Tuesday, September 16, 2008

How many times must I forgive?

     Poor Peter. Just when he finally sort of thinks he "gets it," he still misses it. Matthew's teaching this week begins with Peter asking Jesus how many times he must forgive his brother (apparently even apostolic siblings did not get along well all the time). "As many as seven times?" Understand that Peter is starting to understand Jesus' teachings a little bit. The rabbis required that one forgive a brother three times. If a brother had been forgiven three times and still sinned, he was allowed to be treated as a Gentile. Peter no doubt thought that by doubling that number and adding one, the Master would be impressed that he was finally learning. Poor Peter, like us, is a slow learner. Jesus responds with a bit of a vague idiom. Literally, the Greek could be translated 77 times, but it could also be translated as 70 times 7 times. Jesus' answer is better translated as "lots and lots of times, Peter." Ugh.
     The Gospel ethic can be such a difficult way of life sometimes, and forgiving can sometimes seem like a cross of enormous weight. Who wants to keep forgiving? Jesus, though, recognizes that temptation not to forgive in all our hearts and relates the parable of the king and the debtors. The amount owed by the first slave is enormous. It would be like one of us today being responsible for the national debt, so huge is the number. And, against all expectation, the king forgives the slave when the slave begs for mercy. Understand, a Gentile king would have been within his rights to sell the man, his wife, his family, and all his possessions to pay down a bit on the debt. The kings offer of mercy would have shocked Jesus' apostles. Yet Jesus' story does not end there.
     Jesus goes on to show the first slave in the role of the king. When the first slave comes upon the second slave, he demands payment for a relatively small debt. Understand a 100 denarii would have been the equivalent of more than three months labor; when compared against the 10,000 talents, however, it pales by comparison. How does the slave react? He reacts as one would expect had he not first received the king's mercy. He throws the slave in jail until the debt is paid. Coming on the heals of the king's offer, however, we would tend to argue that the man reacts ungraciously. He has been given a wonderful gift. Why can he not return the same gift to another? Why cannot he not, as society would say, pay it forward?
     The problem with the parable, of course, is the fact that we have to think about its message. Where do I fit in in the story? The uncomfortable truth is that you and I are often the wicked slave. For far too long we tend to think of our need for grace as some sort of scale or ledger book. Our sins go in one column or on one side, while our good works go on another. Our fervent desire is to balance both sides. As a consequence, we sometimes find ourselves bargaining with God. "Lord, if you will (fill in the blank), I promise I will go to church." "Lord, if you will help me (fill in the blank), I promise I will serve the hungry at Community Meal or Angel Food." "Lord if you will not make me face the consequences of (fill in the blank), I promise I will give more money to the church." Over and over we offer God these bargains, as if we can somehow "pay down our debt." The truth is, of course, our debt to Him is like the 10,000 talents in our story or the national debt. We have no hope of paying it off, let alone making a significant dent in the amounts owed.
     Thankfully and mercifully, He is like the king in Jesus' parable. Against all expectation He has granted us an opportunity for pardon. If we will accept the sacrifice of His Son and pledge ourselves to Him, He will forgive us our sins. That unbelievable debt is immediately wiped clean; but we become His sons and daughters, we become His nation of priests to the world. The behavior He expects of us, however, is that behavior He first demonstrated to us. We cannot claim to follow a merciful and forgiving God if we cannot bring ourselves to show that same mercy and forgiveness in our own lives. Matthew, we might say, is claiming that God has no room for cheap grace. His grace is costly. It cost Him His Son. And it costs us our own lives and our own rights.
     So often we have opportunities to incarnate forgiveness and mercy to burdened and guilty world. Family members may well wrong us; bullies may pick on us and steal our lunch money; co-workers may well use us as rungs on the corporate ladder; our friends may say something that hurts our feelings -- how we respond may well be the best sermon those most in need of mercy and forgiveness ever receive. How you and I respond to the injury of us may be the faintest glimmer of the mercy which they are seeking in their own lives. Yes, we may have every right to feel wronged. Yes, we may have all kinds of penalties that we want rightly to enforce. Yet Jesus is calling us to an ethic of the cross. Just as He died that God would forgive us our sins against Him, He died that we would not have to seek punishment for sins against us. Jesus has truly born the cost of all the sins in the world, and our responses to sins against us will teach others whether we truly believe.
     Jesus' command here is not just a good ethic; it is of amazing importance to each of us for it has eternal consequences for each of us. When we act like the wicked slave and refuse to grant forgiveness in our own lives, we are subject to God's punishment. "So my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart." If we cannot forgive others in our lives, how can we expect Him to forgive us? Jesus' teaching about forgiveness, which began twelve chapters earlier with the words "forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us" is brought into clarity by this question first posed by Peter. "Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother" Jesus answer is as many times as your Lord has forgiven you for your sins against Him. Such a number may be incalculable, but then again, so was our debt to Him.

No comments: