Lectionary Year and Proper: The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24, Year A

Matthew 18:21-35

In today’s gospel lesson we hear what I experience as the most challenging of Jesus’ teachings: the admonition to forgive.  Not only to forgive just one transgression, but to forgive them all.  There may be a few of you who disagree with me thinking surely the most difficult teaching would be to love your enemies.  That would be fair.  Loving someone who wishes you harm and forgiving someone who has harmed you, especially harm that is irreversible, certainly burn with similar intensity.  We could agree that they are akin to one another, with varying degrees of intention and action being contrasting pieces of the puzzle.  Regardless of this quagmire, Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question ‘how often should I forgive,’ is that forgiveness is never discretionary.  Rather, forgiveness is Divine directive.

Jesus illustrates his point with a parable in which a king wishes to settle his accounts.  One of his servants who owes him ten thousand talents is unable to repay.  Begging the King for patience he promises that given some time, he will be able to pay in full.  Surprisingly, the king has pity and not only reneges on his order to sell the servant and his family, but pronounces his debts forgiven.  Completely.  I admit I do not know much about ancient currency, but ten thousand of anything sounds like no small amount.  I imagine it would be like having your mortgage forgiven when still owing over half with interest.  What would your reaction be if this happened to you?  I know that I would be incredibly thankful and filled with a sense of awe at the grace shown to me.

As Jesus continues the parable, we observe that the behavior of the servant does not reflect the gratitude of one who has just had his debt forgiven.  The servant confronts one of his peers who owes him but a small fraction of the debt he owed the king.  The same plea for patience with a promise of full payment by his peer is met with indifference as he demands that he be thrown into prison until he can pay his full debt.  Distressed, other servants who work with the men go to the king and advocate for their fellow who is imprisoned.  The king summons the servant in whom he had forgiven the great debt and orders him to be tortured until he is able to repay the original debt owed.  As Jesus brings the parable to a close, the metaphors are exposed:  the king being the one whom Jesus calls Father, the debt being equated with a transgression committed against another, and the servants revealed as his disciples, who through their association with Jesus, are subjects in his Father’s kingdom.

So, what does this parable tell us, who are disciples of Jesus in the modern age?  First, I would say that it reveals to us the nature of God.  Like the king in Jesus’ parable, the essence of God is not vengeance, but rather justice.  When we think of justice, we are tempted to think in terms of retribution for a crime committed.  However, justice is more comprehensive in that it also involves restoration.  I think the king knew that the servant could never repay a debt as large as the one accrued.  Having compassion (a word that literally means ‘to suffer with’), he acts in a way that seeks to restore his servant’s balance to zero, giving him a clean slate in which to do better with his accounting.  The climax to the parable tells us that God desires us to do the same.  We are created in the image of God, with the capacity to reflect the same love, compassion, and mercy which are God’s essence.  When you think of someone who has wounded you, not just superficially, but a deep wounding that alters the course of your life, what would it look like to forgive that person completely?

Just a little over five years ago, white supremacist Dylan Roof walked into Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston, SC and gunned down a small gathering of people gathered for a bible study, killing nine.  The atrocity was a blatant example of hate and the total disregard for human life.  As a nation, we were sickened by the toxic act and cried with the members of that church who had sustained a life-altering loss.  Yet, we were amazed at the bold expression of grace that some of the members of Mother Emanuel expressed as forgiveness in the midst of great suffering.  One of Mother Emanuel’s longtime members, said, “It took me a while.  If somebody shot my mother, I didn’t think I could be as forgiving, but now I could. I just felt that I’ve been praying ‘forgive those who trespass against us’ (from The Lord’s Prayer) for years, and now it was time to re-examine those words and practice it.”[i]  With the murders of so many of our African-American brothers and sisters not only at the hands of members of hate groups, but of those who have sworn to serve and protect their fellow citizens, these acts have reopened wounds committed against African-Americans repeatedly since the founding of our nation and before.  While the words of forgiveness pronounced by this member of Mother Emanuel are profound, we can be assured that they are not cheap and are the result of a difficult and intentional engagement with Jesus’ admonition to forgive.  There are others who said, understandably, that they did not know if they would be able to forgive.  Another member admitted, “For those who said it, I respect it, but we have to pause and ask some rough questions.”[ii]  Perhaps this illustrates why Jesus’ directive to forgive is one of the most difficult of his teachings.  While we have the capacity to reflect God’s love and mercy, it is a process, the result of a lifetime of relentless work.

Second, I am struck by the advocacy of those who witnessed the servant’s indifference to his peer, exacting punishment until the debt was paid in full, the opposite of the mercy he had been shown by the king.  They were not willing to be complicit in these actions and were compelled to speak out against the injustice.  When we see the oppression of another who is not granted the dignity bestowed on all of us by our Creator, we have an obligation to speak out and act.  The wave of protests in this country after the murder of George Floyd and others is righteous and necessary.  To remain silent is to be complicit in the enacting of evil.  Where silence has the potential to be healing, silence in this case equals death!  In our baptismal covenant, we as what our Presiding Bishop calls the “Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement,” vow to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.[iii]  Vows are simply words unless there is an intentional commitment to enliven them with action.  Jesus is saying you cannot sit idly by while others are robbed of their share of the abundance God has given us all.

And third, I think we need to practice a posture of humility that seeks forgiveness for the shame we force upon others.  Forgiveness is not an illustration of ‘us-against-them,’ but rather an acknowledgement that in our human finitude, we all transgress against our neighbors.  The act of asking to be forgiven, if genuine, is the doorway which frees all of those involved and incarcerated in the shame of injustice, whether we be the servant, the servant’s peer, or bystanders who witness such evil.  This is not easy and Jesus illustrated by his willingness to endure the cross.  The cross was an instrument of shame that was the vehicle of God’s glory, uniting us in the action of God’s reconciling love, and bringing our debt to zero.  And we are called to reflect Jesus’ humility.  If God calls us to the victory of the cross, He will call us to the nakedness of the cross.[iv]  Of whom in your life do you need to ask forgiveness?  Where have you incurred a debt than is greater than your ability to pay?  Asking forgiveness of your neighbor is akin to praying for forgiveness of God, an action of sacrifice that models the action of Jesus who gave his life and who now prays intercession on our behalf to the Father.

Our founder Richard Meux Benson said: “It is the divine power of forgiveness by which the passion of Christ kindles the heart of man with the glory of God.  We may love, and love is but selfishness, until it has asserted itself in this triumphant form of forgiveness of wrong.”[v]  Lord, how many times should we forgive?  As many as seven times?  Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.  Amen.

[i] Turner, Dawn M. Emanuel AME Church and the Audacity to Forgive, 28 Sept. 2015, www.chicagotribune.com/columns/ct-emanuel-church-charleston-dawn-turner-20150928-column.html.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] 1979 Book of  Common Prayer, pp. 304-5

[iv] Benson, Richard Meux, and G. T. Pulley. A Word of Father Benson for Every Day. A. R. Mowbray and Co., 1932.

[v] Ibid.

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