September 14, 2014
As we prepare to hear the proclamation this morning, I'd like for you to consider two questions. First, who do you need to forgive? Second, for what and by whom do you need to be forgiven? Please hold these two questions in tension as we hear God's word for us.
We are a culture who likes to keep score. Tit for tat. Quid pro quo. If you do me a favor, then I feel obligated to return it at some point. If I invite you to come over for dinner, then when will you invite me over? If you hurt me, then I’ve got a freebie hurt coming. We keep score when it comes to favors; we keep score when it comes to being harmed. Keeping score permeates all aspects of our lives. It's certainly in our politics. It's prevalent in the media, in entertainment, education, business. It is built into our warfare.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote extensively about Just War Theory. What conditions might make a war necessary? And if it is necessary, what would make it just? Just War Theory maintains that if a war is to be considered just, then it must adhere to certain criteria. It must be declared by a competent authority. It should be for a just cause. It must be fought with the right intention, such as saving the world from evil. It must have a reasonable chance of success. According to this theory, it is never right or moral or just to shed innocent blood for a lost cause. Engaging in warfare should always be a last resort. It should only happen when other avenues have been thoroughly explored. There are moral limits as to how the war is to be fought. And it should be proportional. The response should never be greater than the provocation.
Proportional is a key word. What is a proportional response? If Washington State should declare its independence from the rest of the country, determined to become the sovereign nation of Starbucks, and the rebels leading the way of secession stage a non-violent coup, then the law of proportional response dictates that the retaliation, and there will be retaliation, should be in kind. Therefore bombing the state off the map would not help, nor would it be proportional. I realize that I’ve given you a silly example to illustrate the just war theory’s version of quid pro quo, but as I see it, it is another way of keeping score.
So far all I've referred to in this keeping score, keeping track culture of ours is in terms of favors granted or attacks accomplished. But it would seem – at least from an initial reading of our passage this morning – the idea of keeping score or keeping track was not foreign to the culture that Jesus and the disciples lived in. It would seem that even forgiveness has boundaries and limits. Or at least, it should have.
In the verses that precede ours today, the verses that we looked at last week, Jesus gives the disciples clear instructions on how to deal with someone who has sinned. Jesus' recommended course of discipline is not about punishment so much as it is about building and strengthening community. It is about relationship.
Now Peter takes it a step further. Okay, Jesus, you've told us about how to confront someone in the church who has sinned against me. Now, how many times am I expected to forgive this person? How many times do I have to be willing to let go of the harm done to me? Seven times?
In rabbinic tradition, Peter was setting a high bar by suggesting that he willingly forgive someone who has harmed him seven times. To forgive seven times would have been seen as going above and beyond anything that the Law required. So it looks as though Peter is already trying to be generous. But Jesus' response to this question blows Peter's generosity out of the water. Not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Another way this is translated is seventy times seven. I know that there are people who like to do the math. Add it up, multiply it, calculate it. What is the final number that Jesus refers to when it comes to forgiveness? But I think this is the opposite of the point that Jesus is trying to make. When it comes to forgiveness, we have stop doing the math.
To further illustrate this, Jesus tells a rather disturbing parable. This isn't just any kind of parable. This is a kingdom parable. The kingdom of heaven may be compared to ... fill-in-the-blank. Jesus fills in this blank with the story of a despot king who decides to settle accounts with his slaves. While it is unlikely that any king would ever lend a slave one coin, this particular ruler has lent this particular slave an enormous sum of money. The slave owes 10,000 talents. This huge debt would roughly equal 150,000 hours of labor. In other words, the slave is never going to be able to pay it off in his lifetime. It was ludicrous on the king's part to even think that would be possible. Of course the slave can't pay. In response the king ordered him to be sold, along with his entire family -- wife, children, everyone. The slave falls down in front of the king and pleads for mercy. In what appears to be a total contradiction of character, the king grants it. He forgives the debt.
