Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Yahweh is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness.
An episode of ďEverybody Loves RaymondĒ began with Raymond and Debra sitting in their living room watching television. Suddenly Marie and Frank drove their car through the front door. As usual, Frank managed to find a way to blame everyone else; when he got out of the car, he asked who was going to pay for the scratches on his car. A settlement was made, though Debra spent much of the episode trying to get Raymond to take a hard look at his relationship with his parent. He always let them walk all over him. Raymond held his anger until he finally he exploded. The catalyst? Mismatched wallpaper.
When the repairs were finished, Ray looked at the wallpaper and realized that the new wallpaper was slightly different than the old paper. The stripes were similar but not quite the same size. The difference was so insignificant that most people would never notice. Even standing right next to the wall, it was difficult to see what had Ray so upset. Debra explained that it would have cost a lot of money to have exactly the same wallpaper recreated, so she settled for something cheaper but very close. Ray exploded. He demanded more money from Frank and Marie. He didnít care how much it would cost; they were going to pay for it to be perfect. The problem, however, had nothing to do with the wallpaper. It was only the catalyst for the anger Raymond had been feeling for far too long. When he exploded, he yelled at them for all the wrong reasons.
He seemed to forgive over and over again, but the reality is that he held a grudge about all the things his parents did to his family. He would never have exploded if he had just dealt honestly and openly about his feelings. Thatís why Jesus told us last week to take our hurts and pains directly to the one who hurt us. Marie and Frank probably would not have changed, but that was part of the character of the show. We see in this television example how swallowing our anger only leads to an eventual explosion. Like Raymondís catalyst, it is usually something ridiculous that sets us off.
We allow our hurts and anger to well up inside, not speaking to those who have sinned against us until it is too late. We then let insignificant problems tempt us into responding with harsh words and violent temper. In the end, nothing is fixed. The wallpaper still does not match and the relationship is never reconciled. Though we might talk about forgiveness and continue in the relationship, we never get around to dealing with the root of the problems. We let them simmer in the back of our mind until something else insignificant causes us to explode.
There were a thousand reasons for Raymond to be angry with his parents. They were often cruel and rude, brutally honest about how everyone elseís opinions were wrong and how they were always right. Marie treated Debra with loving contempt, if thatís possible, and Frank was nothing less than a jerk most of the time. I do not doubt that many couples in the real world would not continue the relationship. They would find a way to separate themselves from the circumstances by moving away and cutting off communication. It seems impossible that anyone would have the kind of patience necessary to live with such irritating and hurtful relatives. Yet, this is exactly what Jesus is asking of us in todayís Gospel passage. We are not to forgive once, twice or even seven times. We are to forgive seven times seventy. Four hundred and ninety is not even enough, as the number itself represents a willingness to continue to forgive an infinite number of times.
In the days of Jesus, the rabbis taught that you had to forgive a person three times. A similar idea can be seen in modern baseball and law. ďThree strikes and you are out,Ē is the motto of the day and we hold to it even in our personal lives. We might be able to forgive someone once. We might even be able to forgive them twice. But we have a really hard time forgiving them the third time. Do they deserve our mercy if they keep doing the same thing over and over again?
I am sure that Peter thought that he was being very generous when he asked Jesus how often they should forgive, after all, the law said three times and he upped it to seven. Peter was continuing the lesson of last week. We are curious, like Peter, about how far that should go. We know to forgive and can do so once, perhaps twice. We might even be gracious enough to do it the third time as the rabbis encouraged, after all love means going the extra mile, right? Going further, like the seven times Peter suggested, seems not only difficult but foolish. At what point do we become a doormat for someone who continues to do the same thing over and over again. Forgiveness is meant to bring reconciliation, and forgiven sin that is repeated over and over again shows that the repentance has led nowhere.
Many would say that those willing to continue to forgive without limitation are simply naÔve. We need to accept that people donít change. People donít learn the lessons we teach one another when admonish and encourage faithful living. We forget. We are led by our flesh. We fail repeatedly. So, we wonder if it is really smart to forgive someone more than a few times. But, forgiveness is not naÔve; it is a gift from God. We have to deal with sin, not only for ourselves, but also for the other. We must recognize our own sinfulness so that we will learn how to forgive. Jesus calls us to recognize our own debts and forgive the debts others have against us.
