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Forgiveness, not Baseball

September 15, 2014

“Forgiveness, not Baseball” Matthew 18:21-35 © 9.14.14 Ordinary 24A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

What have I gotten myself into? I should have picked another text from the lectionary. Who am I to preach on forgiveness? I didn’t grow up in a family that forgave. Instead, we held grudges for years and years. And the people who have hurt me I have not forgiven so much as relegated to nothingness. I’ve treated them as unimportant, pushing their names and their offenses, especially the betrayals of trust, deep, deep into the sub-basement of my psyche.

You would think that by now I might have learned to forgive, since I’ve been the recipient of gracious words and the remission of spiritual debts so often. I’ve done so many stupid and insensitive things, acted so incompetently and thoughtlessly, and generally messed up my life and that of other people so often that I have been in constant need of forgiveness. Not just when I was young and foolish and clueless. But now that I am older and foolish and clueless.

The hardest people to forgive are professing Christians, believers, who commit offenses, who hurt sisters and brothers in faith. Why? Because they should know better. They’re supposed to love you. They’ve sat at the feet of Jesus and heard his word. They’ve promised, by joining with a community of faith by baptism that they will act a particular way, living with justice, peace, and compassion.

But baptized and professing or not, we all sin against each other at one time or another. The morning’s text is part of Matthew’s discussion of what to do when such transgressions happen.

It comes right after a section which discusses a four-step process for settling conflict in the church, which may or may not have been successful. That in turn is in the larger context of a discussion of how we treat the vulnerable members of our community—those Jesus calls “little ones”—and how we exercise power and influence over others. Do we contribute to their well-being and help them grow and flourish or do we make their lives difficult, constantly putting obstacles to wholeness and peace in their path as they walk their journey? Do we feel ourselves accountable to a larger community and do we expect that others will be held responsible for their actions as well? Or do we all act as if we are a law unto ourselves? Are we humble people or do we have an inflated sense of our own importance?

So when Peter comes to Jesus to ask about forgiving another, the gospel writer intends for his readers to consider the conversation another discussion of power. To forgive or not? We decide, don’t we? We can say what happens next, what the shape of the future will be.

I can’t be sure, but it may be that Peter’s question/offer represents an alternative approach to the four-step judicial proceeding I talked about earlier. Rather than a long, drawn-out, potentially embarrassing and church-splitting process, an offended party can always forgive and be done. But is there a limit? How do we know what’s appropriate if that’s the chosen path? In the Jewish tradition, of which Jesus and Peter and the rest were all a part, the requirement was to forgive three times. So, it was rather like baseball, I guess. Three strikes, and you’re out. Cut off from a relationship. Banished from the community.

Peter is trying to show that he is willing to go beyond legal requirements and be magnanimous. He knew from experience that Jesus would always ask for more than expected. So, surely twice the rule, plus one for good measure, should be enough. Besides, as the old children’s Sunday school song said: “Seven is the perfect number, we are told; let’s be more like seven before we get too old!”

But Jesus reminds Peter, and us, that forgiveness doesn’t keep score, a ledger of wrongs done and corrected. It’s not this for that; quid pro quo; Peter six, sinner zero. The Old Testament character Lamech swore: “If Cain is avenged seven-fold, then Lamech is avenged seventy-seven fold.” Such a calculus of revenge has been shattering the wholeness of the world ever since. But Jesus’ new math of love restores and will restore the world, even if only by one relationship at a time, as the church adopts it and becomes an example of a different way that leads to wholeness. “Seventy-seven times” or as it is traditionally, “seventy times seven” was the Hebrew idiom for “unlimited,” not literally 490. We don’t and can’t stop when we get to 78 or 491, with something like this: “Oops! Your banked forgiveness credits have been used up, brother, sister. Get out of my sight! I hate you. Remember: I know your name, and I know where you live. One of these days, when you least expect it….”

