9/17/17: A Different Kind of People, Matthew 18:21-35 (sermon starts at 32 minute mark)
A Different Kind of People
Sixth in the series: Ordinary Good News
First Lesson: Psalm 103:8-13
Second Lesson: Matthew 18:21-35
Rev. Scott Dickison
It’s been an up-and-down few weeks for Peter.
It wasn't long ago when he received Jesus’ blessing after answering correctly the question of who he was. “You’re the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” Peter responded. Only to be quickly put in his place for rebuking Jesus when he tried to tell him and the rest of the disciples just what it meant to be the Messiah—that he must suffer—and what it would mean for them to follow in the way of the Messiah—that they must suffer too. Get behind me Satan! Jesus said to him.
Last week we looked at the verses just before our passage today where Jesus describes how the church is to handle conflict after he’s gone. Jesus assumes conflict in the church but says the way the church will be different is how it handles its conflict. As we noted last week, this process Jesus outlines focuses on the restoration of the offender, not revenge for the offended. Even if it goes so far that the offending party must be asked to leave, the door will always remain open for them to come back into fellowship again—reconciliation is always, always, always the hope. You can’t give up on anyone, Jesus tells them, this is how the church will be different.
Which takes us to our passage this morning. Peter again pulls Jesus aside and says, Listen, this sounds great—direct communication, restoration of the offender, bring them back in—but how many times do I have to forgive this person? I’m thinking, like, seven times would be good. What do you think?
Now, two things here: First, Peter gets part of it right. He understands that the goal, the hope, is restoration—which in his mind is radical enough. After all, restoration, is not the goal in justice systems outside the church. Those systems usually seek punishment first of all, and then some baseline measure of justice: that folks get what they deserve, and then maybe just a little more, to be a deterrent for others. Peter sees what Jesus is doing, this radical idea that our first priority is always reconciliation. But he doesn’t see how far Jesus is willing to take this.
Which leads to the second point, which is that Peter thinks he’s being generous! And by most standards he is. Seven times forgiving someone?! In most any case, short of parenting, that’s a lot. In parenting, that might be an afternoon. But in most cases forgiving someone seven times is a lot—especially if we’re talking about serious wrongs. But Jesus tells him it’s not enough. Not seven times, he says. Try seventy-seven times. Some translations say “seventy times seven”—the exact number isn’t what’s important. Jesus seems to be saying that when it comes to forgiveness, if you’re counting at all, you’re missing the point.
And so he tells this parable about a king who wishes to settle his accounts with his slaves. One is brought before him who owes 10,000 talents—which is an obscenely large sum of money. I did the math this week, and in today’s terms, with exchange rates and inflation as they are, this translates to roughly a bazillion dollars. Jesus is exercising some hyperbole here. This poor slave owes a tremendous amount of money—more money than any king in that time would have had—but all the same, when faced with his debt he gets on his knees and begs the king, saying, Have patience with me! I’ll repay everything—which of course he could never do. This poor sap is a fool. But the king, perhaps seeing how much of a fool he is, has pity, and instead of doing what in those days he had every right to do, which was throw him in prison, or even taking an incredibly generous path and reducing the amount of the debt, the king simply forgives his debt. Just like that.
Debt is one of those things that you can’t quite understand until you have it. As a child you hear Jesus’ words about forgiving debt and it doesn’t make sense. But as an adult? You come to understand the power in those words.
The king forgives his debt, we’re told. Just like that.
The attention turns then to this slave, who’s received an almost indescribable gift of mercy, and celebrates by promptly going to find another slave who’s in his debt, owing a much smaller sum than what he owed the king. He takes this slave by the throat and says, Pay what you owe! The other slave cannot, and so the first throws him into prison—which was his right to do in those days. And yet it doesn’t feel quite right. Not to us, and I suspect not to the disciples listening back then. The other slaves witness this and report back to the king, who brings this unforgiving slave before him, tells him what-for, and in anger hands him over to be tortured until he could repay this astronomical debt in full. And then, as Fred Craddock puts it, the door of this parable slams shut behind us, as Jesus says: The same will be true of you, if you don’t forgive your brother or your sister from your heart.
The mood has shifted quickly. It’s like that ominous cool breeze that came just before the storm this past week. Instead of giving Peter a number to shoot for when forgiving another, Jesus does what he does so well, and turns the issue back on him, back on us. He reminds us, as someone put it, “to be unforgiving is to be either forgetful or ungrateful.”
