Sermon for Sunday, September 14, 2014 || Proper 19A || Matthew 18:21-35
Imagine with me the Apostle Peter in prison in Rome near the end of his life. He is talking to his cellmate, a new convert to the Way of Jesus Christ.
I’ve been thinking about what you said last night – about getting arrested at your first ever gathering of Jesus’ followers, about wishing you had had the chance to talk to your mother before being thrown in this cell with me, about feeling guilty for having lied to her as to where you were going. You seek forgiveness, and you’re not sure you’ll ever have the chance to ask for it. For both your sakes, I hope you do. Son, there’s nothing as precious as forgiveness for making a life worthwhile. I wish I had understood that when I was your age.
I understood so little back in the days when Jesus was with us. I was headstrong and curious, but I was curious about the wrong things. If I had known then what I know now, I would have asked different questions. Instead of asking Jesus about quantities and statistics, I would have asked about values and purpose. I remember this one time, I asked about forgiveness. Well, not about the practice of forgiveness, but about how often I was obligated to forgive my brother or sister. And knowing Jesus to be the generous sort, I shot high. Seven times seemed a bit excessive, but still reasonable. Seven is, after all, a number that, in my culture, evokes completion.
For once Jesus answered the question I asked rather than the one he wished I had asked. And yet, as he always did, he answered it in his own unique, unexpected, and unrelentingly gracious way. I remember him raising his eyebrows and tilting his head to one side. It was his, “Seriously, Peter?” look. Bartholomew used to do a spot on impression of it. “Not seven times,” Jesus said. “Try seventy-seven times.” Now, he could apparently see me doing math in my head, so before I finished my multiplication table, he made his outrageous hyperbole clear.
He told a story about a slave who didn’t understand forgiveness, and this slave owed his master 10,000 talents. You don’t use talents where you’re from? Let’s see: 10,000 talents is equal to…about 150,000 years worth of wages.* You see what I mean about Jesus’ hyperbole. This slave had a debt that neither he, nor the next hundred generations of his family could ever hope to pay off. You wonder how he ever accumulated that much debt, but Jesus never went into that part of the story.
But his master forgives it all. Just waves his hand, and the slave is forgiven. If it were me, I think I’d about float away with such a weight lifted off my chest. But this fellow doesn’t float. No, he sinks. He goes out and demands the 100 denarii another slave owes him. That’s only about three months wages – a laughably tiny amount compared to his own forgiven debt. Makes you wonder about the nerve of some people or their lack of compassion or just plain lack of decency. But don’t be too quick to count yourself out of such a group. I’m in it. We’re all in it some of the time.
This story has stuck with me all these years. It reminds me of the prayer Jesus taught us. You might have said it at the gathering before you were arrested. Do you know the line I’m thinking of? “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Now what’s the line right before it? “Give us this day our daily bread.”
I prayed Jesus’ prayer for years before I ever saw a connection between these two phrases. I always said them in isolation. I prayed for my daily sustenance. Then I prayed for the capacity to offer and receive forgiveness. It must have been fifteen or more years after Jesus sent his Holy Spirit to guide us when the two lines finally joined for me. There was a big council of the various groups that had sprung up around Jesus. People came from all over. Paul was there – you may have heard of him. I don’t want to bore you with the issues we discussed, but suffice to say tempers got heated. There were arguments, rancor, vitriol spat back and forth. I gave as good as I got, I’m sorry to say. I left the council with the taste of bile in my mouth. And for days and days after, that’s all I could taste. Any food I tried to eat made me so nauseated. I didn’t eat for a long time. I started wasting away.
During those days of unintentional fasting, I continued praying Jesus’ prayer. I had my daily bread, but I couldn’t stomach it. I had been forgiven by our Father in heaven – to the tune of those 10,000 talents in the story. But I had not practiced forgiveness myself. I had not let it flow from my heart, as Jesus taught. Instead, I had relished the anger I had for my opponents at the council. For those first days, the bile I tasted was like a war wound proudly worn.
But as food continued to turn to ash in my mouth, I realized that my stubborn refusal to forgive was the cause. When the desire to forgive finally returned, so did my appetite. And the return of my daily bread gave me the strength to ask for forgiveness from my opponents and grant it, too. From then on, the two lines of Jesus’ prayer have gone together: “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those you trespass against us.”
You see, my young friend, forgiveness is not just something we do occasionally. Like our daily bread sustaining us each and every day, forgiveness is a posture that we can employ all the time, an attitude that leads to open, trusting, caring, and fulfilling relationships. Forgiveness is an act of grace, a gift given or received whether or not it is deserved.
That’s why Jesus told me to forgive 77 times. He didn’t mean exactly 77. He didn’t mean for us to take out our accounting ledgers. No. Just look at the number. Two sevens. Two instances of completion. A beginning and an end. A life made complete by the grace-filled act of forgiveness.
So if you ever get out of this cell, my son, I hope you reunite with your mother in order to ask for her forgiveness. But don’t stop with just that one instance. Make your life one in which you never grow accustomed to the angry taste of bile in your mouth. As your daily bread sustains you, remember that offering and receiving forgiveness are parts of your sustenance, as well. And through them you partner with God in nourishing this hollow and starving world. We all have a tendency to sink in the mire, like the wicked slave in the story. But God has already forgiven our 10,000 talent debts. In response, make such outrageous and extravagant forgiveness one of purposes of your life. And instead of sinking, you will float on the wind of grace.