Jesus makes his point not with a lecture, but in his usual way—by telling a story. A king has a servant, maybe some low-ranking official in an outlying province, perhaps a teacher or a steward in his household. The man owes him a great deal of money. And when I say a “great deal,” I mean more than any of us could imagine. One translation tries to capture the enormity of the debt by rendering the text as “millions of dollars,” but even that figure isn’t big enough. 10,000 talents would have been between 150,000 and 200,000 years’ worth of wages, depending on whether someone worked six days a week or seven. Consider a couple of other statistics to put things in perspective: King Herod’s entire annual income was 900 talents; all the taxes collected in the districts of Galilee and Perea in a year came to only 200 talents. So, instead of owing millions of dollars, think about owing the entire Gross Domestic Product or the 11.74 trillion dollar debt of all US consumers as of August. Or perhaps fifty times all the taxes of any sort collected in the US in a year. The idea, of course, is not to set an actual figure but to understand that the debt was impossible. Only the merciful action of the king could relieve the servant of his burden.

You would think the man, free of such a horrendous obligation, would do something to celebrate, like go out to dinner with his wife and kids, do a little dance and whoop and holler with joy, get down on his knees and thank God that there were such men as his master. Even if he didn’t do anything of those things, at least he could immediately find all the people who owed him money and tear up their bills. But instead, as soon as he leaves the throne room where he has received an incredible bounty, he goes out and finds some guy who’s in debt for one hundred days’ worth of minimum wage. Pleas for mercy and patience go unheeded, and the forgiven slave throws his micro-debtor into prison. Thus he shows he has no idea what it means to be forgiven; he remains hard-hearted and untransformed. He likes being in power and using it to hurt, even though he himself has been the recipient of unbelievable mercy rather than justice, which would have demanded payment of his astronomical debt.

What happens next is not pretty. His fellow slaves, incensed and disturbed, report on the man. No doubt they want him to be accountable for his utter lack of compassion. The king has him brought back in and after a stern lecture on proper behavior, he is turned over to be tortured till the debt is paid, which means the pain will never end, since the amount owed is impossible.

The conclusion is troubling. Jesus, or Matthew putting words in Jesus’ mouth, says that God will do the same to anyone who doesn’t forgive from the heart. But maybe Matthew’s community wouldn’t listen to anything but a raised voice speaking fearsome words. Could be threats were all they understood, the conflict among them was so great. Maybe the details are there to make a colorful, if frightening, story, and the point is that failure to forgive has consequences. God does hold us accountable for our actions. And sometimes maybe he has to resort to extreme measures to get our attention about what we’re doing or failing to do.

If indeed we understand the king as God, as is traditional, and ourselves as the slave with the huge debt, we may see our relationships with those who have sinned against us a bit differently. If we have received mercy, how can we not show it? We are really no better than anyone else. We don’t deserve to have our debt remitted, but God does it anyway.

Our tradition helps us understand how large our obligation to our Creator is, a debt which the Heidelberg Catechism says we are increasing every day. In the first place, we owe God everything we have and are. We are simply leasing space, as it were, from God on this earth that belongs to him. Nothing we produce or do is really our own; we are God’s stewards. So there is the infinite debt of gratitude. The other part of the debt is that we have done a lousy job in fulfilling our calling, both in general as members of the human race and as baptized people who in the name of Christ are to love our neighbors as ourselves. “A Brief Statement of Faith” summarizes our failure well: “We rebel against God; we hide from our Creator. Ignoring God’s commandments, we violate the image of God in others and ourselves, accept lies as truth, exploit neighbor and nature, and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care. We deserve God’s condemnation. Yet God acts with justice and mercy….”

Because we have been so forgiven, we are invited, urged, commanded to forgive. But immediately we object. Doesn’t forgiving an offender mean that we regard the offense, the trauma, the injury, as unimportant, as nothing, that the violator goes free? No. Not at all. Forgiveness does not release the offender from responsibility, excuse or condone his or her actions and words. It doesn’t erase the consequences of the offense. The offender must still be held accountable; the offended will still bear the scars of the assault on his or her emotions, career, reputation, and/or body. The context of the passage makes clear that the protection of the vulnerable is the primary concern, and those who take advantage of and hurt others will not walk away, will not escape payment for their transgression, whether in this life or the next.

