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Pentecost 15 September 17, 2017 - The Rev. Janet Campbell
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PENTECOST 15  Proper 19  Year A 
Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:1-2,8-24; Romans 14:1-12;
Matthew 18:21-35
 
Christ Episcopal Church
Tacoma, Washington
Sunday, September 17, 2017
The Rev. Janet Campbell
 
 
 
I found myself wondering, this week,
how many times
I’ve needed and received
God’s forgiveness
          in my nearly 73 years?
 
Seven times?
          (on an especially good day perhaps)
 
Seventy-seven times?
 
Seven times seventy-seven times?
 
In-numerable times –
          No doubt about it.
 

Such a wealth of compassion and mercy,
such a magnitude of grace . . .
 
poured out for me
whether I knew it or not –
 
even before I had come,
          as a middle-aged adult,
                   to be aware of God
                             and to ask for it.
 
Such a magnitude of grace
poured out for every one of us . . .
grace just waiting to be
          recognized,
          embraced,
                   acted upon.
 
 
“How often shall I forgive
another member of the church?”
asked Peter.
“As many as seven times?”
 
“No,” said Jesus,
“seventy-seven times,”
(meaning don’t even bother to count).
 

Members of the community
of Jesus-followers
must not be a people
          who add up their acts of forgiveness,
                   keep a scorecard,
 
but people who are
          in their very being
                   becoming forgiveness,
 
becoming like Jesus
          in whom all the fullness of God
                   was pleased to dwell,
          and who was forgiveness  
                   in his very being,
                            
 
The parable that follows
does not involve unlimited forgiveness,
 
but illustrates how forgiveness
and failure to forgive
operate in the life of the individual
          and the community.
 

Jesus uses the situation
of indebtedness
          and the economic and power inequalities
          that were the harsh reality
                   for most people
                             in Roman-occupied Palestine . . .
 
where the Roman IRS
didn’t send out reminder scrolls
          about taxes not rendered unto Caesar,
but collectors,
          who showed up at your door
          and would break your kneecaps
                    if you refused to pay up.
 
The burden of debt and its repayment
was the perfect context
for a teaching on forgiveness.
 
Jesus draws his listeners
into the parable
by proposing a situation
          absurd to begin with.
 

 The first slave’s debt of 10,000 talents,
          the talent being the largest unit of currency
                    in Roman Palestine.
 
          10,000 talents would have been more
                    than the total currency in circulation.
         
          The debt therefore is impossible,
          not just for a slave
                   but for anyone
                             to have incurred.
                            
          And any talk of repayment is patently absurd.
 
 
The parable builds from
          one absurdity to the next:
 
The King’s solution is absurd:
 
          Sell the debtor, his family,
          and all his possessions
                    so payment can be made.
 
          That wouldn’t net
                    even a penny on the dollar.
 
 

The frightened servant’s plea is absurd:
          He will repay everything
                   if only the King will be patient,
                             give him time . . .
         
          With the size of that debt,
                    the King could wait a million years . . .
         
 
Then the ultimate absurdity:
          the King takes pity on the desperate slave
          and relieves him of the entire debt!
 
          Forgives him seventy-seven times
                   and more.
 
 
Jesus’ listeners must have been astounded.
 
A king, who had all power,
           forgiving the debt
                    of one who had none.
 
Surely such a thing
          had never happened
                   in the history of the world!
 
If only anyone to whom
          they were in debt
                   would show such mercy!
         
 

The parable suddenly turns
when the newly debt-free slave
mercilessly attacks
          a fellow slave
          who owes him money . . .
          who begs only for the same patience
                   from his creditor
                             that the forgiven slave
                                      himself had asked for from the King.
 
The debt now in question
– 100 denarii –
is a tiny amount compared to 10,000 talents,
but significant for a laborer,
          about a hundred days’ wages.
 
But, given time,
          it could be repaid.
 
But there will be no patience for the fellow slave.
He is thrown into prison
          where he will languish
                   until he can pay the debt.
 
