15th Sunday after Pentecost

September 13, 2020

Summary

[Jesus said] 15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he
listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with
you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen
to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and
a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever
you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about
anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in
my name, there am I among them.”

21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?

As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.

23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his
servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And
since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and
payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will
pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the
debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred
denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell
down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him
in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were
greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master
summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with
me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger
his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do
to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:15-35 ESV)

In the song ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’ from the musical ‘Hamilton’ there are two lines near the end where the
whole company but not Hamilton and Eliza sing, “Forgiveness. Can you imagine? Forgiveness. Can you
imagine?”. If you know the story, you’ll know what it’s all about and if you don’t, well that’s something to
discover – but why would the world sing such words – “Forgiveness. Can you imagine?”? No. I’m not sure
we can.

In Les Misérables, Valjean steals from the Bishop but is picked up by the constabulary and brought back to
the Bishop to verify Valjean’s claim that the Bishop had given the stolen items as a gift. The Bishop says
exactly that and gives further items to Valjean telling the constables that Valjean had left these gifts behind.
Valjean is free to make a new start because of the Bishop’s forgiveness and grace and in the musical sings
quietly to Valjean,
“But remember this, my brother,
See in this some higher plan,
You must use this precious silver,
To become an honest man.
By the witness of the martyrs,
By the Passion and the Blood,
God has raised you out of darkness,
I have bought your soul for God!”
I imagine everyone has wondered whether they would have acted as the Bishop did had someone stolen from
them.

If you google ‘the value of forgiveness’ you will get over 62 million hits and the top one on the day I did it
(10/9/20) said the following, “Forgiveness can even lead to feelings of understanding, empathy and
compassion for the one who hurt you. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting or excusing the harm done to you
or making up with the person who caused the harm. Forgiveness brings a kind of peace that helps you go on
with life.” (From the Mayo Clinic.) A lot of the talk I hear today about forgiveness falls into or colludes with
positive psychology – that it is good for the forgiver to forgive – and I hear it often as this is the main reason
for forgiveness that it is good for the person wronged.

The problem with this view is that strictly it is unneeded. If you are broken, betrayed, hurt, abused, made to
feel pain and suffering, have had your possessions taken or ruined, your reputation smeared then you have
always had access to laws, to vengeance, to revenge, to whatever it takes to get justice and that usually
involves compensation. That perpetrators face consequences for their actions is a key component for us not
descending into anarchy and chaos. You might at least get something back for your loss. Why would you
choose forgiveness when it means that you accept the loss yourself?

It doesn’t take you long to live in the world to realise that the justice and compensation system we use for
making good a loss, repairing broken relationships, mending life so that we can continue isn’t perfect by a
long shot but it is the best we’ve got to go on, to limp on, to continue on when things go wrong. When justice
works we move on, when it is partial we grumble and probably still move on, and if it doesn’t work then we
take matters into our own hands. It is noticeable that God banishes Cain and doesn’t kill him in Genesis 4 but
by the end of the chapter Lamech says that he killed a man for only striking and wounding him and if the
man’s relatives come after Lamech then the revenge of Lamech’s side will not be seven times as God told
Cain but seventy-seven times! This is what happens when the justice system limps along. That is why laws
are always being rewritten, made, found to be obsolete because while people are people how we live changes
with our philosophies, our technology, and our attitudes. Laws and justice are the best the world has to
regulate ourselves but they are never perfect.

So if you bypass justice and take the law into your own hands that is one thing you can do.

Another thing you can do if you bypass justice is not to take the law into your hands but instead take the
person who has wronged you into your hands – not to strangle them – but to be merciful to them. And mercy
in this context is seen in forgiveness. You wipe the slate clean – which means you clean up someone’s mess.
You cancel the debt which means you pay the debt. You refuse to go eye for an eye or tooth for a tooth
which means you bear the pain.