Forgiveness is not about releasing the violator from obligation to make things right or making him or her feel better. Instead, it’s intended to liberate the offended. It’s been shown that people who forgive have significantly lower blood pressure, less anxiety and depression, and feel more satisfied with life and themselves (“Researchers tell faith communities to let trauma survivors forgive in their own time,” The Christian Century: 9.17.14: 17; see article online at http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2014-08/researchers-tell-faith-communities-let-trauma-survivors-forgive-their-own-time ). As long as we don’t forgive, the offender still has control of a part of us. That wound festers. That old pain comes back when the weather of our lives turns cold or cloudy. The original psychic damage manifests itself over and over in unrelated situations as rage, anger, bitterness, guilt, depression, and self-hatred. We get mad at some trivial thing, and don’t even know why. In a sense, we deliver ourselves to be tortured. How much anger over the years could I have saved myself if I had forgiven those who have hurt me? When we forgive, we refuse to let the person who violated our trust hurt us anymore, have any say over how we live our lives. The Episcopal priest Carol Mead has written: “Failures to forgive poison my attitude toward people and events of the past, and sometimes even toward people and events now who resemble them. The inability to forgive other people doesn’t…bind…them nearly as much as it binds me, so maybe it’s time to acknowledge my old grudges and let them go” (Practically Holy: 365).

Philomena Lee was one of the “shamed girls” of Ireland in the 1950s. She got pregnant out of wedlock, and her parents sent her to the convent in Roscrea to have the child. Her experience and her search for her son have been made into a movie starring Judi Dench. The nuns at Roscrea, especially Sister Hildegarde, were cruel to Philomena and the other girls like her. She was given no pain medication, for example, when she gave birth and no doctor was called, even though her son was born breech. She worked seven days a week as a virtual slave in the laundry, seeing her child only one hour a day. All this was forced on her as penance for her sin. At 2 ½, her son Michael Anthony Lee was adopted by a rich family in America, with Philomena finding out the boy was being taken only as he was being driven away. She searched for him for 50 years, constantly lied to by the nuns about his whereabouts, told all records were burned, though it was not revealed that the papers were destroyed intentionally. When Michael inquired as an adult, the sisters said his mother abandoned him. Finally, through the help of the British journalist Martin Sixsmith, Philomena was able to find out what happened, and in the movie as well as real life, despite the cruelty of the sisters, in the end forgives the arrogant, hateful nun Sr. Hildegarde. The latter maintains her graceless disdain for Philomena and proclaims her own holiness, shown in her view by her lifelong chastity; she remains locked in her prison of false piety and twisted theology. Philomena, on the other hand, through her forgiveness, finally is free to live the remainder of her life. She was wronged terribly by other members of the church, but she chose to rise above hatred and revenge. (See an article about the real Philomena at http://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/philomena-lee-visits-roscrea-home-where-son-was-taken-from-her-1.1817622.)

That kind of forgiveness doesn’t happen easily or overnight, if it happens at all. It’s a discipline, a practice that might take years. Forgiving seventy-seven times, seventy times seven means that we repeat it over and over, training our spirits as we do when we’re developing a new habit or learning a skill. It’s said of the Amish: “Their understanding of forgiveness is that it is a long process, that it is difficult, that it is painful, that replacing bitter feelings toward someone is something that takes time, and they would say that happens only through God’s grace. But they begin with expressing their intention to forgive, with the faith that the emotional forgiveness will follow over months and years. They don’t begin with trying to blame someone or something” (http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-10-01-amish_N.htm ).

How many times must my brother, my sister sin against me, and I forgive them? Three? Seven? No. Seventy times seven. Forgive till it works. Forgive till you and I are free.

Forgiveness, not baseball.

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