          (Catch-22:
          He will never be able
                   to pay it off
                   while in prison.)
 
 

Perhaps Jesus’ listeners had expected
the parable to show
the forgiven slave imitating
          the kindness of his King.
 
Well, they were wrong.
 
In him, the King’s kindness
          comes to a sudden dead end.
 
It works no change in him,
bears no fruit of forgiveness
          for others.
 
 
When the king hears of it,
the consequence is swift
and brutal:
 
the unforgiving slave
will be given over to torture
          until he can pay every penny . . .
 
         
          (Catch-22:
          As we have already seen,
          the amount of the debt is impossible,
          it could never be repaid if possible,
          the torture therefore would never end . . .)
         
 

Jesus warns his disciples,
Matthew warns his community,
we are also warned:
 
“So my heavenly Father
will do to every one of you,
of you do not forgive your
brother or sister from your heart.”
 
The warning is so dire
because the point is so central
to discipleship:
 
God is not vindictive or vengeful,
but God will hold us to account
for ourselves.   
 
Failure to forgive
          as one as been forgiven
will have consequences . . .
 
because the dynamic of forgiveness
is such
that a heart that refuses to forgive
          when forgiveness is sought,
          when forgiveness is sought,
becomes hardened
          to forgiveness offered.
 
It cannot be open to receiving forgiveness
while being closed to offering forgiveness.
         

The unforgiving one then
suffers the pain
of a sealed-off heart,
of self-alienation
from the God who is
forgiveness seventy-seven times seventy-seven,
         
and from the community
called by God
to be a reconciling people.
 
 
This parable of Jesus
appears only in Matthew’s gospel.
 
Its inclusion reflects Matthew’s concern
for the quality of life
          in his community of faith.
 
A concern that is no less
crucial for our own community of faith.
 

As followers of Jesus
we live and move and have our being
          in the mercy and forgiveness of God
                   revealed in the life, death,
                             and resurrection of Jesus:
 
When offended by another,
we are to practice that mercy and forgiveness,
          putting aside
                   personal preferences,
                    imagined or actual differences,
                   the resentment that clings so closely,
                    the satisfaction of the lovingly-tended grudge,
                   our tendency to play the role of judge,
                   the desire for a pound of flesh,
                  
          putting aside all for the sake
                   of the unity
                   to which we are called in Christ.
 
We are to practice
          until we become forgiveness,
          for it is by mutual forgiveness
                   that the community is knit together
          in bonds of love
                    that will never be broken.
 
 

We are to practice forgiveness
          because that is what we should do . . .
 
          until it becomes
                    what we are willing to do . . .
 
          until it becomes
                    what we are glad to do
                             simply because
                             in the very deepest places
                                      of our being
                                                that is who we are.
 
Is this hard?
Yes.
 
Will we always be successful?
 
No.
 
Will we still need to be forgiven
and to forgive each other?
 
Yes.
 
Seventy-seven times.
 

It’s important to be clear
that the practice of forgiveness
does not require us
to endure a relationship
          that is damaging to our well-being
                   or that of our community,
does not require us
          to bow to behavior
                    that is unkind, divisive, hurtful, abusive.
 
But the practice of forgiveness
          requires us to remain open:
open to the possibility of reconciliation
          in the future,
open to the possibility of restoration
          of even the most broken
                   of relationships,
for with God nothing is impossible,
and who can know
          what God’s grace may
                   even now be working?
 

As we dwell in God’s mercy and forgiveness,
as we receive the mercy and forgiveness of others,
as we offer forgiveness to our sisters and brothers,
we will be transformed,
growing more and more
          into the full stature of Christ,
as individuals,
as Christ’s Body the Church.
 
For we live no longer for ourselves alone,
but for Christ and one another
and the world we are called to serve,
 
as messengers of reconciliation
sent by God into
a divided and desperately wounded
          nation and world.
 
Is this hard?
 
Yes.
 
Can we do it?
 
Yes . . .
with God’s help.