes the best we can do is to ask God to help us want to want to forgive. And that’s okay too. Because God can work with that. God works with whatever we give God — even something as small as a mustard seed. God will use that opening — that humility — to do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
Because ultimately, forgiveness is not about the perpetrator, it’s about us. It’s not about what happened before, but about who we want to be and how we want to continue to live into our relationship with God and with others. Do we want to hold on to grudges and anger, allowing them to eat us up and be the main source of energy in our lives? Or do we want to listen carefully to hear which way God is calling us to go? Do we want to continue to identify with the labels that others have placed on us, or do we want to discover who we really are — beloved children of God? Do we want to choose bitterness? Or do we want to choose love?
Only we can make that choice — each and every one of us for ourselves. The choice to let God in — to ask God to help us love one another as God loves us. To ask God to help us to want to want to forgive.
To do so is to choose life, not fear. To do so is to choose love, not hate. To do so is to proclaim that the captives will be released. To do so is to proclaim the good news.
Prayer for our enemies:
O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies; Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge: and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Rev. Posey Krakowsky
September 17, 2017