Sermon Series – Because God Said So: Doing the Difficult Thing

The Math of Forgiveness

Matthew 18:21-35


Our family is on our fifth year of Parks and Rec sports…and we have the collection of t-shirts to prove it. Teddy has played soccer, T-ball, coach pitch baseball, basketball and this fall we added flag football.

As every parent who has been through this knows, it is great fun to watch the kids grow and develop and gain confidence. We are to the point that we are watching actual games now with the kids working together as a team, rather than just running around on a field like an amoeba.

Every coach we’ve had through Parks and Rec has one a fantastic job of cheering the kids on and encouraging them to have fun.

And the kids do have fun. But do you know what else they do? They keep score.

There is no official competition in Parks and Rec sports, no scores are recorded or reported. It doesn’t matter if it is a scrimmage with members of their own team or the weekly games in which the score is never announced or recorded—the kids know which team—and usually which kid—has scored what.

But then, we see the same thing when it comes to following the rules at our house. We ask Teddy to take his shoes off when he comes in the house and you better believe he notices whenever Jim or I forget and leave our shoes on! Fair is fair, right?

The truth is, on some level or other, we all do this. In families, in classrooms, at work…we know when others have been recognized or treated better than we have been. Keeping track of who did what, who got what—keeping score, if you will—is an innate part of being human.

Which is what makes today’s scripture passage so challenging.

First, we have Peter asking Jesus a follow up question to the instructions on how to deal with conflict in the church. He asks, how many times must I forgive another person, a church member, who sinned against me?

Now, Peter may have suggested “seven times” because seven was considered a holy number, set aside for God, perfect. So what Peter may really be asking is, “Must I practice perfect forgiveness?”[1]

And when Jesus responds by saying seventy-seven times (which could actually also be translated “seventy times seven” times, so 490), Jesus’ point may be that when it comes to forgiveness, we want to be beyond perfection, beyond even counting and keeping score.[2]

Then Jesus tells a parable to make the point. A king is settling accounts with all of us servants. He found a servant who owed him an impossible, un-payable sum. What was fair, according to the rules the world plays by, is that this servant, his wife and children, all his possessions could all be sold in an attempt to pay back this debt. But in a last ditch effort, the servant throws himself on the mercy of the king, asking for patience to pay a debt he can never, ever repay. And surprise! the king is merciful and forgives this servant’s impossible debt altogether. Whoa!

What follows is a study in contrast. This same servant meets another servant who owes him money—a hundred denarii was about 100 days wages; a paltry sum in comparison to what the first servant had owed his master. When this other servant pleads with him, using the same words he himself had used, the forgiven servant shows no mercy and has his fellow servant thrown in prison.

Uh uh. Not fair. Other servants report back to the master and the master rescinds his incredibly generous and merciful offer.

What’s the moral of this parable? It turns out that forgiveness is not entirely unconditional:

God forgives us so that we will forgive others.

Scholar Eugene Boring writes, “Whoever counts has not forgiven at all, but is only biding his or her time. The kind of forgiveness called for is beyond all calculation…”

Which is difficult for those of us who have been keeping score since we could add 1 + 1.

So we are reminded again in this passage that Jesus calls us to think of forgiveness in a very different way than the world does.

Father Richard Rohr sends out a daily email on a different theme each week. Three weeks ago the theme was Forgiveness, and he had all sorts of wisdom to offer.

Early in the week, he pointed out that the conventional wisdom around what should happen when there is an injury is this:

sin [offense] > punishment > repentance > [forgiveness or] transformation.

But for God, the pattern looks completely different:

sin [offense] > unconditional love and acceptance > [forgiveness or] transformation > repentance

Unconditional love means that God loves us not IF we change, but SO THAT we can change.

Forgiveness is God’s gift to us. Actually, that’s not true. Forgiveness is God’s gift to the world. Because forgiveness—the way God intends for it to work—is about the truest, realest liberation and freedom and acceptance that we have ever known or experienced. And it is so good, we cannot possibly keep it for ourselves.

Church council records from 16th century Geneva reveal the story of a man who pretended he did not know the Lord’s Prayer. Why? Because he knew that if he said it (including “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”) , he would have to forgive the merchant who had once cheated him—and he had no intention or desire to do that!

And who was punished by this? Only himself. His refusal to forgive served no purpose other than to chain up his mind and heart and most likely push others away while he was at it. He was not free; he was bound and chained by his unwillingness to forgive.

Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the story of a woman who was in his congregation. She was a single mother of young children, divorced from a man who had run off with another woman. She had difficulty paying her bills each month and she seethed with anger when she had to deny her children a simple pleasure such as going to the movies when she thought of her ex-husband and his new wife living it up in the next state. “How can you tell me to forgive him?” she asked Rabbi Kushner.

His response: “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry [person]. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically, but you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you’re hurting yourself.”[3]

Practicing forgiveness in God’s way means not waiting until someone else has earned our forgiveness, or for the equation of right and wrong and repentance and remorse to be balanced out. Rather than keeping score, we are invited to remember God’s unconditional love and acceptance…for all of us…even the one who hurts us.

To be clear, Jesus is not telling us to be a doormat, to forgive those who abuse us or take advantage of imbalances of power. Injustice is not acceptable.

But it is an invitation to live into and seek after the freedom that comes from recognizing the grace and forgiveness and acceptance God pours into us in Jesus Christ, and allowing that to spill out us to others.

It is about laying the scorecard aside, putting down the ledger, doing something that does not compute in the world’s eyes because we ourselves have been loved with such abundance and grace.

Is it a difficult way to live? It can be at first because it is so counter cultural. But it is the way God calls us to live, the way God calls us to live into.

And through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can do it. Amen.

[1] Lewis R. Donelson, Exegetical Perspective on Matthew 18:21-35 in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4. p. 69

[2] Ibid.

[3] Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4.