Forgiveness and Freedom
February 26, 2023

Forgiveness and Freedom

Passage: Matthew 18:15-35

Forgiveness and Freedom

A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On February 26th, 2023

This Lenten season at Immanuel we will be focusing on some of the parables of Jesus and how they illuminate the message of the gospel. In other words, how they cast light on the good news of God’s love embodied in human life. We’ll be doing that through reading Amy-Jill Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus in Lenten small groups—and we’ll also be doing that in worship and preaching. Today’s text from Matthew presents us with parable of the forgiven servant who does not in turn forgive. Jesus tells it in the context of a section where he addresses how we are to live in community. It begins with instructions on what to do if someone has hurt you. Then Peter asks about how many times we should forgive. After answering him, Jesus tells a story about someone who has been forgiven much who does not then practice forgiveness and what happens to that person. Listen for God’s word in Matthew 18:15-35.

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’

Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

There are few harder things to do in life than to forgive someone who has wronged you. I mean really wronged you. Not a minor infraction, like accidentally stepping on your toe, or leaving the toilet seat up, or one time forgetting a birthday or one time missing a lunch appointment. On the scale of things, I think we can agree that that those things are relatively minor. They’re easily forgivable.

No, I’m talking about more serious injury than that; the kinds of things that can leave a mark on our souls. There are wounds that people can inflict on us in life, through the breaking of trust for instance, or through physically or mentally or emotionally harming us or the people closest to us, that we can’t just wave off as if they don’t matter. Lah-de-dah, c’est la vie, such is life, no big deal. Just, you know, let it go. It would be a rare and fortunate person indeed who had never experienced that sort of deep injury.

Though engaging in a sort of grief and trauma Olympics is probably not helpful—you know, the person who can say they have been hurt the most gets the gold, the next person gets the silver, and so on—it’s fair to say that some people and some groups have sustained more profoundly harmful experiences in life than others. Regardless, the practice of forgiveness is not especially easy for any of us. Especially when it comes to deep injury.

Eighteen years ago this past Monday I preached my first sermon in this pulpit. I know, it’s hard for me to believe it myself. In that sermon, which has come to be known as the wheelbarrow sermon, you may remember it, I spoke about how faith is like getting in a wheelbarrow and trusting someone to push you across a tightrope (as a real-live actual human being did back in the 1860’s). How’s that for a parable, by the way? With that in mind, let me say that there are few preaching tasks that feel more like a high-wire act than being a middle-aged white guy who has had a relatively easy life sermonizing about forgiveness. By now, some of you are looking up here thinking, what’s he going to do with that? If I were him, I don’t think I’d have stepped out on that wire. I hope there’s a net.

All of that said, Jesus apparently thought forgiveness was important. In the Sermon on the Mount, he said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” In his model prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, he asks us

to pray forgive us our debts (or sins), as we forgive our debtors (or those who sin against us). And in the lead up to today’s parable, he answers Peter’s question, “How often should I forgive a person who sins against me? As many as seven times?” Jesus replies, “Oh, no, no, no Peter. Way more than that. Seventy times seven.” Your translation might say 77, but it’s not really a matter of arithmetic.

This is not an invitation for Peter to start an accounting ledger, and when the number goes from 489 to 490 or from 76 to 77 to write a person off, but an invitation for Peter and the rest of the disciples to move away from a certain way of approaching life that dwells in blame and nurses grudges and holds the wrong that has been done to him against other people. Which I think is why, in this “how do you deal with a person in the community who has sinned against you” portion of today’s lesson—you know, first go to them alone, then with one or two other people, and then bring it before the whole church—Jesus says, if they don’t listen even then, treat them as a Gentile or a tax collector. Which, as Matthew (who records this story), which as Matthew the tax-collector, could tell you means—don’t ever write them off as no longer redeemable, no longer loved by and cared for by God. The Gospels bear witness to God’s heart for people on the outside looking in and people who collaborate with the empire—and thank goodness for that, because were that not so, none of us would be here. None of us. We’re Gentiles and we’re collaborators and we are loved.

Now then, to the parable, which Jesus tells in direct response to Peter’s query about how often to forgive. The Kin-dom of heaven is like this, Jesus says. A ruler decided to settle accounts with all those were enslaved to him. (Already, we may not like the story, but go with it). One of them owed him 10,000 talents. That’s a ridiculous figure to owe. Considering that a talent was equivalent to a typical laborer’s wage for an entire year, that debt could never have been paid back. I went to a liberal arts college, so math is not my strong suit, but I ran the

numbers—and if we consider the average teacher’s salary across the country to be 50,000 dollars, which is not enough by the way—in today’s dollars, the figure that the laborer would owe the king would be 500 million dollars. That’s half a trillion dollars, which is not chump change. While we might not like the set up here, what Jesus is telling Peter and the other disciples is that they owe a great debt to God. What can a person give in return for their life? How can we say thank you for the gift of life and a living relationship with God? And Peter, as much as anyone, would have known how indebted he was to God’s grace for everything he had.

