Note: The computer froze during today’s streaming. The first 33 minutes can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1UnALOgiLjM
Unfortunately, only the beginning of the sermon is captured (though much music). I preached and streamed the sermon again, it is the video above.
Proper 19 (24), Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
13 September 2020
Peter’s question about how often one needs to forgive helps all those who, after last week’s passage of how to address sin within the community of the church, were still uncertain as to whether one should err on the side of grace or judgment. Jesus’ answer is symbolic and seems a reversal of the seventy-times seven vengeance Lamech vowed in Genesis 4:24.
Peter, however is speaking from experience. He knows how hard it is to live in community, he knows that many of our offenses against each other and against God are repeat offenses. Think about those who never clean the toilet or always leave the seat up, or those who never vacuum or take the trash out, or put their dirty dishes away before they go to bed. I admit, in the greater scheme of things, these are trivial matters, but think about how trivial matters can drive us crazy, and how then could we put up with much more serious matters.
And so Peter is asking a very practical question. When is this forgiveness exhausted, when can I admit that I have come to the end of the rope, that I cannot take it any longer, because surely, there will be times when forgiveness, especially repeated forgiveness seems to ask too much of us.
I remember some role playing group coming into our class when I was in Middle School. I don’t remember what they were called or why they were there. But I do remember that it was about relationships. One of them acted a loud and obnoxious role that was meant to offend. Our task was to hold him accountable. When we tried to hold him accountable, he simply apologized but continued without substantive change. I remember that I did not get a handle on it and I don’t remember if anyone else did. His quick apology that used all the right words pre-empted our critique and thus rendered us impotent and made him the teflon guy.
Perhaps you have been in such situations where forgiveness is mistaken for permission and a situation does not become better but more abusive.
Years ago, when we were still living in Winnipeg, I caught the story of a former Nazi concentration camp guard who was threatened with deportation from Canada to stand trial in Germany. Among others, the reporter spoke with members of the man’s Lutheran church who could not understand why so many years after the war he should be held accountable for what he had done and failed to do. They said to the reporter that we should forgive and forget. The forgiving part is easier than the forgetting part, besides, who is to forgive these crimes, since the victims are no longer alive? The demand that society should forgive and forget suggests that at some point we should not be held accountable. However, without accountability, without naming the sin, forgiveness cannot be granted.
It is important to note that what Jesus commands is not forgetting, or dismissing accountability for sins.
Jesus also does not command friendship. Because friendship is always the creation of more than one. I can offer friendship but whether the friendship becomes real depends on more than me. And so when Jesus says that one should forgive seventy times seven times, Jesus is not saying that we should like the person we are forgiving. There is nothing touchy-feely going on here. All that Jesus commands is that there must be no limit to our forgiveness. And then Jesus tells a story.
The story is of a king, but this king is not God. This king extorts money from his subjects and threatens enslavement of families, and in the end the king of the parable revokes the forgiveness already granted. While this king is capable of forgiveness, it may well be calculated forgiveness that earns him renewed loyalty of the offending subjects and renewed loyalty and admiration of all others who witness the story. The king has power and knows how to use it.
And so we notice that the point of the parable is not the king. The point of the parable is what to do with the forgiveness the slave received, and what to do with the forgiveness God has granted us.
The parable points in the same direction as the Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught in chapter six, “forgives us our sin as we forgive those who sin against us,” except that here sin also has a tangible, economic dimension, as in “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”1
In the parable, forgiveness restores relationship, almost. It doesn’t because the relationships described are feudal, and the servant does not enact the same forgiveness toward others.
The fact that the forgiveness of the king fails to restore relationship relates to our own experience as there will be times when the trust is broken and while forgiveness is granted, there may be no longer be a basis for relationship.
Why does Jesus still demand forgiveness?
The church father Athanasius (bishop of Alexandria, c.296 – 373) said that God became human so that we may become divine. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus entreats us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. This appeal is less about perfection and more about living a life that radiates the holiness of God.
While Jesus was the victim of human malice and cruelty, Jesus did not remain a victim. Jesus forgave his tormentors and in doing so showed that his life was not defined by the violence enacted against him but by the love of God. Not forgiving holds us captive to victimhood long after the offence has occurred. My parents did not have a good marriage. My father moved out in 1985. As late as in 2016, 31 years later, my mother could still spend much time lamenting him.
The writer Anne Lamott, in her memoir Traveling Mercies, writes that withholding forgiveness is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.
In a world governed by power structures we are conditioned to keep score. That it is not easy to let go of what we think we have over someone – though it actually holds us back – also becomes evident in our cheering for the sad lot of the unforgiving servant who lost the forgiveness and the freedom just gifted to him.
By forgiving us, God has set us free. We enact that freedom in our forgiveness of others. It’s hard, it takes time, no one except God can demand it from us, but we are not alone.
1For more on this see https://www.abc.net.au/religion/forgive-our-debts-the-economics-of-the-lords-prayer/11314116
Let us pray for the whole people of God in Christ Jesus and for all people according to their needs:
~ a brief silence ~
For an end to the fires, human stupidity, and environmental degradation. For safety for firefighter and their families, for your presence with all whose lives and communities are threatened. Lord, in your mercy. Hear our prayer.
For peace and calm in the midst of chaos. For generosity of spirit that people meet each other not in fear and mistrust but as kin. Lord, in your mercy. Hear our prayer.
We give thanks that in the death and resurrection of Jesus you forgive us and free us from sin. Help us live into that freedom, so that we may live your forgiveness in our lives, and that such living of forgiveness bring your light into this world. Lord, in your mercy. Hear our prayer.
Help us navigate life in community, including our civic communities. Prevent us from laying blame and make us participants in political processes. Grant us passion to care about our communities and about the world you love. Lord, in your mercy. Hear our prayer.
Help us live lives that are accountable and thus open to receiving forgiveness. Lord, in your mercy. Hear our prayer.
Knowing that you desire the healing of all creation, we ask for all in need, especially our brothers and sisters …. And all those we now name spoken or silently… Lord, in your mercy. Hear our prayer.
All these things and whatever you see that we need, grant us, o God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.