“How often should I forgive?” from Matthew 18:21
Imagine if it were possible to count them all. To tally up the number of times we have forgiven someone. Parents, your list might include the following:
- I forgave you for waking me up every two hours during the night for what seemed like years.
- I forgave you for throwing my phone in the toilet.
- I forgave you for “forgetting” about that school project until the night before it was due, therefore making me go out to buy some posterboard and glue stick, which caused me to get a speeding ticket because I was trying to get to the CVS before it closed, but because I got the ticket, CVS did close before I got there, and so I had to drive to the 24-hour Walmart.
- I forgave you for making me stay up late worrying about you when you came home two hours after curfew.
- I forgave you for saying that you couldn’t wait until you didn’t live here any more.
Or we could flip it around. Kids, think about your parents. How would you keep track?
- I forgave you for that haircut you gave me the day before school pictures.
- I forgave you for yelling at me when you were really mad at someone else.
- I forgave you for making me stay on the track team even though I was terrible at it.
- I forgave you for embarrassing me in front of my friends.
- I forgave you for saying that we can’t afford a new phone when I’d already broken one and lost another.
- I forgave you for making my curfew earlier than everyone else’s.
- I forgave you for grounding me when I missed that curfew…again…and again…and again.
Imagine if we tried to keep count. And then imagine that we did it for every relationship. One tally sheet for your spouse or significant other. One for each sibling. One for each co-worker. One for each neighbor. A miscellaneous category for people who cut you off in traffic or have more than 10 items in the express checkout at the grocery store.
We’d never be able to track it all. We’d need spreadsheets. And then spreadsheets for the spreadsheets. Each time you forgave someone, you could mark it down – with the ultimate goal of reaching your targeted number of occasions for forgiveness in each relationship. A sort of Fitbit approach to forgiveness.
That’s what Peter wants in today’s gospel, right? He wants to know the outer limits of what’s expected. “Lord, if another [person] sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Seven times! Good gracious, there are some days when we have to forgive someone seven times before breakfast.
But Peter likes for things to be clear. He likes what’s tangible and easy to understand. It’s what makes him such a good student for these lessons of discipleship. Jesus says to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
And then, as he often does, Jesus tells a story. There’s a slave who owes the king a crazy amount of money. Ten thousand talents. A talent was about 130 lbs of silver and would have taken a worker about fifteen years to earn.[i] So the slave owed the king about 150,000 years of labor. That debt was never going to be fully paid. The king at first is going to be hard-nosed about it, making him sell everything he has to pay the debt. But the slave begs. He grovels. I’ll do anything, he says, just don’t make me sell all that I have.
The king relents. He has pity for his slave, and in a stunning act of generosity, the king forgives the debt. He doesn’t lower his interest rate or renegotiate the payment plan. He forgives it all. Can you imagine how that must have felt to the slave? The relief, the sense of freedom from a burden that had kept him awake night after night. What if you woke up tomorrow to discover that someone had paid off all your debt? It would be pretty amazing, right? It would be freeing.
So this slave, who has just been the recipient of incredible mercy, turns around and sees a fellow slave who owes him a hundred denarii. A denarius is about a day’s wage, so this other slave owed him the equivalent of about 100 days labor.[ii] That’s still a pretty big debt, but it’s not 150,000 years worth. It comes as quite a shock when the first slave grabs his comrade by the throat and demands payment, threatening prison and who knows what else to exact the money from him.
The community quickly calls him out on his hypocrisy. Having received mercy from the king, how could he withhold mercy from another?
You see what Jesus is doing here. He’s telling us to stop counting. He tells us there’s no point in keeping score. When Jesus says to forgive 77 times, he doesn’t mean that we should rush to program that number into the Forgiveness app on our phones. He means we forgive more times than we’re able to count. He means we don’t keep track in the first place.
Jesus shows us the way, not just in the story he tells today but in what he does. From the cross he looks down and says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He forgives us for putting him on that cross in the first place.
Having received mercy from the king, how could we withhold mercy from another?
I want to offer this note of caution. There are times when people have been brutally hurt by another person – assaulted, abused, traumatized – and are then pressured to forgive the perpetrator quickly, often because those around the victim are uncomfortable with the magnitude of the harm that’s been done. Even when such forgiveness is possible, it is a process that involves difficult work, not one singular moment. Forgiveness is not meant to be a tool of manipulation.
Forgiveness can, however, be the bedrock of loving relationships. All week long as I have wrestled with this gospel, the chorus to Don Henley’s song “The Heart of the Matter” has kept running through my head.[iii]
I’ve been tryin’ to get down
To the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it’s about forgiveness
Even if, even if you don’t love me anymore
In this song forgiveness is about some kind of healing after a relationship has ended, but there are a few lines in one of the verses that seem especially fitting these days:
These times are so uncertain
There’s a yearning undefined
People filled with rage
We all need a little tenderness
How can love survive in such a graceless age?
That’s a great question. How can love survive in such a graceless age? The answer is – well, grace – the gift of forgiveness given with no counting, no auditing, no strings attached. A gift that defies measurement but gives us what we need to keep going.
We receive it. We share it. And then we do it again. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Matthew 18:17b
I love this season – not so much the hurricanes, but the beginning of another school year with all the possibility it holds. Everybody gets a fresh start. Last year math might have made you pull your hair out, but this year you’re going to rock algebra. Writing may not feel like your forte, but you’ve got some essays and stories in you that others need to hear. This is a hopeful time.