The servant in todayís story was more than willing to accept the forgiveness of the king, yet he was unwilling to forgive a much smaller debt. The power of forgiveness is opening our eyes to our own failings, giving us the freedom to be transformed and to take the transforming grace of God into the world. It does little good for us to say the words, ďI forgiveĒ over and over again if the absolution is not coming from Godís grace. Our word is useless, but Godís Word brings forgiveness and peace.
People still fail even when we have dealt with sin. It takes time after time of practicing good discipline with a child before that child will truly learn the lessons we are trying to teach. A child might touch that shiny, breakable bobble on the coffee table a dozen times before they truly understand what we mean by ďNO.Ē Each time takes forgiveness. Unfortunately, our hurt and anger over the actions of others who harm us is magnified with every offense. Like Raymond, the hurt and anger builds with every offense. It becomes harder and harder to forgive. How do we deal with a brother or sister in Christ who has isnít transformed by forgiveness?
Peter asks, ďHow often do we have to forgive these breaches of trust?Ē He knew the rule of three, but Jesus is always going above and beyond. ďIíll show Jesus Iím learning,Ē he thinks. But Jesus gives a shocking answer, ďI donít tell you until seven times, but, until seventy times seven.Ē Not seven times, but 490 times? Some versions translate the number Ďseventy seven times.í Even that seems a little overboard. Can one person really commit the same sin seventy seven times or four hundred and ninety times? Shouldnít they eventually learn the lesson? Isnít that willful disobedience?
The disciples must have been as shocked as we are, so Jesus told them a parable. The king was sitting in judgment over his servants. One man owed him an outrageous sum, beyond his ability to pay, and yet the king forgave the debt. This would be an easy story to preach if it ended there, because we could limit our message to the mercy of God.
The story goes further, however. When the servant left the kingís presence he found another servant who owed him a debt. Though the debt was small compared to his own debt to the king, the forgiven servant did not have the same mercy on his debtor, throwing him in jail until he could pay. The king discovered what the forgiven servant did and rescinded the grace. We learn from this story that it is not enough to live in Godís forgiveness, but we must also forgive others.
We have each been forgiven a debt that we could never pay for our sin against God which is much greater than any sin by our brothers and sisters in Christ. We make ourselves to be greater than the King, putting ourselves in the place of God when we refuse to forgive those debts. God is just and faithful; He will ensure that everything is made right in the end, in Godís time and in Godís way. Thatís why Joseph saw his life of suffering in such a positive way. He knew that God was able to do something extraordinary. So, too, the pain we feel when we are hurt by our brothers and sisters in Christ. They may be willfully disobedient, doing something against us with malice and mean intent, but God can and does use those experiences to do good things.
We know the story of Joseph. He was the favored son of Jacob, the firstborn of Jacobís beloved wife Rachel. He was loved because she was loved, and his siblings saw the favoritism. They were jealous and first thought to kill him, but Reuben tried to stop the plot. Judah convinced the brothers to sell him to an Ishmaelite caravan; Joseph was more valuable alive than dead. Joseph ended up in Egypt and suffered humiliation, false accusation and imprisonment. He was abandoned and forgotten.
Joseph wasnít perfect; the hatred of his brothers was not completely unfounded. He had an incredible gift; the brothers thought he was arrogant, using his gift and their fatherís love to lord over them. Joseph was human and very young, so he made mistakes. He may not have even realized how much he was hurting his brothers. The brothers, however, hated him because he was the favorite. They sold him into slavery, but it led him to the place where he would be a savior to many people.
God was with Joseph. He was blessed even when he was a slave, a servant and a prisoner. Joseph recognized all along that his gifts were not his, but were from God. He was not subtle and appeared arrogant especially to his brothers, but he had a heart for God. Despite his imperfections, Joseph recognized that God was with him. When his brothers sold him into slavery, they sold him into a life of suffering but God had a plan to use Joseph in a powerful way. Joseph may have had the authority to seek justice from his brothers, but he knew that judgment was up to God. He also knew that God made everything right by using his suffering for the good of the world. Many people were saved and God was glorified in Josephís suffering and through his gifts.