And when you forgive you tend to find that it is both an act – a singular thing – a moment, action, word,
decision made akin to a court of law rendering a verdict or a couple exchanging wedding vows in that the
words create something new but at the same we also know that forgiveness is a process that can go for a very
long time where people seek strength to forgive or support to maintain the behaviour that forgiveness expects
but it can be so hard! Forgiveness is not a light matter, not an easy matter (unless the sin is of little
consequence to us), and I think, critical to remember, that it can be tough going to forgive which is one
reason Jesus taught his followers to pray for it each day – that receiving God’s forgiveness we, in turn,
forgive others – and the goal, hardest of all is the perpetrator’s wellbeing, yes, that person’s wellbeing who
has just so hurt, humiliated, or harmed us!

And I think that is why today’s Gospel from Matthew where Jesus is teaching how his disciples how his
followers should behave towards each other is so well known. Jesus talks about how his people deal with
each other when relationships are tense or broken, when there is sin between them, and he doesn’t opt for the
world’s justice system at all but calls for quiet forgiveness. The goal in the process of going quietly, taking
two or three, and finally talking to more is not to name and shame but to seek to draw people back to Jesus
and back to the community. It is interesting that quite a few of the earliest New Testament manuscripts do
not have the little words ‘against you’ in the ‘sins against you’ and seems to be referring to sin more
generally and which is hurting the sinner even if denied and others. Many manuscripts do have ‘against you’
perhaps because it is too easy for people to become judgemental, critical, and forever looking for other’s
faults. But the point remains that rather than getting your pound of flesh when you are wronged in the
Church, Jesus calls his people to be as close to God as possible by forgiving those who have sinned against
you because it is the best for them.

Peter can immediately see a problem here – and so can we all – that if the onus is on us to forgive then there
is no reason for the perpetrator to change their behaviour. “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me,
and I forgive him? As many as seven times? Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but
seventy-seven times.”

The story Jesus then tells makes it clear that people were seeking forgiveness in both cases and the issue is
really ‘Is there ever a cut off point when someone comes to you and seeks forgiveness?’. Jewish thinking of
the time suggested three times would be the limit, after that the perpetrator is taking the mik! If they haven’t
stopped their bad behaviour towards you by then then they are not trying. We all think like that. But Jesus
reverses Lamech’s declaration and in effect says, ‘No’ – keeping working on relationships, reconcile and
restore them as the penitent seeks reconciliation. Where the perpetrator doesn’t seek reconciliation then you
are back to the ‘going quietly to them’ but once the sin is acknowledged no matter how hard it has been for
us, Jesus is pointing to reconciliation through mercy rather than through compensation.

And if this is the seventh year of struggles with someone’s bad behaviour, we all can understand someone
saying “I can’t do this for another 77!”. And they’re right, we can’t. We do not have enough grace and mercy
to forgive like that but God does and he isn’t stingy with his forgiveness – it is meant to be shared – think
about Baptism, Holy Communion, and how the Bible best impacts us – does its work on us – when we are
forgiven and refreshed for another day, washed, fed, absolved. That’s what Jesus is giving to his people who
live in bodies of fear and sin and in a world of fear and sin. Jesus’ story to Peter also gives us a perspective
that is not centred on us – an outside perspective – not to minimise the sin and pain you may suffer at
someone’s hands but to point out that God’s forgiveness covers all of our behaviour and not just parts of it.

Why do we listen and struggle with yet another ‘hard saying’ of Jesus?

Because we all – deep down – crave to be forgiven. When we have wronged someone and the depth of our
behaviour hits home, we would like nothing more than to take our sin away, erase the behaviour, we are even
prepared to – we want to – do something to make amends – but even that we know doesn’t take away our
deed or its effects – and sometimes we can’t make amends even though we want to. If only the sin and the
consequence and the guilt could vanish! Justice goes some way towards this but it is imperfect and we really
can’t expect the person we’ve hurt to absorb it and not count it against us – but oh we so hope for it.
And then how sweet and precious is it when we are forgiven, restored, reconciled, when there is a new
beginning and no snide remarks for the future, no consequences per se – though when this forgiveness like
this happens we want to do something! – and we do do something – amend our behaviour, struggle with our
behaviour – but it is miraculous, something we don’t deserve – and that’s the point, no one ever deserves
forgiveness. It is always a gift.

And Jesus reminds his followers that this gift never ends and it offers life and living that is different because
the sinner is the one in view and the one we want restored.

Bible References

  • Matthew 18:15 - 35
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