Sermon preached on September 17
Rev. Todd Weir
Scripture: Matthew 18:21-35
In theory, we think forgiveness is one of the Best. Spiritual. Ideas. Ever. In practice, we have our reservations. Second chances are something we all hope to get. I have gone through divorce and remarriage, so my happiness is dependent on a second chance. Second chances, even third, are built into the national pastime-baseball. Imagine baseball if you were out after one strike. The pitcher throws a fastball. “Strike one, you’re out!” Next batter, and the pitcher tries his slider. “Swing and a miss. You’re out.” What will the pitcher throw now? Here it comes and the batter makes contact and the ball rockets to right field and it drifts foul. You know what a foul ball is? It’s a strike, and that is it for the inning. Baseball would be more boring than bowling, golf and NASCAR combined. It would be like the Home Shopping Network of sports, just one long commercial between innings, while you eat fatty hot dogs and drink watered down beer at premium prices. Baseball only works, and just barely, because there are three strikes and three outs, and this happens nine times. Each team gets at least 27 chances to do something good. The superstar players are mildly successful about one-third of the time. And people love this game. I can’t imagine why, except for the fact that baseball is what we hope life is like-there are many chances to learn from our mistakes while we try to get it right.
Pitchers might have a different take baseball. One strike would be great for them. They would be the gods standing on their mound, sentencing Prometheus and Sisyphus to futility. Occasionally, there would be an Achilles or an Odysseus who would become a legendary hero by striking a ball and knocking it a mere 500 feet, but they would own Olympus. Your view on second chances may depend on whether you are a batter or pitcher. At least in the National League of baseball you must, be both.
My point is we sometimes do the same with forgiveness. How you feel about it depends on which side you are on. Are you receiving it or giving it? Honestly, aren’t there times when forgiveness seems like a really bad idea? Baseball would be equally bad if there were unlimited strikes allowed. At some point, you are done and the chances run out, right?! But why is three the right number? Why not only 2, why not four? Who gets to decide these things? It seems for morally arbitrary.
Our Gospel lesson opens with Peter’s question about how many times you should forgive a person. Is there a moment when forgiveness becomes absurd because someone keeps on hurting us? Most of us have someone in our lives who is very difficult to forgive. They don’t get it. They know where all our buttons are and they just keep on pressing them. We try to be Christian and pray the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts and we forgive our debtors.” After several times of forgiveness, we feel like a doormat where someone wipes their feet; and we pray, “God, I have tried to forgive, but I have reached my limit.” Peter reflects on this, and to show his magnanimous spirit, he says, “Should we forgive even up to seven times?” Seven times seems like quite a bit. In the Jewish mind, the number 7 represents completion and finality of divine action. Throughout the Bible we find seven days of creation, seven plagues of Egypt, seven signs of the apocalypse in the Book of Revelation, and so on. Surely this would be more than enough. I have the right answer now Jesus, its seven!
Jesus answers with a word play on “seven” saying we should forgive 70 times 7. If I was a biblical literalist, would this mean that we should keep track and forgive someone 490 times? Is there an IPhone app for that? (Didn’t return my phone call, that’s #413, only 77 more times to go!)
Or is Jesus using a large, exaggerated number to say, throw away the calculator and live a lifestyle of grace and forgiveness, that seeks reconciliation instead of revenge?
I imagine the disciples responded much like I would, being absolutely dumbfounded at such a notion of how far we must go. Jesus then tells a parable to make his point:
To paraphrase a bit, Wells Fargo Bank goes bankrupt in the mortgage crisis, owing billions of dollars to creditors and its employees, creating economic chaos. That is how much money the servant owed in Jesus’s parable. (A talent is about 130 pounds, price of gold is $1320 per ounce, so each talent is about $2.7 million, so 1000 talents is $2.7 billion.) In an unprecedented move, the top executives asked for time, promising to pay everyone back every dollar they owed, even it meant selling several of their Florida condos, so the Federal Judge agreed to extend them mercy. Then the executives went out and began to shake down every person they could find for money, hiding their assets offshore and filing lawsuits against even the smallest creditor. The Judge hears this, charges them with contempt of court, and throws them all into a Federal maximum security prison, along with their wives, ex-wives and children.
That may sound like a story with a happy ending, but that is not the point. Jesus is saying that all of us have experienced God’s forgiveness for some sin. None of us are totally righteous and need God’s grace to be free from our mistakes. If we are to experience God’s forgiveness and then turn around and be unforgiving to those who sin against us, we fall short of the call to discipleship. Jesus is reminding Peter of the source of forgiveness. Our own good intentions are not the source, but rather the powerful grace of God towards us and all people is the source.
The struggle is to live this out in the real world. Here is the big question. Does forgiveness remove all accountability? Are we to always release people, acting like the priest in Les Miserable, who hands the thief Javier the candlesticks and forgives him?
Our congregation had a real-life situation. Six years ago, a church administrator embezzled $15,000 stealing numerous small donations that came through the office, even cashing checks made out to the church. It was enough for 52 separate felony counts. What does forgiveness mean in this circumstance? Does our belief in God’s grace and the Lord’s Prayer require us to forgive the debt and tell her not to do it again? But what if she goes out, gets another job and does it again? What about justice? (Lots of research shows that most of us are dishonest about money and will steal small things if we can get away with it. The possibility of discovery and consequences keeps us honest.) Is it possible to have justice and forgiveness?
Forgiveness is not one size fits all, even in the Bible. In the Prodigal Son, the Father goes out and hugs the son, even before his apology. This is where the concept of restorative justice is important. In restorative justice, the victim and offender mediate and agreement to make amends, and there is an attempt to restore someone who has done harm to the community, rather than focusing on punishment.
In the embezzlement case, we decided to report the theft to the police. After the investigation charges were filed and court hearing was set. Many members wrote letters to the judge, many stating that while there should be accountability, we did not want the administrator to go to prison. This would hurt her family, take years of her life, and diminish the possibility of second chance after incarceration. In the end, the judge created a plea deal that the administrator would have to do full restoration over a three-year period, and would be on probation until completion, at which point there would be no felony record to impede employment. If the administrator failed to do this, then they would have the full prison sentence. The judge made it clear that he would have had a tougher deal, but the church letters lead him to greater leniency. It is now five years later and everyone has had the chance to move on.
What would the world look like without forgiveness? Jesus’s parable paints a picture-it would be like one big jail, imprisoning us inescapably in our mistakes. What does the world look like when we do forgive? It is not a paradise. A world with forgiveness is still risky, still full of consequences for sin and mistakes. We struggle to figure out how to restore broken relationships. We need time to think and heal, boundaries for those who do not wish responsibility or reconciliation, and a ton of courage. I want a world with second chances, and I pray for the strength to do my part-and forgive.