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This Week's Sermon (for recent sermons, please click here)

Math Lesson

14 September 2014
Carolyn L Roberts
Matthew 18.21-35

            The scripture Ruth just read is not a sweetness and light scripture, and I thought twice about using it this morning. Even though I have addressed the practice of forgiveness before, for whatever reason, today’s scripture is not one I have preached from before. However, it is a scripture that is appropriate to this time of transition, because it addresses the faith practice, the Christian practice, of forgiveness. But before we tackle this difficult subject, and this equally difficult and complex text, I need to acknowledge that there are those who have experienced gross injustice and serious injury as a result of the behaviors of another group or individuals. Addressing this issue–especially in the short span of a sermon–in no way is intended to belittle the reality of your hurt, or the hard work required as we practice forgiveness. Let us begin with our text.

            If our image of Jesus assures that every word he reportedly utters has a Rubens-like quality not only in the way he speaks, but also in the content of his speech, this morning’s scripture should be a major challenge. It doesn’t appear to start off that way...too much. Peter asks a question about forgiveness, and offers the unheard of generosity of forgiving a sister or brother seven times. Jewish law proscribed three times for the same offense, so Peter can be commended for catching the flavor of Jesus’ teachings, if not the full spirit. Jesus responds not seven times, but seventy-seven times–or maybe seventy times seven...the Greek can be translated either way. It doesn’t matter; the point is the same: Jesus’ followers are to practice forgiveness with such consistency that we lose count of the number of times we have extended it. It’s a critical corollary to the commandment to love, and like that commandment, it doesn’t work if we apply it selectively.

            The gospel according to Matthew uses Jesus’ exchange with Peter as an opportunity to introduce a parable unique to this gospel. Edward Beutner contends that if this parable doesn’t rub against the grain of our normal sense of things, then perhaps “our ears are overtrained to protect us from the sidelong assault of irony.”1,33 So to better open our ears, Beutner offers a free-wheeling translation in which a drug lord decides to settle accounts with one of his dealers. Mark happens to be indebted to the drug lord for $10,000,000. He can’t pay the debt, of course, so the drug lord prepares to sell Mark and everything connected with him. Mark begs for the drug lord to be patient, and the drug lord forgives the entire $10,000.000. Mark is not as generous with his own underling; he orders full repayment of the $100 Steve owes. Word gets back to the drug lord; he is so enraged that he hands Mark over to his thugs, who (as we all know) have ways of persuading Mark to pay back every last dime of his debt.1,35 You get the picture.

            Beutner isn’t trying to sound contemporary. He’s reinserting elements of the combined fear and disdain Jesus’ audience would have for the “adversarial and crooked and alien and dangerous world of the first century patronage system.”1,35 Both versions remind us that power is seductive; we each can get caught up in patterns of taking advantage of those less powerful, less well-positioned. NFL headlines are only one sorry reminder of power’s lure.

            One critical caveat: Jesus tells his disciples this parable, but Matthew gets it wrong. Matthew is famous for concluding a segment of the gospel with his particular theological interpretation–that’s where we get most of the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth kinds of comments. Ignore them. Because Matthew’s concluding verse is that God will do the same to us–that is, God will torture us–if we don’t forgive from the heart. This makes God a drug lord, a petty tyrant, or a king with a fragile ego.

            But Jesus never portrays God this way. So don’t make this story an analogy like Matthew does. Instead, hear it as a parable in which the the king represents himself. That is, the king is what he is; he plays himself with all the caprice and range of powers available to him. He can organize things so that slaves owe him so much money they can’t repay it even with a lifetime of labor. He can own people and sell people on a whim. He can forgive massive debt...or not. And in addition to that, the whole kingdom is set up so that the king receives ingratiating Uriah Heap behavior from all subordinates, who in turn behave with equal caprice and cruelty to their inferiors.

            But God is not that king. In fact, God is not a player in this parable. If we look again at the opening line, Jesus says the kingdom of God can be compared to a king...but the comparison is ironic. That is, on the one hand is a pretty accurate description of what a king and his kingdom, his patronage system, look like in our experience. So when you think of the kingdom, the realm of God...think of its exact opposite.1

            Now we are ready to look at the whole text, in which each part brings dimension to the other. The realm of God, the kin-dom of God, takes form when forgiveness is practiced as the outgrowth of the love we also are called to practice. And that’s the really hard part; there are times when we would much rather nurture the hurt. We know that we’ve been wronged; biologically, self-preservation kicks in, and compels us not to let down our guard, not to be vulnerable.2 Even when our minds help us identify the choice, we often cling to the hurt. “Church council records from sixteenth-century Switzerland tell of a man who pretended that he could not remember the Lord’s Prayer because he knew that if he said it he would have to forgive the merchant who had cheated him.”2,134

            Peter asks, “if a brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive?” This isn’t a math question; it’s a relationship question. And because relationships are involved, there are behaviors that hurt, even standards and values that are violated, and losses that are felt deeply.3,441 Sometimes those violations are intentional; sometimes they are not. But ruptures of the fabric of human community are part of the human condition.

            Peter gets that Jesus’ followers have some responsibility for the common good. When that is disrupted or damaged, he doesn’t ask, “What are we supposed to do about it?” He asks how much should forgiveness play a role. Jesus offers a math lesson; he responds that the importance of the role of forgiveness is all but incalculable.

            The importance of forgiveness in the life of the church is all but incalculable as well. When I first began my ministry with this congregation nearly fourteen years ago, the church had been through a difficult time that left a mountain of hurt feelings in its wake. Even with the help of a fabulous interim pastor, those hurts were still just below the surface. Over time,  some members quit carrying their burdens of hurt and anger, forgiveness was extended, and relationships were mended. As that became part of the fabric of this congregation, a new witness emerged in this community: that we do not need to live forever in the hurts and damaged relationships of the past–new, healthy life is possible. That Easter message is part of the lived experience of this community, and it is a message that takes yet another form in two short weeks. As part of the service of farewell, there is a very important segment in which I ask your forgiveness for the mistakes I have made. And I very much hope that you will not be like the Swiss merchant from the sixteenth century! My request of your forgiveness is followed by the request that I forgive the mistakes you have made. Forgiveness is an equal opportunity practice!

            This mutual forgiveness is critical. As much as we love one another, as much as there is deep affection that has grown with our shared history and shared experience over whatever length of time, we also know that on occasion we have hurt one another in our relationships. The service of farewell affirms that affection; it also affirms that we will not allow our hurts to continue to stand between us, nor will we allow them to stand in our way as we each move into the future. This is good news! It is living witness to the active work of our still-speaking God, living witness to the Easter faith we proclaim. It is in fact choosing not to live by the systems of patronage, but as beloved members of God’s kin-dom.


1Beutner, Edward F., Listening to the Parables of Jesus, “A Mercy Unextended,” Polebridge Press, ©2007, pages 33-39.
2Bass, Dorothy C., Practicing Our Faith, Jossey-Bass Publishers ©1997, pages 133-147.
3Funk, Robert W., et al, The Five Gospels, Polebridge Press, Macmillan Publishing Company, ©1993, pages 217-219.
4Craddock, Fred B., Preaching Through the Christian Year A, Trinity Press International, ©1992, pages 441-442.


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