October 6, 2019

A Math Problem?

Matthew 18:21-35


Forgiveness can be a touchy subject, for adults as well as children. Sunday school teacher Renee Carlton shares a story regarding teaching about forgiveness. She says, “I was trying to teach the children that all of us need God’s forgiveness, and to forgive others. After the Bible story, I asked one of the girls, ‘Lisa, is there something you have done for which you need God’s forgiveness?’ She looked uncomfortable, and wouldn’t say a thing. Her quiet response prompted my son to say, ‘It’s ok Lisa. You don’t have to tell her.’ Then he turned to me and said, ‘We don’t have to tell you everything we do. This isn’t the Oprah Winfrey show!” And yes, for you Millennials out there, Oprah Winfrey used to have a talk show, before she owned the universe…


True, we aren’t on a revealing talk show, but we are people of God, and therefore we are called to forgive and ask for forgiveness from others.  Today’s passage comes after some moments of frustration and clashing between Jesus, the disciples and some tax collectors. First, there’s an argument between Peter and Jesus, when Jesus tells the 12 he must suffer and die. Peter responds, “Lord, this shall never happen to you! Jesus replies, “Get behind me Satan, for you are a stumbling block to me!” Then some tax collectors confront Jesus about paying temple taxes- and after this scene, the disciples come to Jesus and ask him who gets to be greatest among them. Then Jesus speaks about healing a relationship with a fellow brother or sister, doing the tough work of confronting a disagreement, and seeking to reconcile-that is re-establish a friendship and settle a dispute.  All of these little clashes and lessons lead to Peter’s question- “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister if they sin against me? Up to 7 times?”  It’s a good question, and if you really think about it, forgiving someone 7 times is not too shabby, plus it is a holy number. That’s good enough, isn’t it, Jesus? But Jesus tells Peter and the others, “No- I tell you, not just 7 times, but seventy times seven.”


Peter probably felt quite generous and holy when he offered to forgive seven times. But Jesus goes way beyond Peter’s smug offer with a math equation: we should be willing to forgive seven times seventy, or 490, or really, into infinity, and that is just with ONE person. Jesus commands us to forgive every person we meet, up to infinity- that isn’t a math equation. It is a math PROBLEM! This is forgiveness beyond all measure, forgiveness that never stops.

 I would imagine the disciples were overwhelmed, stunned by Jesus’ response. This is more forgiveness, more grace than any human being can give or expect to give in such an unforgiving world! 


What about for you and me? I’m sure most of you have heard this passage before. Yet, If we were hearing this command by Jesus for the first time, how many of us would be murmuring after the service, “Well that’s asking more of me than I can handle.  I’ think I’ll try to find a church with less expectations about human behavior!” There is no question we have trouble comprehending such forgiveness, let alone acting it out and passing it on. Saying “I forgive you” without adding conditions and truly meaning it can be one of the hardest phrases to utter.


Jesus teaches the 12 about forgiveness with a parable- The Unmerciful Servant- and passing on forgiveness is the bottom line of the parable.  Consider that the first slave’s debt is astronomical, beyond repayment. How could he ever hope to pay back ten thousand talents, equal to 150,000 years of an average worker’s wage? Even if he took out a second mortgage, worked three jobs and sold all he owned, he could never hope to repay such a debt. But let us now look at the master’s first actions. Rather than work out a payment plan, or exact 150,000 years worth of vengeance from the debt owed, he instead lavishes grace upon the man and forgives the debt. The servant is now free from this huge weight. He begins the scene before the master expecting to be bound in chains and thrown into a dark cell, or worse. Instead, he leaves a free man, with no debt left to pay. Theologian Andrew Kuyenhoven says, “This parable hits us with a startling truth: we all come before the king with an astronomical debt. The debt is out of control, way beyond what we could possibly expect to repay. This is our position before God.”