The story goes on. When the indentured servant is called to account, he can’t come up with 10,000 talents—so the king is going to have him sold, together with his wife and children, and for payment to be made. The servant begs for mercy, says have patience with me and I’ll pay you everything, and here’s what the king does. He doesn’t say, sorry, Charlie, time’s up. He doesn’t even say, “Okay, okay. Let me talk to the bank and we’ll set up a payment plan. Just make sure I get so much per month and we’re cool.” What the king does instead is releases him and forgives his entire debt.

What happens next is, unfortunately, entirely believable. What the person who has just had an astronomical debt forgiven them does is go to find one of his fellow enslaved people who owed him money, 100 denarii. In today’s dollars, that’s maybe $12,000, not a small amount of money. The forgiven servant grabs him by the throat and demands, “Pay up.” The other guy begs for patience and mercy, but the guy who has just been forgiven that huge sum of money, has him thrown in debtor’s prison.

Well, when the king hears about this, he is, to put it mildly, not happy. He takes the guy who has been forgiven much and yet will not forgive his fellow indentured servant—and, “hands him over to be tortured”

until he would pay all that he formerly owed. If right now, you are thinking, “I wonder what Aaron is going to do with that—that he handed him over to be tortured bit” I don’t blame you. I’m not a fan of torture or the idea of God or anyone else handing someone over to be tortured. I can’t imagine the loving God that I worship wanting that for anyone. My theology is deeply-rooted in the idea that the Living Divine loves us beyond all measure and wants what is best for us. And—at the same time, at least to the extent that we are not wracked by severe mental illness or other brain dysfunction—God gives us free will, the ability to choose. The more we are spiritually fit—as friends of mine would term it—the more we get to choose. The more we are able to make the choice not to have an unforgiving spirit. And forgiveness, after all, is what this enlightening parable is all about.

Now let me hasten to add that forgiving someone doesn’t mean keeping them from facing the consequences of their actions. It doesn’t mean that the murderer or the thief or the one who commits assault doesn’t go to jail, or that the abused partner returns to their abuser, or that people who have long been oppressed or otherwise mistreated shouldn’t seek to be treated justly and fairly and soon. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean that they don’t face consequences—or that we or others should not be treated as the children of God we are. When Jesus said from the vantage point of a cross, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing,” that wasn’t a blanket declaration that people who give themselves over to such violence won’t reap the fruit of the seeds they sow in life. Jesus words from the cross “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing,” was the cry of a heart that understood how difficult—how darned difficult—it is to be human.

Let me also add that forgiving someone for a wrong that they did to another is also not something any of us can do on behalf of that other person or group. Forgiveness is theirs and God’s to dispense, not mine

or yours. What IS up to me is how I treat—and whether I take a stance of mercy towards—those who I perceive have wronged me, in big or small ways. That’s what I have a choice about.

Again, that doesn’t mean I return again and again to a relationship where I metaphorically or physically get my teeth kicked in. It might mean, however, that over time I let go of holding on to grievance and blame. And not just in specific instances, but as a stance towards life in general.

The trouble, dare I call it the torture, that comes with living a life centered in grievance and blame instead of gratitude and grace is that we are never, ever, free. There are always those resentments, those remembered and oft-revisited slights, that eat at us. Anne Lamott is right, whether we want to hear it or not, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.” Frederick Buechner is right, whether we want to hear it or not, “Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back--in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”

What the parable of the forgiven and then unforgiving servant does is give us a window into the very heart, the fundamental character, of God. The Living Divine invites us—as Jesus invited Peter—into a life of freedom, one that isn’t constantly keeping score, walking around with a chip on our shoulder, collecting resentments and waiting for the next person to come along who will undoubtedly wrong us or otherwise let us down. Licking our wounds, smacking our lips over grievances long past, drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die. That’s no way to really live. You know what it is? It’s torture.

So what do we do about it? What can set us free?

I was talking to somebody, I don’t know, beginning of this week or end of last week, about a particular situation in their life. We were talking about praying and meditating. This person mentioned that they decided to do a lovingkindness meditation, and that very moment receiving an email reach out from the person who had done them harm, a person that they considered an enemy.

If that wasn’t enough to get me thinking about how holding on to things really is torture, I remembered what my mom said about the importance of prayer. Praying not just for your friends, not just for your family, but for people who hurt you. People whom you might, in your most human moments, consider to be enemies.

I woke up Thursday morning and I did that. I was talking to somebody later that morning when my phone dinged. Does your phone ever ding? My phone dinged and after my meeting with this person was over, I looked down at my phone. There was a text from someone whom I had felt, to be honest, somewhat estranged from. It was a person I’d been praying for earlier that morning. That text led to another text and to another text, by the end of that, I felt re-connected. I felt so free. Almost light-hearted.

My Mom gave me a sign once that said, “Take my advice. I’m not using it.” Well, this is advice that I took. I can tell you that it works. It really, really works. In Jesus’ name. Amen.