“21 Then 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.”

-Matthew 18:21-35

Matthew 18: 21-35

The Reverend Tasha Blackburn
August 23, 2015

“We will talk about it when we get in the car.” How many generations have heard that phrase or some cousin to it? Of course, it is shorthand for: “We are in public, so zip your lip. Wait until we are in private because not everyone needs to hear our business!”
We will talk about it when we get in the car.
For this Matthew passage today, we are in the car. Before this, we have been with the crowds as Jesus healed a boy with a demon; and after this, Jesus will leave Galilee to meet more large crowds. But this chapter, well, we are all stuffed in the car. Because not everyone needs to know our business. The chapter begins with the disciples fighting in the backseat over who is the greatest…not the last time that would happen in a backseat! Then Jesus gives them a primer on how to handle sin in the church. First, he says, handle things with the person quietly, then take a couple of people with you if you need backup. If the sinning person still refuses to listen, take the issue to the whole congregation. If there is no change, then the person has to leave.
Jesus has no doubt there will be trouble in the church. He is only concerned with how to deal with it. It is embarrassing to admit the church has dirty laundry, so this is not for the public. It needed to wait until we got in the car.
Before he unlocks the doors to let us out, Jesus offers us this final word on the issue. It is a parable in answer to Peter’s question: alright, how many times do I have to forgive that church member? How about 7? And the parable’s answer is meant to shock. It is meant to dismay us with its hyperbole. The servant’s debt is shocking, for 1,000 talents would be 15 year’s average wage and he owes 10,000 of them! It is the same as saying the underling owes a bazillion dollars. Second, the king is shocking. A few pleas from the servant and he forgives the whole thing; the same as the taxes taken up in ancient Syria, Phoenicia, Judea and Samaria combined, and he forgives it: the—whole—thing. Then the servant’s behavior is shocking, as he throttles the first person he sees who has wronged him. Of course, the man owes him in a 1 to 60 million ratio of what he owed the king, yet he throws him into prison anyway. Finally, we are shocked by the reversal at the end. The king had forgiven an impossible debt and yet, when the servant is sent back, he condemns him to a life of torture.
It is a parable meant to stun, but what might shock us the most, once we consider it for a while, is this: conversion is not everything. In this example, it is not even the goal. The man is converted. He is forgiven all his debt. But that is not the end of the story. It is common in many parts of our culture to ask people if they have been converted, to question them about the day they were saved. But Jesus teaches here that conversion is not everything. Response is the point. While we can never win God’s forgiveness, we CAN lose it. It is shocking to consider this when we know God’s love is limitless and his forgiveness swift. But it is a truth we pray every week when we say together, “Forgive us our debts AS we forgive our debtors.” Our forgiveness from God is inextricably linked to our forgiveness of others.
It makes us understand an old 16th century church council document folks found from Switzerland. It describes a man standing before the council and he is pretending he has forgotten the Lord’s Prayer. All because he was mad at a merchant who had wronged him. He realized that to remember the prayer would mean he had to forgive the man and he was in no mood! So he stubbornly stood there refusing to remember the prayer he’d said since childhood.
“How many times must I forgive in the church? Seven times?,” Peter asks. And Jesus takes that holy number and multiplies it so large it becomes perfect. We have to forgive completely. We have to forgive until we’ve stopped counting.
A colleague of ours pastored a church a while back before he retired. He called a few weeks ago to tell us he had terrible news. Their new pastor, the one they’d had for just a few years, the one they liked so much along with his wife and children, it had just been announced that he was, shall we say, “stepping out” with another church staff member. So he is gone and, of course, so is the other staff member. And the church is devastated. They had trusted him and liked him and looked up to him. And now that trust, that relationship, is gone. And there are practical problems too. They live in one of the fastest growing areas of the country, and now their church has lost members and may lose more. They have to find another pastor, which, as you probably know, in Presbyterian world is not simple! They were supposed to be flourishing and deepening and moving forward. Now they are stalled out and flailing. And it is his fault. It is his sin that has hurt them.
So what should they do? What will become of them? Does their sinning pastor deserve their forgiveness? Maybe. Maybe not. Can they condone what he has done or ever have him back in his role? No. In fact the situation may have developed much like Jesus described where first one person came to him, then a group, and finally the whole church had to know. There is no accepting him back into their fold. That is clear. So what should they do?
They have to forgive him. They have to.
Not because he deserves it. Not because they can accept it his behavior. They have to forgive him because they will not be a church if they don’t. They will become unrecognizable, even to themselves; people who no longer know that simplest of prayers: forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. That is why the servant so shocks us. It is because we do not even recognize him. When we first met him, he was humble and grateful and grace-filled because of the king. But then he becomes this person we do not even know: mean spirited and judgmental. In his unforgiveness he has become unrecognizable as someone who has been forgiven so much. And that is why they have to forgive him. So they will recognize themselves and so God will recognize them.
We know the same prayer they know. We say it every week too. We are in the same car being given the same hard truth. If someone has wronged you, has hurt you, has sinned against you, you have to forgive them. Not because they deserve it. Not because you can condone their actions. Maybe you cannot even have a future relationship with them. But you have to forgive them. We’re in the car so we are going to talk about it. You have to forgive them. You have to. We all have that choice to make. Are we going to stand there and pretend we no longer know the prayer? If so, we will become unrecognizable to those who love us. We will become unrecognizable to ourselves. And the One who has always loved us the most will not know us at all. Amen.