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Forgiveness - Sermon Notes (Sept 17, 2017)

In the movie “City Slickers,” "Phil" goes into the tent after confronting the drunk and abusive cowhands on the cattle drive. While in the tent he breaks down, saying that he is almost 40 years old and his life is a waste. He’s lost his wife, his kids, and his career at his father-in-law’s market all because of a stupid dalliance with a young store clerk. His lifelong buddy Mitch, played by Billy Crystal, reminds him that when they were children and they were playing ball, that if it got stuck in a tree or went over a fence where it couldn’t be retrieved they would call, "do over." Billy Crystal tells Phil that his life is a clean slate, a do over. He can call for a mulligan. The scene ends with Phil questioning the ability to have a do over, and his friends assuring him that the time is right.

Another movie emphasizes a far greater love, with great cost. “The End of the Spear” (20th Century Fox, 2006) tells the true story how, in 1956, five missionaries flew into the jungle of Ecuador to bring the gospel to the Waodani Tribe. Tribal members speared and killed all five men. Later, several family members of those who were killed went to that same tribe and continued the work of God there. Steve Saint went in as a young boy and ended up being befriended and taught by the same man who slew his father. He has spent much of his adult life working with the Waodani and, in later years, bringing the message of God’s love and forgiveness throughout the world.

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. (Matthew 18:21-22)

So how many is it?! How many times are we REALLY supposed to forgive someone who has wronged us? Is it 77 times (as the New Revised Standard Version has it)?  Or is it “seventy times seven,” the literal translation of the Greek    e-ose ab-doh-may-kon-takis ep-ta (εως εβδομηκοντακις επτα), which comes to 490 pronouncements of forgiveness? Or, as some who pay some attention to numerology compute, 7 is the compilation of God’s number – 3 for the trinity, plus 4 for the four corners of the earth equals 7, thus the perfect number; times ten, the number of completion, times 7 again. So you get some sort of eternal number out of that. Christians everywhere are dying to know, Jesus! How many times?! We’ve got our clickers ready! What are we supposed to do?!

This is the question that seems to pervade the hearts of so many Christians. It’s a kind of OCD that approaches faith not as a relationship with Jesus, but as a task that has a check-list of dos and don’ts, and so long as we stick with the dos and avoid the don’ts we’ll be fine. It is especially symptomatic of churches—particularly dying ones. In these cases, the priest or pastor stands in for Jesus, and time after time the people frustratingly shout: JUST TELL US WHAT TO DO!! It’s not about grace. Not about love. Not about relationship. It’s about just getting by and doing what we’re supposed to do.

Our OCD brothers and sisters hear Jesus’ words and figure they’ve got it figured out.  “Jesus says to forgive 77 times—or 490—so that’s what I’ll do, and I’ll keep a running count just to make sure I get the number right.”

Sorry, folks, but it ain’t about math! And it isn’t about the logistical hubbub of doing what we’re “supposed to do.” It’s about the very nature of forgiveness and the way that we approach our relationship with Jesus and our neighbors.

In our text for today. Peter thinks he’s being generous—like, super generous—when he wonders if he should forgive up to seven times. The rabbinical custom, after all, was to forgive up to three times, and then punishment would befall the individual were he or she to sin a fourth time. This is referenced in the first and second chapters of Amos. 
Thus says the LORD: 
For three transgressions of Damascus, 
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they have threshed Gilead 
with threshing sledges of iron. 
4 So I will send a fire on the house of Hazael, 
and it shall devour the strongholds of Ben-hadad. (Amos 1:3-4)

God repeats the same formula, verse for verse, for Gaza, for Tyre, for Edom, for the Ammonites, for Moab, all the enemies of Israel, and yes, for Israel and Judah as well. Three transgressions you get by, forgiven, but that fourth time – you’re out of here!

So you see, Peter’s not entirely without a precedent. But Peter is being magnanimous; he not only doubles this expected number, but he adds one to it, perhaps knowing that seven is considered the “perfect number” and the number associated with God himself. Good ole Peter, always going that extra mile to please Jesus!