My friend Kristy took her son Sam to preschool for the first time this week. On the second day when she came to pick him up, Sam grabbed her hand and said, “I’m proud of you, Mommy.”
I love that, but I love even more what Sam said when his mom asked him what made him feel happy when he was at school. Sam’s answer? His teacher. When Kristy asked him why, Sam said, “Because she listens to me.”
It’s so important, isn’t it? We all crave it. We want to be noticed, to be seen, and most especially, to be heard and understood.
That’s a crucial truth to remember as we hear today’s gospel.[i] At first glance this passage can read like an instructional manual. There’s a conflict of some kind in the church? Here’s a recipe to follow. Talk to the person one on one. Talk in a small group. Bring it before the whole church. And if you go through all these steps without a successful outcome, then just kick the troublemaker out and go on about your business.
But, as you might suspect, there’s more to it than that.
There are two pieces of good news up front. The first is that Jesus knows that conflict is inevitable. He understands that one aspect of our sinful humanity is that we do not always get along with each other. The gospel of Matthew was probably recorded somewhere between the years 80 and 90, and already there were many disputes within the fledgling church.
The second, even better bit of news is that Jesus believes that reconciliation is possible. Though we easily get tangled up in our own self-righteousness or refuse to hear what others are saying to us, there is a path forward. Mutual understanding can be found when we are willing to work as a community to get there.
What lies at the heart of that path to reconciliation is a communal process of speaking and listening. It starts with a conversation between two people – possibly the hardest part of what Jesus urges us to do. It’s far easier when we have been offended by someone to tell everyone else about it. Can you believe what she did? Isn’t he terrible? But talking to everyone else about it avoids the honest work of talking directly to the person who has offended us.
The next part of the process that Jesus describes highlights the power of bearing witness. Sometimes it is useful and necessary to have others present for a difficult conversation. It can keep the conversation focused. It can be a safeguard against power dynamics that can become abusive. It holds participants accountable for what they say and what they do.
Because what we all want is the same thing that three-year-old Sam wants. We want people to listen to us. We want to tell our story and have it be received with compassion. We especially want to be heard when we have been wronged. But if we are truly honest, we know that the person who has wronged us has a story too. People don’t act in hurtful ways for no reason. There is always something that motivates their behavior – a hidden secret, an open wound. What would happen if we gave that person a chance to speak and be heard as well?
Jesus tells the disciples that if you bring the concern to the whole community and if the offender refuses to listen, that person can be to them as a Gentile and a tax collector. I bet the disciples – and the Christian community of Matthew’s time – heard that statement as permission to reject the person, to toss the offender out into the streets.
Except let’s remember how Jesus treats Gentiles and tax collectors. Others despise them as outsiders. But Jesus seeks them out. He goes to their neighborhoods. He has dinner in their homes. He hears their stories.
It’s no accident that this whole passage appears right after Jesus has told the disciples the story of the lost sheep: “If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?” The heart of Jesus is always with those who need a little more help staying in the fold.
I should pause and note that some people are so destructive to a community that they do have to be removed. Even so, there are ways to hold them accountable while also showing love and compassion.
In August of 2016 an African-American woman named Heather McGhee was being interviewed on C-Span about her anti-racism work.[ii] A man named Gary called into the show from North Carolina and proceeded to make this confession: “I’m a white male, and I am prejudiced. It’s not something that I was taught, but it was something I learned.” He went on to describe in a very honest way his fear of black people. He realized that he was acting out of that fear, and it was making him more prejudiced, so he was reaching out to ask for help. He ended with this question: “What can I do to change, to be a better American?”
What a brave thing for Gary to do – to acknowledge his need to change and to ask for help in doing it. Heather gave him some ideas about where to start, which included getting to know some black families and learning more about the experience of African-American people in this country. Later, after Gary reached out to her via Twitter, they talked on the phone. Heather recommended some books for Gary to read. And he did. When Heather traveled to North Carolina for work, they met up and had a conversation in person. They continued to stay in touch.
A couple of weeks ago, Gary called C-Span to describe how much he has changed over the past year. He’s lost a few friends along the way, but he has grown tremendously.
Heather says, “He gives me a lot of credit, but I give him a lot of credit for being willing to be humble, to have a little bit of…wonder whenever he comes upon another prejudiced thought in his mind. He loves to catch himself in that moment.” Heather acknowledges his hard work – but they did it together. And it started because she listened to him. She heard what he had to say without condemnation.
We all need help catching ourselves saying things we shouldn’t say and behaving in ways we know are wrong. We have all hurt someone with our words and our actions. How much better it is to address these injuries in holy community – to name them and to ask forgiveness for them, to hear each other with compassion.
We are given the grace to have these difficult conversations because we have a shepherd who keeps searching for us when we wander. He keeps calling us by name until we come back to the fold.
And so we try to do the same for each other. Even when it is hard. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] I am grateful for this commentary by Eric Barreto, which influenced the sermon’s direction: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2164
[ii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/national/a-caller-asked-how-he-could-be-less-prejudiced-watch-her-amazing-response/2016/08/23/e0324c74-6980-11e6-91cb-ecb5418830e9_video.html?utm_term=.553ac2cf9083 You can hear an update on the story in an interview with Heather on the August 28, 2017 episode of Pod Save America.