First Reading Genesis 50:15-21
Second Reading Romans 14:7-13; 15:1-6
Gospel Reading Matthew 18:21-35
Sermon: “What Does It Mean To Forgive?”
Peter’s question to Jesus was likely meant to sound generous: (Matthew 18:21-22 NLT) “Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” Now seven is of course a number with rich Biblical meaning – it is the number of completion – the number of perfection. Seems like a good choice right? Can you imagine his surprise when Jesus replies “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven! Jesus here is not implying a literal answer regardless of whether your Bible translates his reply as 7 times 70 or 77 times. The point is not 77 or 490, but times without number.
Before Peter could pick his jaw back up off the ground, Jesus tells that fascinating story about the responsibility to forgive as we have been forgiven. The first debtor to the king owed a truly staggering amount – amounting to the GNP of a small country! It was truly unpayable despite what the hapless servant promised as he begged for mercy. It was pity that saved him. What he received was grace. The king did not give him more time as he asked but rather forgave his debt completely and released him free and clear. The meaning here is crystal clear and not to be missed. The condition of that servant with respect to the king is precisely our position with respect to out holy and righteous God. We are completely dependent on the grace of God won for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus – our debt to sin and death is erased and we are free of it entirely – Thanks be to Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior! There is nothing else we can do but shout Alleluia and bless the goodness of God.
We could wish that the story ended there, but of course it does not. The pinch in the story comes when this gloriously forgiven man immediately goes out and hunts up a fellow servant who owes him a notable, but manageable amount – in terms of our money, think of it as the size of a car loan. As we heard, the debtor who received such wonderful mercy, would not extend any at all to this personal debtor of his. The king heard about his cruelty and revoked his pardon. Jesus sums up the lesson in this inescapable way: (Matthew 18:35 NLT) “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”
It of course os not the firs time we have heard this message from Jesus – the first was taught with the conclusion to the Lords prayer where Jesus tells his disciples: (Matthew 6:12-15 NLT)  and forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us.  And don’t let us yield to temptation, but rescue us from the evil one.  “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you.  But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.
So now then we are left to ponder what it means to forgive – and particularly what it means to forgive from the heart as Jesus emphasizes here. The more I though about it, this week the more I because convinced that it is vastly more difficult and complex than I would like. Sometimes the dictionary helps, sometimes it doesn’t. In reference to forgiveness, it does a little of both: Forgive: pardon, excuse, exonerate, absolve, acquit, let off, grant an amnesty to, amnesty; make allowances for, stop feeling resentful toward, feel no resentment toward, stop feeling malice toward, feel no malice toward, harbor no grudge against, bury the hatchet with; let bygones be bygones; let someone off the hook, go easy on.
There is a lot of variety in that series of synonyms. Other competing and contrasting words come flying to mind: words and thoughts like: Justice, victim, In the right, hold a grudge, ignore, keep score, forget, and ‘worry about being a patsy’ to name just a few. I begin to realize that forgiveness is not easy and often not quick. Does the apparent wrong doer need to repent and ask for forgiveness? Must confession precede absolution? Jesus would have us ask ourselves: How does my gratitude to God for grace result in love for neighbor, stranger, alien, friends and family? The more I thought and read in the scriptures, the more I realized that I couldn’t possible answer all that in a single sermon, even if I was fully confident of all the answers, which I am not, by the way. I usually dislike hearing sermons that offer more questions than answers, yet here I am giving one.
I have reversed course this morning in our Old Testament readings to reach back to a story we skipped over a few weeks ago, in hopes that this story might help us to see forgiveness at work, even if we can’t honestly say we fully understand it. It tells of a long and complicated sort of forgiveness, but gracious in the end. In short, it is real and very human and yet blessed by God.
Recall the early story of Joseph – remember? The spoiled, tattle-telling, dreamer who was sold into slavery by his brothers, and who then told his father that he had been killed by a wild animal. For the next many years, his life was difficult, but he managed to live faithfully, first in Potiphar’s house, then in the prison. And finally as the Prime minister of all of Egypt – second only to Pharaoh. God gave him understanding of Pharaohs dream and Pharaoh gave him control of the country to navigate the prophesied 7 years of plenty and 7 years of horrible famine which followed.
Put yourself in his place when his brothers – foreigners in Egypt, border crossers from Canaan, came before him to buy food. They are completely vulnerable to him now, just as he had been to them before. What follows is complicated and protracted. Joseph does not reveal himself for quite some time, rather he begins a series of tests which last months. He seems to need to know how they value his little brother Benjamin and his father. If we didn’t know the history, we might think him cruel and capricious. Since we do, we might marvel that he was ultimately merciful. Time does not allow me to tell the story in detail but I urge you to go back and read it for yourselves again in Genesis chapters 39-50. Eventually Joseph does reveal himself to his brothers and invites the whole family to move to Egypt – all 70 of them including his aging father Jacob.
The reading today is the epilogue of the story. Jacob is dead and buried and the Brothers are worried that with Dad gone, Joseph will now at long last get his revenge. You see, they have never really confessed and asked for forgiveness in all these years. They just accepted the grace they were given, but never fully trusted it. So they concoct this story about Dad’s indirect request to forgive them. They didn’t have the guts to ask in their own name nor even the integrity to do it in person – they send a note to test the waters first. It is only when Joseph reads it and breaks down in weeping that they come in and offer themselves as slaves. It has taken decades, but at long last, everything is out in the open where it could be acknowledged and dealt with. Joseph has not forgotten at all, Joseph has tested them, and now Joseph assures them that he has already forgiven them and will not put himself in God’s place by executing judgement on them. In so doing, the scene is set for the nation of Israel to be nurtured for 300 years in Egypt until the time of the Exodus when they will leave by the hundreds of thousands of people where they began as a Bedouin tribe of 70.
God blessed Joseph and Joseph forgave – not instantly, but he forgave. His brothers were not particularly saintly, even at the end, but they were forgiven anyway. Why, because of the grace of God. To forgive, Joseph did not and could not have drawn anything but bitter hatred from that dry well they had dumped him in so many years before when he was sold into slavery. If he had fixed his attention there, this would have been a very different story. Instead Joseph was able to look all along his life and see the grace of God that guided him and brought him through so many trials and disappointments to that almost unbelievable position. That was the gracious reservoir where he found the ability to forgive. It did not mean forgetting. We humans cannot do that – only God is capable of that. Only God is that good.
A commentator offered this definition of forgiveness that is extremely useful to me and I hope it is to you: “Forgiveness is not allowing the past to control the future”. It is what Jesus has done and is doing for us. My short comings, my stubborn pride, my rebellion, my lack of love, my betrayals of my faith are laid at the foot of the cross and are taken from me. Just like yours. The Psalmist says God has removed my sins and yours, as far from us as the east is from the west. God does not deal with me or you as we so richly deserve. They questions for us now is how are we going to deal with each other in light of that wonderful truth. Forgiveness is complicated, but it is founded on gratitude. Forgiveness pours down from heaven in mighty torrents for us – how can we not allow it to splash out all over the place? If we notice it isn’t doing that, Jesus would have us take a look where we are standing.