Yet in response to this seemingly logical question, Jesus throws out e-ose ab-doh-may-kon-takis ep-ta
(εως εβδομηκοντακις επτα), which as stated before is not even quantifiable! It could mean 77, or it could mean 490, or it could be something approaching infinity. Poor Peter just wants to know what he’s supposed to do, like so many of us. That, Jesus points out, is not the question you should be asking. To illustrate this point, he tells a parable (because this is Matthew’s Gospel, of course he does! 24 parables in Matthew, 18 of them unique to his gospel.)

In this parable, a tyrannical king is owed 10,000 talents by a servant. That sounds like a lot, right? It isn’t a lot. It’s an impossibly ginormous, astronomically absurd lot! A single talent was the equivalent of 15 years’ wage in first-century Palestine! The amount this servant owes is the equivalent of 150,000 years’ worth of income! It comes out to 30 TONS of silver. The folks hearing this parable would have literally LOL-ed at such a comically high amount. Of course the servant can’t pay it! Who gives that kind of cash to a servant anyway?! And, when the servant asks for forgiveness from the king the ludicrous, ginormous, astronomical amount is forgiven, absolved, written off.

But then the servant runs into someone who owes him 100 denarii and demands he pay what he owes. You may be expecting now that this is a teeny tiny amount, right? Not so. A single denarius was worth a day’s wage, thus the amount the servant is owed is just over three months’ wages, which is not an insignificant amount. Perhaps a fourth of your annual income could buy a new car; maybe not. Yet when compared to the 10,000 talents that he owes the king it seems next to nothing, meaningless. And for his part, the first servant, who has just had his debt forgiven, has no forgiveness of his own to offer. The king hears a report and, therefore, reneges on his offer of forgiveness. Because the servant does not show mercy as he did, the servant is sent away to be punished, “…tortured until he would pay his entire debt.” (vs. 34) 150,000 years worth! Sounds pretty daunting to me!

To Peter and other folks who think that faith is about doing what we are “supposed to do,” Jesus is offering an entirely different reality. Stop asking questions like how much I should forgive! Because one who is counting the number of times he or she says, “Yeah, you’re forgiven” isn’t actually forgiving anyone at all, but is just biding time until Jesus offers the reward! Furthermore, the parable isn’t saying that we should just keep forgiving and forgiving without even thinking about it; after all, how can our heart truly be in it if we just keep hitting that “easy” “forgive” button? The entire exchange with Peter and the subsequent parable are part of an invitation into a new way of being.

Peter thought seven was a pretty high number. The servant thought the 100 denarii was a pretty high number. Neither means anything in comparison to the 10,000 talents—the allegorical image Jesus uses to illustrate the magnitude of everything we owe to God. We squabble over matters we think are huge, but in the context of God they are tiny. We scream at the young man in the McDonald’s drive-thru who messed up our order and demand a refund. We wish we had James Bond’s rocket equipped Aston Martin DBS to blow away the competition that got in front of us on the freeway.  We refuse to speak to someone because of a petty squabble from years back. Meanwhile, we have the nerve to ask Jesus, “How many times should we forgive?  What are we supposed to do?” We don’t get it. We never have.

But Jesus offers us the chance to get it. Even now he still offers that to us. He offers us the chance to think of forgiveness not as something of which we keep track or something we just keep doing without thinking but as something we should do in the context of our relationship with God. If God loves us so much that God continues to forgive us whenever we ask it, can we not to do the same?

But Peter and the stodgy cry out that folks don’t deserve that much forgiveness.  Take a lesson from the recently released Wonder Woman film. As she battles Ares, the god of war, who tells her humanity does not deserve her protection, Diana of Themyscira tells him, “It’s not about deserve. It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love!” From the cross, Jesus looks out on those who have called for and carried out his death sentence, and simply, yet profoundly proclaims, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…”
God doesn’t measure forgiveness in what we deserve but in love. Why can’t we?!

So let us move away from this outdated and false paradigm of quantification and the question of whether a person deserves so much forgiveness. If we are truly in relationship with God, a relationship built on love, then we will forgive as God forgives, with a clean slate, and not as humans forgive, which is to say, with conditions and a calculator. Love doesn’t work that way!

As C.S. Lewis put it: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” You can’t go wrong ending on a quote from that guy!  

May our forgiveness be grounded in the love and forgiveness God has shown us. Amen