Sermon September 13, 2020

“How Many Times…?”

MATTHEW 18:21-35

(Look over the Congregation?)

Excuse me, but I am looking for someone.  I am looking for the person who does not need forgiveness, but I do not seem to be able to find that person. 

If I can not find the person who does not need forgiveness in the church, then where shall I look? 

  • Places of business
  • Places of recreation or the halls of learning
  • Home or the hospital
  • Bank or the poorhouse
  • Kindergarten or the home for the aged
  • I have looked in the mirror and I have not found him there. 

Where is the man, where is the woman who does not need forgiveness from loved ones, friends, associates, or God?

I must conclude that there is no individual who at times within their life is not in need of forgiveness.  We all are reliant upon the grace of God and at many times the kindness, patience and understanding of one another.  The importance of forgiveness within the God filled life is what Jesus was trying to teach Peter in our text today. 

Peter came up to Jesus and said, “How often shall my brother or sister’s sin against me, and I forgive him or her?  As many as seven times?

Who knows why Peter asked Jesus this question?  Was it simply out of academic interest?  The teachers in Jesus time loved to discuss such matters among themselves.  However, my guess is that Peter maybe Peter had someone that he didn’t want to forgive.  Maybe one of the other disciples. Perhaps he had put up with his brother Andrew all he intended to.  You know how family can be.   Perhaps Peter was counting and had decided that he had forgiven this brother 10 times and he is still getting the same intolerable treatment.  Most of the religious leaders in Jesus time would say that 3 times is enough to forgive, and so now Peter comes to Jesus and asks him How many times should I forgive…, seven?  Peter may have felt himself on safe ground with this number, and if Jesus would have said yes seven is the perfect and sufficient number of times to forgive your brother, then Peter could have said, “Well good I have already forgiven him ten times and now I am done with him.    Now he is going to get what he deserves.

That tends to be a common human response.   As the saying goes, don’t get mad, get even.     The desire to seek retribution can be a strong one at times.  Sometimes I think one of the things that that keeps racial tensions alive, and racism an ever-present topic is the inability to forgive.  I am going to treat you like someone else treated me. Do you think maybe that is what drives our political process in Washington as well?  Do to them what they did to us, but even more so.   In Genesis 4:23-24 we hear Lamech (long a; short e) say, “I have slain a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.  If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”  How much a part of human nature it is to seek retribution when we feel that we have been wronged even beyond the wrong itself.

Lord how many times must I forgive my Brother?  Jesus said, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.  A note in the Bible suggests that this passage could also be interpreted to say Seven times seventy.  The quantity of the numbers is not important, but it is the quality of these numbers that matter.  It is quite possible that Jesus had in mind the passage from Genesis and Lamech’s boast that he has been avenged of a wrong done to him by an excessive amount.  Here Jesus turned the idea around in the other direction.  As much as we would normally want to seek out vengeance and retaliation, we must seek forgiveness and to forgive.  Our desire to deal in forgiveness must take the place of our desire to deal in retribution.

And then Jesus never being contend with a simple answer seeks to reinforce his point by telling the story of the unforgiving servant.

A lord wrote off the debt of a particular servant to the tune of 10,000 talents.  Then this same servant came upon a fellow servant who owed him one hundred Denarii, seized him by the throat and demanded payment.  When this man could not pay he threw him in prison, but when the lord heard what had happen he summoned the unforgiving servant and threw him in debtor’s prison as well, until he would pay every last penny of what he owed.

If we are seeking to know what is so important about forgiveness and why Jesus would so strongly teach us to forgive, then here is our answer.  Why should we forgive rather than get even?

First of all because God has forgiven us much compared to what we have to forgive one another for.  This is illustrated by the amount of the debts in the parable.   The first servant owed the Master 10,000 Talents.  Ten thousand was the largest unit of weight and the largest numerical unit Hebrew thought was capable of at that point in time.  The total annual taxes of 50 provinces in that time were less than 10,000 talents.  10,000 talents was enough to hire the entire imperial Roman Army occupying Palestine for two whole years. It was a national debt.

Jesus was using an exaggerated figure to explain how much we owe God.   10,000 talents was a debt that no one could have created and absolutely no one could ever pay.  The master looked down upon the servant and had pity, and then he said.  “Well, you do not have to pay me.”  “The debt is forgiven.”

Jesus is telling us that before God we are all massive debtors.  We all owe God a debt that we can not pay.  The bill is so astronomical that there is no possibility whatsoever of coming up with a solution to pay it off. 

God has given us life, a planet to live on, air, food, drink, and the freedom of choice.  We have the power to guide our lives wherever we want to go, and what have we done with these gifts?  We tend to use them to our own advantage, often without really considering our God who provided.  In the end when we come to God, how will we pay God back for his gifts, or for our misuse of them?   We all will have amassed an unimaginable debt, and yet when God looks at us God has pity.   Don’t worry about it, I have got you covered.  There is no charge.

How great is God’s mercy to all of us?  We can not truly imagine, but we can be certain that it is God’s nature to constantly give to those that really do not deserve to be given anything.  It is God’s nature to forgive those who deserve no forgiveness.  It is God’s nature to bless those who probably deserved to be cursed.  That is just the way God is.

And by comparison what others owe to us is meager compared to what we have owed God, and been forgiven for.  What is 100 denarii?  Well 100 denarii would have been minimum wage for 4 to 5 months’ worth of work.  Here the number becomes something probably quite common in life.  The value is probably somewhere between more than a couch and less than a car.  Compared to 10,000 talents it is almost nothing.  That in most cases this is what we need to forgive others.  If you keep that proportion in perspective, I have a feeling that it may be easier to forgive your brother or sister who has wronged you and put aside smaller differences. 

Secondly, forgiveness is important, because God expects us to imitate the divine attributes of love and forgiveness.

God desires for us to treat others as He has treated us. The ability to forgive is not a burden to be carried, but it is a gift to be shared.  There is an old saying that “To err is human, To forgive is divine.”  Such a saying is true, for when we forgive, we indeed are imitating the manner in which God has forgiven us. Forgiveness is a divine attribute that God wishes for us to imitate.

This is because lives can only be changed for good by the power of love and forgiveness.  Think about Peter.  Maybe at the time he felt upset by Jesus answer that he should always forgive.  Maybe he was just fuming and didn’t really want to hear Jesus’ teaching at that moment, but what do suppose he felt after he had denied Jesus three times, and later remembered the words that Jesus spoke to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy seven times.  Forgive your brother from your heart.”  To know that Jesus did not put a limit on forgiveness may have been the thing that kept him from totally giving up and becoming as Judas was. To live with a forgiving spirit instead of a spirit of retribution is to allow changed lives.

Finally we need to remember that indeed God is watching.  He is not watching for the wrong things that we are doing, but he is ever watching for us to exhibit the life that his son lived.  He is watching to see if we are holding a family resemblance.   If we strive to forgive others then God will forgive us.   If we judge others and hold them accountable for every penny owed to us will God not also hold us accountable and what hope will we have of paying that unpayable debt?   Like the unforgiving servant in the parable, we to will be thrown in prison and never find release.

Forgiveness is of vital importance to the Christian life.  God has forgiven us and desires that we should do like wise, so that all may be able live according the love and mercy God has blessed all humanity with.  It is a means for touching many lives with the love of God.    Amen.

Published by Rev. Russell

Pastor at the Lake City United Methodist Church in Lake City, Michigan.

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