Pentecost 15 A: Forgiveness & Possibility

Matthew 18:21-35

Dear Partner in Preaching,

I have come to love this passage. The operative words, however, are “have come,” because I didn’t always. And I the reasons I didn’t always love this passage, but now do, are intimately tied together.

My difficulty with the passage has quite simply been that forgiveness can be so exceptionally difficult, and never more so than when it commanded. I don’t mean the occasional moment of warm-hearted forgiveness, overlooking someone’s minor slight when you feel magnanimous; nor do I mean the spontaneous forgiveness you feel when someone is genuinely contrite over some accidental – and again preferably minor – fault. What I mean are those things that are really hurtful; those times when the person seems disinclined to take responsibility, let along apologize; those episodes that continue to wound each time you remember them; those words or deeds that have marked you deeply and painfully and feel like they’ll never go away. Those are things that are so incredibly hard to forgive.

Which is exactly what makes this passage so painfully difficult. Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone, and then offers to do so seven times, an answer that both more than satisfies the law and feels to most of us rather generous. And Jesus then comes back with – and here it varies by translation – seventy-seven, seven times seven, seventy times seven. Quite frankly, I think it hardly matters how you translate it because, no matter how you slice it, it’s a heck of a lot of times to forgive the same person for sinning against you.

And then Jesus tells a parable about forgiveness that, well, only intensifies his response to Peter. The parable turns on the contrast between just how much one person is forgiven and how little that same person is asked to – and refuses to – forgive, and this time the translation – from ancient currency to modern – matters in order to draw out Jesus’ point. So it’s probably a good idea to let your folks know that a talent was about 130 lbs. of silver and would take a laborer about fifteen years to earn. Which means that the servant owed the king about 150,000 years of labor! In other words, he would never, ever be able to pay this debt back. A denarius, by comparison, was worth about a day’s wage, which meant that the second servant owed the first about a hundred days of labor – no small debt. But still…and everyone who hears this parable gets it…how could he possibly not overlook that (relatively) minor debt when he had just been forgiven an impossibly huge one? The parable closes ominously, as the unforgiving servant is handed over for punishment until he pays and Jesus warns that we, too, must forgive others or face the consequences.

All of this contributes to why I have consistently found this parable so hard. Why then, suddenly, do I find myself strangely attracted to this parable?

I’m not totally sure, but I think that amid my despair at every being able to forgive the way the king in the parable forgives, it occurred to me that I don’t have to. That’s not really what Jesus is asking. I’m don’t have to identify with the king in this story, I can identify with the servant with the massive debt who has just been forgiven so, so much. Which means that my first job isn’t to assume or insist that I must forgive incalculable debts, but simply to bask in the unbelievable forgiveness, acceptance, and grace that I have experienced and try, as much as I can, to live out of that. The failure of the first servant isn’t simply that he won’t forgive his comrade, but that he has just experienced an utterly unexpected, completely beyond-his-wildest-dreams, life-changing moment of grace and seems absolutely untouched by it. And for this reason, he lives devoid of any sense of gratitude. His whole life changed…and he didn’t even notice.

As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it occurs to me that Luther’s great insight was simply realizing that righteousness was not God’s expectation but instead God’s gift. It wasn’t his responsibility to be “right with God,” but God’s responsibility to put him right. And once he realized that some of God’s favorite things to do are to forgive those who seem unforgivable, love those who feel unlovable, and make right those things that seem so persistently in the wrong, Luther was not only freed from his fear of punishment, but also freed to love and forgive and care for those around him. So also, I think, with forgiveness – when we realize that forgiveness is not primarily God’s expectation but rather God’s gift, we sink into that mercy and grace and find ourselves more able to turn in mercy and grace toward others.

Some days this insight alone is enough to redeem this parable for me. But, truthfully, on others it’s not, as I still wonder if there isn’t some hidden obligation to forgive or even to accept God’s forgiveness sufficiently. In those moments, I return to the act of the king and simply marvel that such forgiveness is even possible. Even when such forgiveness doesn’t seem possible for me – because, yes, forgiveness can still be hard – then I am still comforted by the fact that it’s possible for God. Let me say that again: Forgiveness is a possibility. Whether I realize it or not, my struggle to forgive, my inability to live in grace, is not the only possibility and, further, my inability does not have the last word. Which creates a new possibility. Indeed, forgiveness – whether God’s or ours – interrupts the relentless cause-and-effect (and eventually eye-for-an-eye) rhythm of the world. To put it most succinctly: the very possibility of forgiveness – again, whether God’s or ours – in turn creates sheer possibility: things do not always have to be the way they are. And I find that not only comforting, but uplifting and empowering.

So perhaps the task this week, Dear Partner, is simply to announce the king’s forgiveness, the unbelievable, nearly inconceivable, amazing and unpredictable and possibility-creating forgiveness of God which each of us has been granted…and then simply see where the chips fall. Can we talk about how forgiveness frees us, even heals us? Sure. Can we invite others both to recognize where they’ve been forgiven and consider where they might forgive others? Possibly. But maybe before and beyond and after any of that, we just keep coming back to the incredible and oh-so-easy to overlook fact of God’s sheer forgiveness and the possibilities that forgiveness creates. And perhaps simply by focusing on and announcing that, all the other things we hope for will come to life in joyful response.

Blessings on your preaching, Dear Partner. In a world that seems to have a very hard time forgiving and is in desperate need for a word of grace and possibility, your sermon will be like water on parched ground. Thank you. Even more, thank God for you.

Yours in Christ,