Today, we hear Peter asking Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
In asking Jesus if he was to forgive as many as seven times, Peter already implies a very generous number of times to forgive another.
Here’s Jesus’ reply: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Or seventy times seven in other translations – equaling 490 times if I did my math right.
But who’s counting? And that’s the point. The message is this: there is no real limit to the call to forgiveness. We are called to forgive and forgive and forgive.
The implication is that if you’re counting and keeping score, then you’re not really forgiving others. The call to forgive goes beyond numbers games and calculations.
Then we hear the parable about the king forgiving the debt of a slave who owed him ten thousand talents. Ten thousand talents in the days of Matthew was an incredible amount, a huge sum beyond calculation, an impossible debt to pay.
And yet we hear these words of astonishing mercy and grace: “Out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.”
If only the parable concluded there with a happy ending. The story goes on to say that the lavishly forgiven slave sought out a fellow slave who owed him a debt – a sizeable debt, but one that could conceivably be repaid. He seized him by the throat demanding repayment. When the fellow slave indicated that he could not repay, he threw his compatriot into prison, the hypocrisy of which understandably outraged other slaves who reported it to the king, who himself became outraged and threw the previously forgiven slave into prison for torture until he paid the full sum, which would have been endless because the debt was impossible to repay.
Lutheran pastors are called upon to preach law and gospel, such that the weight of the law’s claims on us leads to the freedom of the good news, the gospel’s forgiveness, grace and mercy. Lutheran sermons thus typically have happy endings.
But in today’s reading with this parable of the king and the slave we seem to have the opposite ordering – gospel and then the law. What are we Lutherans to make of this?
It seems to me that today’s story is a painful elaboration on the petition of the Lord’s Prayer that reads, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
The call to practice forgiveness is the gift that keeps on giving. If we receive forgiveness, we are expected to offer forgiveness If we offer grace and mercy, we can also expect to receive the same in kind.
When this pattern of forgiveness leading to forgiving, when this merciful rhythm is interrupted, and short-circuited, there is hell to pay. “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart,” Matthew’s Jesus says. Forgive from your heart…. Not mere lip service. Let that sink in.
We are left to be unsettled by these words of divine judgement and accountability. Under the rule of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we thus do not inhabit a spiritual world of cheap grace.
Something is quite missing when we are given the grace of absolution and then cut the process short by refraining to give our version of that grace to others who may have wronged us. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us….”
Which is why I like to speak of not just confession and forgiveness, but confession, forgiveness and reconciliation, where the gift keeps on giving.
Liturgically – if only we could practice the fullness of our worship in person – confession is made, the pastor offers God’s word of forgiveness as from Christ himself, eventually we share the peace of Christ with each other, which is a physical enactment of reconciliation in the body of Christ. Then we dine together at the table of mercy and reconciliation which is the Eucharist. The drama of the liturgy embodies the fullness of the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
Our worship, then, is dress rehearsal for the work we do in and for the sake of the world when we “go in peace to serve the Lord” by offering these same patterns in our own lives – confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, without end, without counting numbers and the cost.
The basic point is this: God’s mercy and grace and forgiveness are radical and boundless. God calls us to share in the divine reconciling work by going and doing likewise in some broken, human approximation that is nonetheless sacred. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
If you want another biblical illustration of a radical sort of forgiveness, go back again and read the whole story of Joseph and his brothers, a concluding portion of which we heard as today’s first reading from Genesis 50. The story of Joseph and his brothers begins as far back as Genesis chapter 37. It’s a moving story of forgiveness in a family, a story complete with weeping and hugs and this culminating moment when Joseph said, “Even though you [Joseph’s brothers] intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good….” There is often a hidden, sacred hand working amidst and in spite of the things we humans do to each other.
The Apostle Paul also explores aspects of seeking reconciliation and unity in community with his instructions to refrain from judging others in today’s second reading from Romans.
We need all of this scriptural word because the work of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation is extraordinarily hard work for us. I was tempted to say that it is easy for God, but even God paid quite the price in the forgiving, reconciling mission of sending God’s very self in the person of Jesus the Christ into our broken, sinful realities.
We live in a bitterly divided nation and world, with judgment and judgmentalism and accusations of sin coming from all points on the spectrum of social and political opinion. This is a particularly challenging season in which to confess, forgive, and to seek reconciliation.
Yet, it is the work to which we are called, as we have been entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation as Paul proclaims in his letters (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17-20).
Perhaps the reason why the instruction to forgive is not seven times, but 77 times or 70 times 7 is that it takes that long to really do this work with authenticity, sincerity – “from the heart.”
The good news – and yes, as a Lutheran preacher, I can end with good news – is that we love because God first loved us (cf. 1 John 4:19). We can forgive others, because God in Christ has first forgiven us.
That is good news indeed, a happier Lutheran ending. For Christ’s sake. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Now for your reflection and holy conversation at home:
- Recall occasions when you have most profoundly experienced God’s forgiveness and forgiveness from others.
- Likewise, remember those occasions when you have offered forgiveness to others, perhaps at great cost to you.
- What are your current struggles with forgiving and being forgiven and with genuinely seeking reconciliation?
- What promise in God’s word helps you continue to undertake the ministry of reconciliation to which we have been called?