The slave who is forgiven a massive debt should now melt into gratitude personified. He should walk around, full of grace and should pass that forgiveness on to others. Yet instead, he meets in the street one who owes him a little more than three months wages, totally loses his patience, and has the debtor thrown into prison. The injustice is not lost on his fellow slaves, who cry out in indignation to the master.


The master, now angry at the unmerciful servant’s actions and failure to forgive this small debt owed to him, condemns him to torture. Jesus ends this parable by telling the 12, “This is how God will treat you unless you forgive your brother or sister, and mean it from the heart!” Jesus wanted the disciples to forgive each other, and to pass that forgiveness on to all others. Jesus wanted his followers to be a reconciled and reconciling community.


Yet sadly, all of us have found ourselves at one time or another playing out the rest of this story, exacting vengeance over others, rather than extending the forgiveness of the astronomical debt God has given to us. We are often ion the role of the unmerciful servant. If this parable by Jesus doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable, then you aren’t listening.  If we, who are forgiven our sins(a huge debt beyond all rational thought) through God’s grace, and through the sacrifice of God’s only son, do not, in turn, forgive others, God will be angry, really angry with us.


We live in a vengeful, unforgiving society, where forgiveness is seen as weak, and getting back at another is a sign of strength. Yet while humanity works at fracturing the world into fragments,(see the mess in Washington D.C., and the Middle East for some current examples) Jesus calls us, seriously calls us to reconcile, to pick up the pieces that are broken and put them back together. Jesus calls us to embrace the forgiveness we ourselves have received, and then pass that forgiveness on, continuously, more than 70 times seven. If we do not live in this way, we will be tortured by our unforgiving attitude, God will be angry with our lack of forgiveness, and the rest of the world will suffer right along with us.


When I was a Junior higher, for some reason, my friends and I really got into the history of World War II. We read books like A Bridge Too Far, argued about whether a P-51 Mustang fighter plane was more maneuverable than a Messerschmitt ME 109 German fighter, and about the true causes of the war in the first place. (And yes, by now if you haven’t figured it out, your pastor is a nerd)  In my own opinion, the results of World War I, and how the winners treated the losers had much to do with the beginnings of World War II. At the end of the 1st World War, the winners exacted reparations and punished the losers, particularly Germany, which descended into a long downward spiral of job losses, inflation, and humiliation in the public arena.

This punitive approach planted the seeds of resentment in the German people that made them fair game for a demagogue like Hitler, who appealed to their feelings of humiliation and desire for revenge. I believe it can be truly said that the seeds of the 2nd World War were planted in the Treaty of Versailles.


Yet consider how differently things unfolded upon the end of the 2nd World War. Some lessons were learned, so that at the end of World War II, very different approaches were taken, both in the occupation of Japan by the Allies, and the treatment of Germany and Italy, where programs like the Marshall Plan and the Berlin Airlift sought to rebuild, restructure and bind up the wounds of war. Consequently, Germany and Japan are strong, stable nations today, and they participate in world affairs as the equal of all other nations.  Vengeance and shortsightedness, like that of the forgiven slave, have great costs. Forgiveness and reconciliation, however, have a great impact-they have the capacity to change the world forever.


Let us narrow our focus in a bit more, from the global perspective to you, and me. Without a doubt, there is a serious psychological and emotional cost to holding a grudge and refusing to forgive another. The anger and even hatred toward someone who has wronged us tends to rivet and focus our attention and fester away like an infection. This is why Jesus’ teaching minces no words. Jesus knew how anger and resentment can bind a human being, how debilitating vengeance can be, not just for the world, but also for us as individuals. Failure to forgive others or ourselves freezes us into static prisons of isolation and loneliness. Forgiveness breaks through the walls of separation and heals those places of brokenness.


Jesus’ challenge for us today is difficult, but world-changing, life freeing. Jesus calls us to forgive each other, and live lives aimed at reconciling this unforgiving and vengeful world. The key to reconciliation: someone has to make the first move toward forgiveness. A vital relationship with God is transformational and can help us here. When we understand that we receive God’s grace—God’s unmerited forgiveness, we should be grateful.