Iíd like to think that I could be as gracious as Joseph, but I have to admit that Iím not always so merciful. I can hold onto hurt and anger for a very long time. Would I have feasted with my brothers if theyíd sold me into slavery? Would I have shared the food Iíd worked hard to save based on the gift they despised? Even if I did have mercy, I can imagine myself throwing an ďI told you soĒ or two at them along the way. I may have found it in my head to forgive them, particularly for the sake of someone I loved, but Iím not so sure I would have found it in my heart. Remembering Josephís attitude about God helps us to accept Jesusí command for forgiveness. If we give it to God, then we donít have to hurt onto the hurts, even the repeated hurts, of our brothers and sisters.
We are too often like the forgiven servant who would not forgive; we are the ones undeserving of mercy. We fail. We sin. We continue to do what we should not do and do not do what we should. Yet, God is merciful, slow to anger. He is patient and longsuffering. He does not give us what we deserve but instead forgives us our sins and forgets them forever. We might suffer the consequences of our failure, but God redeems us despite ourselves. He does not forgive us just once, twice or three times. He doesnít just forgive us seventy-seven or four hundred and ninety times. God doesnít count the times He forgives us; by His grace we are forgiven into eternity and we are called to live in that forgiveness by being forgiving.
We have each been forgiven a debt that we could never pay for our sin against God; our sin is much greater than any sins against us. We make ourselves to be greater than the King, putting ourselves in the place of God when we refuse to forgive those debts. God is just and faithful; He will ensure that everything is made right in the end, in Godís time and in Godís way. Thatís why Joseph saw his life of suffering in such a positive way. He knew that God was able to do something extraordinary. God can also use the pain we feel when we are hurt by our brothers and sisters in Christ. They may be willfully disobedient, doing something against us with malice and mean intent, but God can and does use those experiences to do good things through a Church that is filled with forgiven and forgiving sinners.
As we read the New Testament, we can see that todayís church is not much different than those in the first days of the Church. The problems Paul and the other apostles addressed in their letters are as common for us today. There are differences but I can imagine Paul writing todayís passage from his letter to the Romans to Christians in our world today. Disagreement is a fact of human life. We are different people trying to work in the same world. We have a common goal but very different visions about how to get there. By the time we get around to working together, our differences are so vast that we canít find a way to compromise. Compromise, all too often, means giving up something that means too much to us.
Many of the Christians in Rome were former pagans. They knew that the meat that was purchased in the marketplace had most likely been sacrificed as part of the ritualistic worship of the pagan community. They were concerned because they knew that the animals had been slaughtered in worship and ministry to the pagan gods and they chose to avoid eating meat because they refused to support that worship. Paul knew that there was nothing wrong with the meat even though it came out of a pagan ceremony. It was still acceptable to God. He also knew that it would weigh on the conscience of those former pagans. So, he treated the issue with grace.
He called the community to join together in the Christ they worshipped. Too many things that divide us are not salvific issues, but we reject and judge one another. We forget about the forgiveness which began with Christ and leads to reconciliation between brothers and sisters. Paul encourages us to see Christ in one another, to live together in a way that glorifies God. We all have gifts and purpose and if we do not reconcile with those who have sinned, then we cut off a part of Christís body that He has called together. We tend to think that others must conform to our vision, but God has a much greater vision in mind.
So, the next time our brother or sister sins against us, letís remember that we are not God. Whether it is the first time or the four hundred and ninety first time doesnít matter. The Church is built on forgiveness, not just the words, but the intentional process from our hearts to find a way to reconcile with them so that we can worship God and do His work together in the world.
This is the life we are called to live: a life of forgiveness. God sends us into the world forgiven so that we can forgive the debts of others, even when sin seems to go on and on and on. We have been set free to set the world free. God loves us with compassion far greater than we deserve and He calls us to do the same for our brothers and sisters in Christ. That is how we deal with each other in this community of faith. Even when we fail one another, we are not to keep a record of every sin, but instead forgive over and over again, wiping the slate clean each time and beginning anew, just as God has done for us.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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