In the Name...
After a particularly stirring sermon, a preacher asked his congregation to raise their hands if they felt in their hearts that they could forgive their enemies. Everybody did, except for one little old lady in the front row. Surprised, the preacher asked her why she didn’t raise her hand. “Oh”, she said, “I have no enemies. I’m 96 years old and I’ve outlived them all.”
This morning we're going to see the mind of God on the subject of forgiveness and that's very exciting. Jesus once said that if a fellow church member, a brother or sister in Christ, is acting in a sinful or harmful way and does not listen to your advice then you are to treat them as what? Treat them, he said, as a Gentile or a tax collector.
And that means, treat them as you’d treat anyone who doesn’t know Jesus and go after them. Don't write them off - au contraire. Evangelize them.
So, this morning, Peter asks Jesus, "Well, if that's the case, how often am I supposed to forgive someone? Seven times? Remember that the Pharisees were teaching a very transactional relationship with God, that is so much goodness buys so much of God's favour, etc. So, the more you forgive the more God owes you favours.
Well, Jesus' answer is that's a lot of ... twaddle. "Not seven times, but, seventy times seven" (I know our lectionary translates "77", but, I like 70 x 7, it’s more poetic). Either way, the point is not that we should count how often we should forgive, but, that forgiveness should not be counted at all.
To illustrate it, Jesus relates the story of a man who owed a king 10,000 talents of gold - the equivalent of 3 billion dollars in today's money. We've probably all worried about how much we owe sometimes, but, can you imagine that kind of personal debt? Obviously it's an exaggeration, but, that's what gives the parable its power.
Punishment for bad debt in ancient times wasn't just getting a bad credit report. The unfortunate debtor could expect treatment which makes the Mafia look tame. Slavery, torture, an ear or nose cut off, arms or legs broken or removed, maybe if one was real lucky - death. And the punishment was usually in proportion to the amount owed. So a fellow who was 3 billion in the red could expect indescribable, unimaginable horrors in his future.
And that's what makes his plea so pathetic. There was no way then, and no way now, such an amount could ever be repaid. And yet knowing this full well, the king grants forgiveness. Free and clear. No penalty, no interest. No eyes gouged out or feet burnt off. And this is Jesus' way of telling Peter and the others what God was going to do for us.
When we were created, God had great plans for us. We were his supreme creation made in His image, but, we decided to do our own thing, go our own way. So we ended up living separated from God. There is an enormous gap, then, between what we were and what we are. A gap as big as a 3-billion-dollar personal debt.
Basically, all of us try to lead good lives. We may even think we're not all that bad. But, try adding up all the people we've hurt without really knowing it; or how much pride we've have expressed by despising others; or how much we've left undone that we ought to have done; or how many people we failed to pray for, or how many unloving things we've done in our lives. And then think - All that and much more is forgiven.
Wow. And when you consider how God did it. On the Cross. He took all the pain and torture on himself. It really humbles me.
For now, comes the punch line that answers Peter's question. Having been forgiven that huge amount, the servant walks out of the palace and grabs a fellow by the throat. "You owe me twenty bucks. Pay me what you owe." The fellow pleads for time, but, to no avail. It's off to jail. The fellow servants then report what's happened and the result is that the king revokes the servant's pardon and hands him over to be tortured until he's suffered enough. And that would obviously have been for ever.
There's quite a lesson here. There are real consequences for refusing to share God's forgiveness with others. Horrific tortures - in this life. We need to remember parables are metaphors. And torture is a very good illustration of what the refusal to forgive others does to us. It is very bad for our health. When we say "Pay me what you owe," and live bearing grudges over inconsequential things, our blood pressure goes up. In time we may develop ulcers. It can lead to depression and alcoholism. It is one of the causes of cancer. It upsets others, and makes us useless for Christian service. It also shows up on our face. It makes us bitter and ugly and people try to avoid being around us.
I love the line from Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye says, if we all lived by an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, the whole world would be blind and toothless.
The story is told of a holy man who used to meditate on the banks of a river. One day he saw a large scorpion floating on a tree branch. The old man went into the water, caught the branch and reached out to pick up the scorpion and place it safely on the shore. As he did so, the scorpion stung him. A passer-by seeing this called out, "Old man, are you crazy?” To this the old man replied, "Friend, it is the nature of the scorpion to sting. But, it is my nature to save."
This story challenges us as much as Jesus' parable. Do we respond to others based on how they treat us, or do we show grace even when we are stung?
Jesus made it absolutely clear that God forgives us totally and without question. All we need to do is accept it, and say thank you. But, having been forgiven, if we refuse to forgive others, God makes it very tough for us. Un-forgiveness tortures us by eating into our soul.
"Pay me what you owe" is a common phrase in the world's vocabulary, but, it is not part of God's language, nor should it be part of ours if we want to show we love others the way he loves us. Freely and forgiving.
In the Name...