September 13, 2020
Texts: Genesis 50:15-21; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
Motives are not always pure. You know that, right? So from the very beginning we should wonder why Peter went to Jesus one day and asked. “Lord, if another member of the community sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
This is sort of like going to someone you trust with a difficult problem, laying it out, and then ending by saying “just asking for a friend.” As if the scenario is merely theoretical! It’s a thin veil over reality though.
So what does Peter mean by saying, IF a close associate sins against me… Do we think even for a minute that there was no insider-sinning among the followers of Jesus? Of course not. So, let’s begin with the assumption that Peter had a particular someone and a particular sin in mind.
If Peter expected praise for his willingness to forgive, he didn’t get it from his Rabbi. Jesus wasn’t giving any awards for effort here. Peter also failed to convince Jesus it was about an anonymous third party. Because Jesus turned the question around and aimed it right back at him.
Peter seems to think that forgiving seven times really pushes the limit. But that’s not how Jesus calculates the parameters of forgiveness. Jesus said that multiples of seven times was a better formula. The number is big. Who could keep track of it?
Can you even imagine the conversation? Let’s see, that’s now the sixty-seventh time you did me wrong. Three more offenses and you’re toast. You’d have to keep a log to know when your troublesome brother or sister reached the limit. It’s pretty obvious that Jesus was telling Peter that the magnitude of his forgiveness should totally eclipse the magnitude of the sin against him.
To this end Jesus answered with a parable in which a benevolent king is compared to an unmerciful slave. The slave’s debt was inordinate. The number ten thousand is not actually expressed in the text. It says the slave owed a myriad of talents, meaning his debt was way beyond counting.
The right of the king to sell the slave to pay the debt is horrifying. Even more so that the slave’s innocent wife and children were also to be sold. We should not pass lightly over this part of the story. It’s not just a passing comment on how slaves were treated in biblical times. It’s also the harsh reality of the economy of human labor and assumptions about the value of human life in that world which prevent God’s kingdom from being fully realized.
This issue still underlies our own nation’s inequalities and racial conflicts, and our spiritual wellbeing. Economic inequity is fundamentally a human condition, not a system God set up. The evidence of this is that in the parable Jesus put Peter’s question about forgiveness of sin into the context of forgiveness of debts. Also, it’s not out of line to think that Jesus wanted the disciples to recognize that sin and debt cannot be overcome without mercy, which is a spiritual practice.
The slave owed the king more than everything he possessed. Responding with pity, acting out of mercy, the king let the slave go free. We can all see the power differential here between the king and slave. It puts a spotlights on how the forgiven slave then chose to exercise his own power over the debt of a fellow slave in a completely opposite, and decidedly un-merciful way.
From there the story moves to a scene of condemnation. The King’s accusation says exactly what the charge is: “Evil slave, all of that debt I forgave you, when you cried out to me: was it not binding on you to show mercy on your fellow slave, as I also had mercy on you?”
The king cannot let this go unanswered because the justice of the kingdom itself is at stake. Harsh though it sounds, it’s not as if God actually has to bring out the rack. Living without mercy is torture to the soul. Both in failing to give mercy and by failing to receive it.
Jesus ended this parable by turning to the whole group that day and including them in the lesson. Peter was to forgive as Jesus had already forgiven him (and would continue to forgive in days to come). All followers of Jesus are to likewise act with unending mercy and forgiveness.
God’s commandments aim to form faith in people that can bring about a different world. One that reflects the values and principles of God’s heavenly realm. It’s doesn’t require perfect people. Only people who can turn their own deep debt and desperate need for forgiveness into a motive for grace toward others.
Joseph, you know, was no angel and his brothers’ negative reaction to his arrogance was evidence of that. They left him in a well and he was taken captive by traders. But after long years in Egypt both bad and good, he had changed. He recognized his own sin, was moved to pity by his brother’s regret and responded with overflowing mercy so they and their children would be unburdened by fear.
Paul admonished the Christians in Rome to rise above their differences and stop passing judgement on one another. Let God be the judge of all, while they put their energies toward being people who believe in God’s good kingdom and resurrection power.
Where do we see ourselves? Hopefully inside the parable of Jesus rather than outside it. Hopefully as debtors forgiven and restored to be partners with God in the Kingdom mission.
Jesus gives good spiritual counsel to us in a time of political and racial division; of pandemic; of earth in climate distress; of desperate migration from hunger and conflict. God is with us, forgiving, restoring. There is always a merciful after and it’s to this that Jesus points us.
I leave you with an image. Perhaps you’ve seen those Youtube choral performances that sound so amazing. Many separate voices in soaring harmony. It is a labor of love. Each singer must hold to the note and the rhythm. A skilled worker puts it together. Thousands of little corrections must be made to accommodate each singer’s contribution. But the end is heavenly.
Forgiveness is something like this. What seems beyond us is really possible by our labor and love; with God’s divine hand conducting us all. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.