Consider the astounding story of forgiveness that unfolded in a Texas courthouse just last week as reported by the Dallas Morning News. Chants of “No justice, no peace” drifted from the hallway into the 204th District Court, and then Botham Jean’s 18-year-old brother stepped up to the witness stand Wednesday. This was Brandt Jean’s chance to tell Amber Guyger exactly what he thought of the former Dallas officer after she was sentenced to 10 years in prison for murdering his brother last year when she mistook his apartment for hers.

What came next was a stunning moment that played out after many had left the courtroom and the world watched online. Even courthouse veterans wept at something they’d never seen before.

Jean took a breath into the microphone and began to speak. He hadn’t told his family what he planned to say, he told Guyger. He spoke for himself, not them. "If you truly are sorry," Jean said. "I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you." The prosecution had asked for 28 years — the age Botham would have been on Sunday had Guyger not shot him last September when she was off duty but still in her police uniform.

Instead, Jean told Guyger that he wanted what Botham would have wanted. "I think giving your life to Christ would be the best thing that Botham would want for you," he told her. "I love you as a person, and I don't wish anything bad on you." He told Guyger that he didn't even want her to go to prison. "Can I give her a hug, please?" Brandt asked. "Please."

State District Judge Tammy Kemp gave him the OK.

Guyger hesitated for just a moment, and then she rushed toward Jean and wrapped her arms around his neck. He wrapped his arms around her, his hands spread across her back. They whispered as they embraced, their words heard only by them. Twice Jean and Guyger started to pull apart but then hugged again. Both were in tears when they finally broke away.

The jury was gone. So was Guyger’s family. Only bailiffs, the attorneys, the Jean family, the judge and a handful of journalists remained. Kemp wiped away tears, and sobs could be heard in the courtroom.

Judge Kemp then left, too, through a door behind her bench. She soon re-emerged through another door, the one the jury always used to enter and exit. She walked over to the Jean family and hugged them. "I'm so sorry," she said to each of them. "I'm so sorry for your loss." "Thank you for the way you modeled Christ," Kemp told Allison Jean. But Kemp wasn’t done. She walked in front of the defense table where Guyger still sat.

Kemp crouched in front of Guyger, still wearing her black robe, and gave her a Bible. Those watching on the internet could see the judge and Guyger. But they couldn't hear what happened. They spoke quietly, with Guyger in tears, and Kemp punctuated the conversation by gesturing at the Bible and saying, “Read this.” Guyger leaped up to hug Kemp. The judge paused for a second, unsure of what to do. Then, Judge Kemp embraced Guyger, who whispered in her ear. Only the judge’s responses were heard: “Ma’am, it’s not because I am good. It’s because I believe in Christ. None of us are worthy.” “Forgive yourself.”

Attorneys, bailiffs, and journalists wiped away tears as they watched Jean and Guyger hug and then leaned in to hear Kemp’s words. A box of tissues was passed around. They noted — with puffy faces and red noses — that they had never before cried in court. That they had never seen anything quite like what had just happened. And that, chances are, they never would again.” What an astounding example of modeling Christ’s radical call for forgiveness.

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer(1788-1860) compared the human race to a bunch of porcupines huddling together on a cold winter’s night. He said “The colder it gets outside, the more we huddle together for warmth; but the closer we get to one another, the more we hurt one another with our sharp quills. And in the lonely night of earth’s winter, we eventually begin to drift apart and wander out on our own and freeze to death in our loneliness. Christ has given us an alternative; to forgive each other for the pokes we receive. That allows us to stay together and stay warm.” So may we go from this place and stay warm-thankful for the forgiveness we have received from God our maker, accepting the call to be forgiving as individuals, and a reconciling community to the world. Alleluia! Amen.

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