how our understanding of forgiveness is too small
a Homily for Proper 19A | Text: Matthew 18:21-35
The volume of forgiveness
When Peter asks about forgiveness, about the volume of forgiveness, it triggers a cascade of central teachings to our faith. Teachings that are the foundation of everything.
On the surface, it is a simple enough question. It’s practical. I get that we need to forgive, but how many times must we? And Jesus’s response seems just as simple: every time.
And honestly, we could probably stop there, end the sermon, and move on.
How many times do I forgive again?
I was afraid you would say that.
It would certainly save us time if we stopped. But it wouldn’t answer why? Why every time?
Well, to begin with, this is about much more than simply being nice. It isn’t just doing the loving thing. It isn’t even a rule on its own.
This thing about forgiveness has to do with GOD’s creation, justice, and eliminating vengeance. And all of this was triggered by a simple question: “As many as 7 times?”
From the beginning, 7 was an important number. We remember that GOD created the world in six days and it was on the 7th day that GOD rested. The 7th became GOD’s day.
It is associated with Sabbath–that time and space for devotion and rest. It was named as one of the 10 Big Rules and binds the people to that same pattern of resting on the 7th day. We do as GOD does.
But Sabbath doesn’t end with 7 days. We know that the 7th year is important, too. Any Israelite slave is to be freed at their 7th year of servitude. Farmers are supposed to give the poor and the animals free access to their land and crops for all of the 7th year, that they might eat and have their fill. The 7th year is to be a sabbatical year for landowners, workers, slaves, and livestock. Every living thing gets Sabbath. Sabbath is for all of creation.
And every 7th Sabbatical year? After 7 times 7 years, we celebrate a year of Jubilee in which all property is returned to its original owners and all debts are cancelled. It is a season of honesty and restoration and all relationships are to be made whole.
Peter’s asking about 7 times is really a reference to Sabbath: asking Jesus about the Sabbatical character of restoration, wholeness, and freedom. He is really asking does forgiveness mean the whole thing? Like blank-slate forgiveness…and everything that entails?
Justice and Vengeance
None of us really wants to talk about that kind of forgiveness, let’s be honest. And given what we have experienced of the world, we certainly seem justified. But in the same breath that GOD speaks to restoration through Sabbath, GOD also speaks to justice and our giving up and getting rid of our sense of vengeance.
GOD gives special priority to the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, and the sojourner: the people with no power or standing in Hebrew society. These people must be protected from abuse. Remarkably, causing suffering to any of these incurs GOD’s wrath directly, according to Exodus 22:
Oh, if you afflict, afflict them…! For (then) they will cry, cry out to me, and I will hearken, hearken to their cry, my anger will flare up and I will kill you with the sword, so that your wives become widows, and your children, orphans!
All the surrounding laws speak of the community dealing with its own issues. But this, abuse of the weak and the powerless, GOD takes personally. And takes care of personally.
This is especially true of the sojourner: the guest, the traveller, the outsider, for it is we who were once like that and we were liberated and given freedom. A poignant lesson for American Christians of non-Native American descent, for we were once immigrants, embodying GOD’s command twice in this same teaching:
Now a sojourner you are not to maltreat, you are not to oppress him, for sojourners were you in the land of Egypt.
Vengeance, most base of all desires, compels us to destroy others and destroys our relationship with GOD. GOD’s law was written to limit vengeance and retribution, prescribing not only specific remedies to bad situations, but balanced ones. An eye-for-an-eye is not only for punishing an offender in kind, but limiting the response. It is most remarkably used, not simply for punishing killers, but in freeing slaves who have been abused by their masters.
GOD’s fairness and justice is not your sense of justice or America’s sense of justice. It is about redemption, not retribution. It is about wholeness, not division.
GOD wants us to be whole and redeemed. As children of GOD.
The power of Sabbath
There is something powerful in the image of remembering the Sabbath: in keeping the 7th day holy because GOD made it that way, resting because GOD rested.
There is something powerful in giving generously that day to those under us because GOD gave generously that day to us.
There is something powerful in protecting the widow and the orphan because GOD protects us and loving them because GOD loves us.
There is something very powerful in showing grace to the sojourner, the immigrant, the outsider, the traveller, because we were sojourners, immigrants, outsiders, and travellers. And we still are.
This is the substance of forgiveness. The substance that Jesus invites Peter into because Peter gets what he needs to do. Jesus says to him:
For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.
Jesus seems to tell Peter about forgiving and restoring the world and then tells him a story of not forgiving. A story in which a master forgives a debt, grants freedom, then takes the freedom back.
The slave enslaves another because of debts, as a cruel twist on freedom and judgment. As Jesus tells the parable, He ultimately paints an image of servitude and cruelty at deep odds with the character of GOD we know from Jesus and in Jesus.
What if that is ultimately Jesus’s point? That cruelty reveals cruelty, but forgiveness destroys it.
This is why he used the word “compare” in the first place. Compare these two things. This picture of forgiveness against this portrait of the kingdom. It isn’t literal: he doesn’t say the Kingdom of Heaven is a place of rigidity and GOD is a spiteful master. He says to keep forgiving!
Forgiving GOD and each other
What if the forgiveness we’re talking about goes all the way to total and complete redemption? And what if that includes GOD? What if GOD needs to be forgiven? What if we chose to forgive GOD, not just 7 times, but 77 times? What if we give to GOD the thing we are asked to give one another and we choose to actually include GOD in that forgiving?
- Forgiving GOD for all of the pain we’ve felt.
- Forgiving GOD for all of the suffering and the evil in the world.
- Forgiving GOD for accidents and mistakes and disasters and tragedy.
- Forgiving GOD for the bad parenting and the awful advice GOD’s children have heard throughout history and we foolishly continue to follow.
- Forgiving GOD for the discord and the confusion and the wars we wage over different understandings of what GOD wants.
- Forgiving GOD for not seeming to care about us or comfort us when we are afraid.
- Forgiving GOD for speaking in stories when we want rules, giving us guides when we want commanders, giving us rest when we want to work.
What if we forgave GOD? It wouldn’t make the pain go away, but we would begin to heal. Eventually we would recover. We would become whole. We would be restored.
And our relationship with GOD would be restored. A relationship built, not only on GOD’s one-sided love for us, but for our generous love to GOD and to our neighbors.
For it is through that relationship built on love which GOD brings true liberation. GOD doesn’t simply cancel our debt, but frees us from the bondage of slavery, redeeming us, reinvigorating and reviving us, offering us new, vibrant life!
Amazingly we have received the very restorative power of GOD and are told that we can actually use it! We can redeem each other!
This is where Peter and Jesus take us after we hear about sin and confronting sin in our community, which we covered last week. The very next verses, they go to forgiveness. They go there and they keep on driving because it isn’t just forgiving people for a screw up, it is redemption and restoration at stake. It is making the broken whole and the enslaved free. It is making community where there is loneliness and hope where there is emptiness.
This all comes through forgiveness. True, full-bodied forgiveness. Forgiveness as strong as the darkest coffee you can find, as powerful as the river, and as certain as the snow is coming.
Forgive. Forgive GOD and your friends. Forgive your church and your parents. Forgive your neighbor and your school board. Forgive your government and yourself. Life is too important to waste on being right, seething with anger, or feeling hurt. Forgiveness is not condoning or overlooking or staying together for the children, but offering our very freedom to one another.
Forgiveness is the only way to begin restoring and redeeming. It is how we will become whole.
All it takes is an invitation, coming to us as a confession, an uncomfortable admission. So I’ll start. I have made many mistakes. I am trying my best. Please forgive me.