You would think that this slave who has been forgiven such a great debt, who has been shown so much grace and mercy, would immediately want to bestow the same grace and mercy on someone else. That’s not what happens. No sooner than the slave leaves the king’s chambers, he runs into another slave who owes the first slave money. This debt is relatively small. Especially in comparison with what the first slave owed the king. But when the second indebted slave asked for mercy, the one who had been shown so much grace refuses to extend it in return. Instead he has this fellow thrown into prison. The other slaves witnessing this are horrified, and they report it to the king. The king is furious and demands to know why the slave, having been shown mercy, can’t show mercy to someone else. Then he hands the slave over to be tortured until he can pay his debt. Knowing that his debt to the king is insurmountable, this is really a lifetime sentence.
Disturbing parable indeed. However, we have to be careful to read this as parable and not allegory. If we look at it allegorically, then each aspect of the story correlates to God and heaven exactly. I cannot see God as a despot sultan whose first response is to not only condemn the one who owes so much, but also his family. However, saying that does not lessen the parable’s unsettling challenge to the disciples and to us. We are shown great mercy. We have our debts wiped out. Shouldn’t we also show that mercy to others? As we are forgiven, should we not also forgive?
Perhaps you are thinking that this is a prime example of quid pro quo, of keeping score. It’s just about something positive like forgiveness, rather than favors or war. Yet Jesus essentially tells Peter that the number of times he should forgive someone is incalculable. It isn’t about keeping score, it is about being willing to forgive as many times as necessary because the relationship, the community is more important than keeping score. As one commentator put it, Jesus’ response to Peter reveals that forgiveness is not just a nice thing to do, but a “theological necessity” when it comes the community of God.
Forgiveness is a “theological necessity.” That sounds wonderful, but it doesn’t make it any less hard to do. In fact I think forgiveness is one of the hardest things we are called to do. I don’t think there are adequate words to describe how hard forgiveness is. I also know that this text can be used against someone who is caught in an abusive relationship. If we are supposed to forgive without ceasing, does that mean that a woman who is being beaten by her husband should just keep forgiving him in order to maintain relationship? I don’t think Jesus would want this, and I don’t that’s really forgiving. Sometimes the most forgiving, the most loving thing we can do is walk away from a relationship that’s causing that much damage.
But that doesn’t change what Jesus says about forgiveness. We are to forgive and forgive and forgive again. We are to forgive no matter how hard it is, because like love, forgiveness is the foundation of relationship – with God and with one another. We have to stop keeping score, stop doing the math and forgive.
Forgiveness, like love, is also not about feeling or emotion. If I waited to forgive someone until I felt forgiving, then I would never do it. No, I think forgiveness is an intellectual exercise first. You have to decide to forgive. You have to be intentional about forgiving. Perhaps what Jesus is saying is that when it comes to forgiving, you forgive over and over again until your heart catches up.
This past week I discovered a TED talk that featured two mothers. One is a mother who lost her son in the World Trade Center on September 11. The second woman is the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was convicted for his role in carrying out the attacks and is serving a life sentence. These two women met, along with other parents of those who were killed on that terrible day, because Zacarias’ mother wanted to share their grief with them. She didn’t come to justify her son’s actions. But she was a mother who had lost two children as children; and now her surviving son was also lost. She grieved with them, she empathized with them. They grieved with her, they empathized with her. All of them chose forgiveness. Out of that forgiveness, an unlikely but powerful relationship was forged. They stopped keeping score.
I began this sermon with two questions, posed not just to all of you but to myself as well. Who do I need to forgive? Who do I hope will forgive me? When it comes to forgiveness, how am I keeping score? A third question to ask maybe how have I experienced God’s forgiveness and mercy and grace? What debts has God wiped out on my behalf? What grace have I been shown? I suspect that it is more than I could ever repay. But the good news is that God doesn’t keep score. So when it comes to forgiving, let us all forgive and forgive and forgive again until our hearts finally catch up. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.