First United Methodist Church
September 17th, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
The World we Live in: The Church Responds with Foregiveness
Occasionally, when I go grocery shopping, I make a stop in the “Diet Aisle” to see if there are any new products that might be more appetizing than the usual protein bars and drinks. A few weeks ago, a vendor was restocking the shelves, and when she noticed me examining the products, she asked, “May I help you find something?” I grinned as I responded, “I’m looking for the one that tastes most like a Snickers Bar.” We both laughed, but the sad thing about this dialogue is that I wasn’t necessarily joking. Over the past few years I have noticed that in order to reach and maintain my ideal weight, I have to be intentional about eating healthy. The only problem is that I would prefer to achieve this goal by eating fried foods and snickers bars.
Shortcuts. That seems to be the way of the world we live in. People want to succeed but are unwilling to do the work necessary in order to be successful. Students cheat or plagiarize in order to pass classes that they haven’t prepared for. Athletes use performance enhancing drugs to gain an unfair advantage over their competitors. Young people shoplift to get the things they want rather than work, and executives falsify the books in order to cover up gigantic losses or ineffective business practices.
In our gospel today, Jesus reminds us that there are no shortcuts when it comes to the Kingdom of God. When Peter asks, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often shall I forgive? As many as seven times?” And Jesus says to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Seventy-seven times? Other translations say seventy times seven. Either way, that’s a lot of forgiveness. Even Mother Theresa would struggle to keep up with this command. I think the point here is not to place a limit on forgiveness. Keep on forgiving, Jesus councils, even when forgiveness seems illogical. Quite often, forgiveness seems to be a gift that we want bestowed on ourselves rather than a favor that we offer each other.
What we have to remember is Jesus rarely answers our questions with an easy answer. When people approach him asking what seems like a sensible question, Jesus often gives us an answer that not only challenges us, but often seems unattainable. Remember his conversation with the rich young man who wants to know what he has to do to receive eternal life? Jesus wants more than obedience of the commandments. Jesus tells him to sell everything he has and give it to the poor. After hearing Jesus quote the commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself,” another person asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan, his point being that anyone you encounter can be your neighbor. There are no limits.
In today’s gospel, Jesus not only refuses to set a reasonable limit on the number of times we should forgive one another, but also raises the level of the discussion. It’s not just a little bit more than the questioner expected, but a whole different kind of answer. The question was about how we should deal with other people, but Jesus replies by talking about how God deals with us. In other words, if we ask, “What kind of limits can I put on forgiving someone else,” Jesus will ask us what kind of limits God should put on forgiving us.
Jesus used the illustration of a servant who owed the king 10,000 talents to demonstrate the gap between the amount of love God has for us and the amount of love we have for one another. 10,000 talents is a lot of money. If you remember, 1 denarius is the amount of money a day laborer would earn in about a 12 hour day. One talent is equal to 6000 denarii, meaning it would take a working person 6000 days to earn one talent, or about 16 years, provided he or she took no days off for illness, pilgrimages, or draught. Multiply that by 10,000 and you get 160,000 years. As usual, when Jesus uses a parable to explain a concept, he goes to the extreme. His listeners knew that it was absurd for the servant to beg for mercy and tell the king that he would pay everything back. As a day laborer, he had no hope of ever repaying his debt. But the king, realizing this, forgave the servant’s debt and his account was marked “paid in full.”
The story continues, however, and we discover that this servant does not treat his own debtors with this same mercy. He approaches a man who owes him 100 denarii and demands payment. This man also pleads for mercy, but is not granted any. Instead, he is thrown into prison, making it impossible for him to pay back his debt. When the king hears of this, he rescinds his former offer, and tosses the original servant into prison as well.
This parable is about us, except we are to substitute the word, “sin” for “debt.” As sinners, we have committed grave sins against God, like the servant who owed the king a debt of ten thousand talents, which he could never repay by his own strength or ability. Taking pity on us, God forgave our tremendous sins without any conditions. When we compare the value of a hundred denarii with that of ten thousand talents, we begin to realize how tremendous the grace of God given to us is and how small the faults of our brothers and sisters are.
Jesus wants us to forgive the faults of our brothers and sisters with love, just as he has forgiven our sins. The faults of our brothers and sisters are nothing compared to our sins which are just as great as a debt of ten thousand talents. The Bible describes the person who does not forgive his brother’s faults as a wicked servant who mistreated his fellow servant or debtor, even though he himself had been forgiven of his debt. Jesus ends this parable by saying, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
The most important lesson we can learn from this scripture is our own awareness of God’s love for all people. It adds a spiritual dimension to the principle of forgiveness. There’s a story of a woman who disliked a particularly obnoxious neighbor. Every morning, while she was standing at her sink fixing breakfast, she would see him driving off to work. She would remind herself that he was a horrible person, and for the next several minutes she would be in a bad mood. Finally, one morning as she watched him drive away, she felt the familiar feelings of resentment begin to rise, and she whispered, “He is a person for whom Christ died.” That morsel of theological insight was the antidote to her resentment. If Jesus loves others enough to die for them, perhaps we can overlook the faults that we find in others also.
This week, as I read various news articles with this particular scripture in the back of my mind, I started to think that many of these incidents would never have happened if society could learn to live together with this dimension of forgiveness embodied in our lives. Forgiveness is powerful in helping us to overcome the anger within us and tends to resolve issues before they get out of hand. We would see much less domestic violence, and we wouldn’t be reading stories about schools being forced to close because of too much dangerous fighting. Disputes wouldn’t be resolved with rifles or other weapons, and we wouldn’t have to worry about our children being kidnapped by strangers or ex-spouses. There would be no wars and there would be no accidental shootings, because automatic weapons would have no purpose. Disagreements might be resolved in a peaceful and forgiving way. And maybe we could begin to get a handle on substance abuse if people could live in an environment that fostered a happy and meaningful life.
Remember, we are called to live as citizens of heaven, not with special privileges, but with the unique responsibility of spreading God’s love throughout the world. In today’s scripture we are told that that means we are to forgive one another, not once, not twice, but seventy-seven times.
God’s willingness to forgive us is somehow linked to our willingness to forgive others. In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches us to pray with the words, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” I don’t see this as a condition of God’s love, but rather as an outcome. Through Christ and the Holy Spirit, God offers us grace and we are transformed from vessels of sin into vessels of love. Why should we forgive seventy-seven times? Because that is how we love our neighbor. Let us pray…
Loving God, you have equipped us with your loving spirit. Help us to feel within our hearts the love you have for all people. No matter what we have going on in our lives, no matter what we are struggling with, guide us with your mercy and grace. Cleanse our hearts of the anger we feel for one another. Strengthen those who are weak; humble those who are strong. And live within us, so that we might be filled with your compassion. Work in our lives so that we might forgive as we have been forgiven, and accept and love each other as abundantly as we have been accepted and loved by you. Guide us with your Holy Spirit, and empower us to live like our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
As Christ taught us, let us now pray, the Lord’s Prayer:
Invitation to Discipleship:
Peter’s question to Jesus asks about forgiving “a church member who has sinned against me” is not coincidental. Sometimes we forget that even within the church, we are human. Take some time this week to pray for those who have sinned against you, and remember, Christ died for both of you. You are the hands and feet of Jesus – forgive as you have been forgiven. Go in peace.