Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Forgiving Because We Were Forgiven

Matthew 18:21-35

 Matthew 18 is all about personal relationships and especially when there is sin within them.  Jesus’ discussion about forgiveness and personal reconciliation prompts, what I consider to be, a very human response from Peter:  “Okay, Jesus, I should forgive.  But just once, okay?”

 Well, actually he said up to seven times.  Peter probably thought that he was being very generous.  The conventional wisdom of the rabbis of Jesus’ day is that a person should only be expected to forgive up to three times.  Their reasoning went back to the Old Testament prophet Amos.  In Amos’ prophecy there was a repeated formula as Amos spoke on God’s behalf about the sins of the nations.  Amos repeated again and again, “For three sins of Judah, and even for four…” and then Amos would pronounce God’s judgment on that particular nation.  The understanding of the rabbis in Jesus’ day is that God forgave the first three offenses, but not the fourth.  And since we can’t be expected to be more forgiving than God, we should only be expected to forgive three times.

 So Peter probably thought he was being quite generous when he said seven times.  But Jesus answered, “Not seven times, but 77.”  Or 70 times seven.  It’s hard to know which exactly he said because in the Hebrew way of using numbers, 70 plus seven and 70 times seven were pretty much identical.  Again, Jesus was making a play off the Old Testament.  In the book of Genesis, chapter four, after Cain kills his brother Abel, he pleads with God for mercy because he fears he will be killed for his crime.  And God gives him the assurance that if anyone kills him, they will be repaid 7 times over.  A few verses later, Cain’s descendant, Lamech, brags about how he murdered a child for insulting him, saying, “If Cain will be avenged 7 times, then I will avenge myself 77 times!”  Seventy-seven, or seventy times seven, was a typically Hebrew way of saying, “Without any limits.”  So, while Lamech pledged to get revenge without limits, Jesus tells us to forgive without limits.

 The basis of Jesus’ command is that we have been forgiven more than we could ever be asked to forgive others.  So having been forgiven much, we should be willing to forgive others who sin against us.  Jesus illustrates this principle with a parable:

 The Kingdom of God is like a king who settled accounts with his servants who owed him money.  In Hebrew thought, sins were often thought of as debts that we owe to God.

 One servant was brought in who owed him “millions of dollars.”  Specifically what Jesus said is that the man owed him 10,000 talents.  Now at this point, the disciples and anyone else listening to the story probably chuckled and smiled at each other.  What a silly story!  It was

ridiculous because Jesus was talking about a sum of money that would just have been unthinkable.

 A talent was a unit of weight equal to 75 pounds in our reckoning.  When used as a unit of money, a talent would be 75 pounds of silver.  Technically, there was also such a thing as a talent of gold, but that would be a lot of money!  A talent was equal to 6000 denarii.  The denarius, plural denarii, was the standard wage of the day.  It was like the minimum wage that herders and day laborers and soldiers, earned.  So if a talent was 6000 denarii, and the debt was 10,000 talents, then it would take the average person 164,000 years to repay this debt.  By comparison, the annual tax revenue for Galilee, a fairly prosperous region with a population in the millions, was only 200 talents.  

 The servant could not pay it.  No surprise.  So the king ordered that he and his family were to be sold into slavery and all he owned was to be liquidated.  And even that would just be a tiny fraction of the debt.  

 But the servant fell to his knees and begged for mercy, pledging to repay it all.  And the king had mercy on him, and forgave the debt outright.  

 Now at this point, the disciples would have really been laughing.  As crazy as it would have been to conceive of such a debt, it would be even crazier to think about someone just letting it go.

 But then, that servant, who had just been released from such a great debt, went out and found another servant who owed him “a few thousand dollars.”  Again, let’s be precise.  I like precise.  The second servant owed the first 100 denarii, 100 days’ wages.  

 That’s not an insignificant sum.  Depending on the income of this second servant, that might have been a few months’ work or a few weeks’ work.  The denarius was the “minimum wage” of the day, but of course many people earned more than that.  And maybe this is an indication by Jesus that, yes, we do hurt each other.  We hurt each other by our words and our actions, and these are not insignificant.  

