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 said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”Matthew 18:21-22
One of the interesting things to me about preaching regularly, over a number of years now, is that I can now go back and look at drafts of my old sermons. As many of you know, our Sunday readings are based on a 3-year lectionary; which means that the readings basically repeat themselves every 3 years. So the readings we hear this year we also heard in 2017, and 2014, and so on. And so, depending on the Sunday, I can open a computer file, and pretty quickly take a look at what I preached on any of those Sundays. And it is interesting, because it reminds me of what was happening at that time. So, for example, today’s readings (including our gospel reading, Matthew 18:21-35), were what I preached on after Hurricane Katrina had brought such devastation to New Orleans, 15 years ago.
And one of the things that looking back at my old sermons has taught me is that there is always something happening in the world that causes us concern. No matter the week, there are either natural tragedies or human-created situations that dominate the news, and that we all end up being concerned about. Sometimes it can feel like this particular time is worse than usual, and 2020 would certainly be one of those years, to be sure. But my old sermons suggest otherwise. There are always things happening in our world that seem worse than usual. And the media makes sure that we know all about them.
There are positive things happening in our world, too, of course, but those tend not to capture the headlines or the national attention. It seems like most of the time, the good things that happen in the world happen quietly, and in small ways. While all these other things are happening all around us, we as Christians, and people of goodwill in general, continue to quietly do our part to make our corner of the world a little brighter. It may not make the news, but it’s often what really ends up mattering the most.
Even as we think globally, as the old saying goes, we are called to act locally. And what I’ve noticed, in looking back at these sermons and these Scripture readings, is that the readings themselves often encourage us to do just that. To think globally, but to act locally. Not to ignore the global events happening in our world that seem to dominate the news cycle. But at the same time, not to become paralyzed by these big events that we have so little control over.
Today’s Gospel Reading
And today’s gospel reading is a good example of that. Whether we are thinking about hurricanes, or civil unrest, or this pandemic, or the upcoming elections, or any number of other global concerns, what we are encouraged to do, is simply to forgive one another. When a friend or a family member sins against us, we are reminded today of how important it is to our Creator that we forgive that person.
Forgiveness is usually a local act, not a global one, and it rarely makes the news. Most of the time, the act of forgiveness happens quietly, between two people, with the world barely noticing. But for those two people, it may very well be the most important thing that happens in their lives, that day, or that week.
This gospel reading, in other words, like so many others, really isn’t about what we should do to change the world. It is about what we should do to change ourselves. So, even as we think globally about what is happening around the world, let’s take a look at this gospel reading, and see what it teaches us about forgiveness and acting locally.
How Often Should We Forgive?
This reading begins with Peter asking Jesus how often he should forgive someone. As many as seven times, he asks? Many rabbis at the time taught that three times was sufficient. So I’m sure Peter thought that he was being quite generous, just as Jesus would want him to be.
But Jesus offers this surprising answer, that we should forgive someone not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Which basically means that we should forgive someone until we lose count. Because forgiveness really isn’t about math; it’s about mercy. And it’s about doing for others what God does for us. There’s no end to how many times we should forgive, because there’s no end to how many times God has forgiven us. And to reinforce this point, Jesus then goes on to tell a very interesting and challenging parable.
A King Forgives an Impossible Debt
There is a slave, Jesus says, that owes his king ten thousand talents. Now, a talent is the biggest possible monetary unit that exists. It would take a typical worker 15 years to earn one talent. So, a talent is an incredibly large amount of money, like a million dollars. And this slave owes the king ten thousand talents. And ten thousand is the biggest number that exists in that language. So ten thousand talents, in other words, is an impossibly large number. It’s kind of like saying that the slave owed the king a trillion dollars. Something so big that no one in the world could ever possibly repay it.
This slave is in a hopeless situation. And he knows it. All he can do is fall on his knees and plead for mercy. Which he does. And the king, shockingly, decides to forgive this slave his entire debt.
So, before we move to the next part of the parable, think about what Jesus is teaching us here. The king in this parable is like God. And the slave is like us. And this parable reminds us that what we owe God is beyond what we can ever hope to repay. That’s the nature of sin. We can’t repay God for our sins against God. One sin is more than we can possibly repay. Each and every one of us owes God ten thousand talents and more; and not a single one of us can repay this debt. But just like the king in this parable, God chooses to forgive us. God forgives us all of our sins, all of our debt. No matter our sin; no matter how much we have sinned; no matter how often we have sinned; God chooses to forgive it all. The forgiveness that God offers to each of us is more than we can possibly imagine.
The Slave Refused to Pay It Forward
So, what does the slave in this parable do, now that he has had his life changed by being forgiven this debt of ten thousand talents? As he is leaving the king, he encounters a fellow slave who owes him just a hundred denarii. A tiny amount compared to ten thousand talents. And he throws this slave into prison until he would pay the debt. And we can’t help but wonder – why would the slave not forgive that small amount after the king has just forgiven him this huge amount? And all I can come up with is that this slave either expected the king to forgive him, as though he deserved to be forgiven; or the slave didn’t really believe that his ten thousand talent debt had truly been forgiven. If he didn’t expect it, but now truly believed it, then it seems to me that he would gladly forgive his fellow slaves of the measly amount they owe him. But instead, this slave goes on in life without changing, and without forgiving. And the king finds out, and hands him over to be tortured until he repays the entire debt. And you can’t blame the king, after what he has done for this slave. He’s forgiven him ten thousand talents, and this slave can’t forgive a fellow slave a hundred denarii?
And Jesus concludes by encouraging us to show mercy to our brother or sister, just as God has shown mercy to us. Because God has forgiven each and every one of us a mountain-size debt. And when we realize it, and don’t take it for granted, then we really can’t help but forgive others the same.
It’s Not About Math; It’s About Mercy
Today’s gospel reading, when all is said and done, is not about how often we should forgive, or how much we should forgive. Again, it’s not about math. It’s about mercy. And it’s not about what is happening across the world, but in our homes and communities. Seventy-seven times is a lot, but it’s nothing compared to how often God has forgiven us. Ten thousand talents is a ridiculous amount that the slave is forgiven. But it’s nothing compared to how much God has forgiven us. God’s forgiveness can’t be counted, or added up, or quantified at all. It’s endless and infinite.
Whatever you have done, or not done, that is contrary to God’s desire for you, God has already forgiven you. And when we really get our minds around how much God forgives us, and how much God still loves us, and how much God wants us to do the same for others, then there is no wrong, no injustice, no slight, no sin against us that can hold a candle to the wrongs, the slights, and the sins we have done against God. And forgiving that person is simply a small way to pay it forward.
That’s really what this gospel reading is trying to teach us today. Just how much God has forgiven us. And just how much of a difference we can make in the world by paying this forgiveness forward. One person at a time. And, no, it won’t make the news when you do this. And it won’t show up in my sermon three years from now. But realizing how much God has forgiven you, believing it with all your heart, and sharing a little of that with the people around you, may be the most important thing that happens in your world this week, or even this year. And I pray that it happens, many thousands of times, all around our community, and all around our world. To the glory of God. Amen