It’s when we appreciate the mercy and grace and forgiveness we’ve received from God, but also so many different people who act godly to us, that we find the strength—and it is a strength—to offer the same grace and forgiveness to others. These things are generative; they build on each other. Mercy has a way of begetting mercy. Love begets love, compassions begets compassion, forgiveness begets forgiveness. In the same way that violence begets violence, hate begets hate, fear begets fear, and all the rest of it—both of these are cycles that build on themselves. The cycle we most often find ourselves in, the cycle the world takes as given is the viscous cycle of retaliation which always leads to escalation and where the end is always death. But Jesus offers another cycle. A “virtuous” cycle that seeks wholeness and healing, of which forgiveness is the central, most offensive, part, and where life is always the goal. And it so often begins when we’re disoriented with a gift of radical grace and forgiveness. Which then reorients us toward God and our neighbor, and so we come to see ourselves as God sees us: as beloved children, made with purpose and filled with potential, who aren’t worth giving up on, until the cycle slowly comes to completion as we begin to see each other in the same way.
A friend of mine shared a story with me recently about a famous monastery that had fallen on hard times. Only a few monks remained, and its buildings were deserted and in disrepair. In the woods beside the monastery, the rabbi from the nearby town had built a small hut where he would go from time to time to be alone and pray. The monks didn’t speak to him, but they knew when he was near.
One day the abbot decided to visit the rabbi and seek his wisdom about the troubles that the monastery faced. As he approached the hut, the abbot came out to greet him and they embraced each other like long-lost brothers. They went inside the hut and sat in the two wooden chairs in the middle of the room. They sat in silence for a long time, interspersed with a prayer that one or the other would lead.
Then the abbot began to share his concerns about the monastery. The rabbi listened intently, nodding his head from time to time. When the abbot had finished, the rabbi said, “I know how it is. Fewer and fewer people come to the synagogue each year. I have no wisdom to share with you, but I know that you and the monks are holy men and do good works. Because of this, I also know that the Messiah is among you.” With that, the rabbi bid the abbot goodbye.
The abbot left without a word and walked back to the monastery in a kind of daze as he pondered what the rabbi had said. When he arrived there, the monks surrounded him asking to know what wisdom the rabbi shared. The abbot said with sorrow in his voice, “The rabbi had no wisdom to help us. But as I was leaving he said something strange that I don’t understand.” He said, “The Messiah is among you.” With that the abbot went to his room. The monks were also confused by the rabbi’s words and they, too, went to their rooms for the night.
Over the days and weeks to come, they all pondered the words of the rabbi. “Who could possibly be the Messiah in their midst? Could it be the abbot? Surely yes, for he was wise beyond words. But perhaps it was Brother John. Often disagreeable, but always there when you needed help. He seemed to appear without ever being asked. Or could it be Thomas who had such a way tending the garden and caring for the animals. He seemed so life-giving.” And then the most disturbing thought possible occurred, “Surely the rabbi couldn’t have meant me. How could I be the Messiah? But what if it is me? What should I do?”
None of them could solve the rabbi’s riddle, but each in his own way silently vowed to treat the others with reverence and respect since anyone of them could be the Messiah. A gentle, warm-hearted, loving, concern began to grow among them, which was difficult to describe, but easy to notice.
As visitors came to the monastery, they found themselves deeply moved by the example of the monks. It simply felt good to be in their presence, and others came to picnic on the grounds, walk in the gardens, or sit quietly in the chapel. It was clear that the rabbi’s gift, his assertion that the Messiah was among them, had transformed their hearts which then had radically changed how they treated each other. Slowly the monastery once became a place of light and learning and loving, and, as a beloved community, it grew and prospered.
How many times must I forgive? Peter asks. Jesus tells him, If you’re counting you’ve missed the point.
The way Jesus offers, the way of love, the way of mercy, the way of forgiveness, isn’t a checklist, it’s a posture.
It’s not a way of counting, it’s a way of standing, which results in a way of seeing, which leads to a way of acting, which over time amounts to a way of living that’s marked by a way of loving. Who was it, I wonder? Who did it turn out to be in the monastery? Or better yet, Who is it? Who is it right here among us. I’ve been wondering all week.
But then again...
 Anna Case-Winters, Matthew, from the Belief series, 227
 Ibid., 228
 Thanks to dear friend Courtney Allen for sharing this story with me. The Rabbi’s Gift, adapted. The earliest version may have been written by Francis Dorff, O. Praem, of the Norbertine Community of Albuquerque, New Mexico, March 1979.