 But the point is that in comparison to the first servants’ debt, which had been freely forgiven by the king, this debt is minor, tiny by comparison.  When I looked, the price of silver was just over $40 an ounce.  So the debt of the second servant, 100 denarii, would be about $80.  The debt of the first, based on the price of silver, would have been more than $480 million dollars.  Or, if you were to base it on the concept of the minimum wage, it would look

like this:  Today, the minimum wage is about $8 an hour.  So it would be $64 a day.  So then the second servant’s debt would be about $6400.  But the first servant’s debt would be almost $4 trillion dollars.  Or you could think of it this way:  100 denarii would be two ounces of coins.  Two ounces of coins would fit comfortably in your pocket.  By comparison, 10,000 talents would require an army of men to carry.  If each man was carrying one talent in a single file line, the line would stretch out for about four miles.

The point is that we have been forgiven for far more by God than we could ever be asked to forgive others.  How often do we fail to keep God’s word?  How often do we grieve his heart with our actions, our words, and our attitudes?  Truly, we couldn’t even count them.  And God has forgiven it all in Jesus Christ.  

But when we fail to forgive others, we act like that first servant who grabbed the second and demanded payment.  And when the second couldn’t do it, he threw him in jail.  That was another common thing done to debtors:  Throw them in jail till their family or friends pay their debt for them.  And if the family needed some extra motivation, you could also torture them in jail to speed things along.

The king was furious.  He had gone to great lengths to show himself to be a merciful man, and now his servant had ruined it for him.  What the servant did reflected on the king.  When we serve someone, what we do is a reflection on them.  In his anger, the king threw the man in jail to be tortured till he repaid it all, which would never happen.  

Now at this point, we need to be careful.  If we “over-allegorize” this parable, then we come to the conclusion that if we fail to forgive, God will “renege” on his forgiveness of us, which is something the Bible tells us God does not do.  The point of the parable is to illustrate how awful it is for us who have been forgiven much to fail to forgive others.  And a failure on our part to forgive reflects badly on God our King.  What we do as his people reflects on him.  And we do not want to trample on his grace by failing to internalize the principles of grace that he has shown us through his actions.

Let’s conclude by talking about something that is relevant to today and relevant to the lesson.  Today is a significant day.  It is the 10th anniversary of September 11th.  And I didn’t pick this lesson at random; it was one of the lectionary texts for today.  And sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised to see how relevant the lectionary can be.  

Do you remember where you were on September 11th?  That’s a silly question.  I had just started seminary.  It was the second week of classes, and we spent the morning in a

theology class.  The morning classes were broken up by chapel.  We’d have an hour-and-a-half of class, then chapel, then finish class.  When we broke class for chapel; that was the first any of us knew about the attacks.  And after chapel, we went downstairs to watch the news, just as the towers fell.

 How do we apply Jesus’ teachings to September 11th?  I don’t know that I have a good answer.  On the one hand, I say that we should be willing to forgive those who have hurt as because we are Christians.  But at the same time, I also want our nation to seek justice for those who have committed such horrible crimes.  

 Maybe the whole situation is made much more difficult because we’re still living with the aftermath of September 11th.  Terrorism is still a threat in our world today.  We haven’t “won” a decisive victory over those who did such things.  The only comparable event in American history was the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Ten years after Pearl Harbor we had won the war and Japan was on its way to becoming our ally.  I guess it’s easier to be gracious in victory.  But does that mean that we should not have a heart willing to forgive even if the situation is still “unsettled?”

 Just recently, there was a “victory” of sorts when after almost 10 years, our soldiers succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden.  And that produced an interesting array of responses.  On the one hand, many people celebrated his death.  And I was uncomfortable with the thought of celebrating a man’s death, especially when I’m convinced he has gone to hell.  Some people said it was wrong to be glad he was dead.  But a part of me was glad he was dead.  Not because I hated him, but because he intended to do more evil.  And I do think government has a responsibility to keep peace and order in this world by stopping those who intend to do evil.  I guess I was just conflicted about the whole thing.  And I guess I still am.  

 But I know this much, we cannot move forward beyond September 11th with hate in our hearts.  We must learn to forgive.  That doesn’t mean we can’t be resolved to see that such things don’t happen again in the future.  But as Christians, we simply can’t go on living with hate in our hearts if we are to serve a loving God.  

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