To read this sermon from The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr. click on “Continue reading” below.
Sermon based on Matthew 18:21-35
As was often the case in Scripture, we see the disciple Peter is the spokesperson for the disciples, asking if a person should forgive another as many as seven times. Jesus replies, “Not seven, but seventy times seven” was Jesus’ answer. That is a lot of forgiveness. Once is tough enough, twice even tougher but seventy times seven—490 times? Even the late Mother Teresa might have trouble with that figure! Yet that is precisely what Jesus advises in his conversation with Peter. Keep on forgiving, even when forgiveness seems absurd.
Jesus used the parable of the unforgiving servant as it is often called, to illustrate this principle. To summarize this parable, a servant went to his master and asked him to forgive his debt of 10,000 talents. He was granted this petition. Shortly thereafter, this same servant saw a person who owed him about 100 denarii. The ‘danarius” and ‘talent” were units of currency in the New Testament times. A denarius was a Roman silver coin weighing about 4 grams, typically a day of wages for a common laborer or soldier. A talent was a unit of weight for gold or silver, typically weighing close to 75 pounds. With these facts in mind, when we compare the value of a hundred denarii with that of ten thousand talents, we can realize how tremendous the grace of God given to us is and how small the faults of our brothers and sisters really are in comparison. As we continue to explore this parable we see that servant who had just been given relief from the 10,000 talents he owed seized this person by the throat and demanded payment. The debtor begged for time to pay their debt but this unforgiving servant refused. Other servants observed this and reported to their master what had happened. The master called in the unforgiving servant, and after chastising him, threw him into prison. The point of this parable is quite simply, we cannot receive God’s forgiveness, until we share this forgiveness with others.
To forgive someone involves many things. Forgiveness means replacing the feeling of resentment and anger with good will, a love that seeks another person’s welfare, not harm. The late Dr. Norman Vincent Peale related this story several years ago in Guideposts magazine. It was about a storeowner in the Bronx. One night some gang members robbed his store and left him dying on the floor of his store. His son, just a teenager at the time, the next morning discovered his deceased father, and he became obsessed with the notion of seeking revenge against his father’s murderers. He went to the Police Academy and joined the New York City Police Department. At his request he was stationed at a precinct in the Bronx. He would often roam the streets of the Bronx, driven by a blinding hatred. His wife would often spend countless hours at home upset because she saw how much hatred her husband who she loved so dearly now had in his heart. One night while on patrol he caught one of the persons he had vowed to seek revenge against attempting to rob another store. As he pointed the gun at this person his finger was paralyzed upon the trigger. He could here the gentle voice of his father speaking to him, encouraging him to not seek revenge for his death. The officer arrested the man and as he returned home from his shift he recounted the events of the day to his wife. “I had that guy,” he said to her, “but I couldn’t shoot.” Then he paused before speaking again, “I think that my father’s hand was on the gun preventing me from shooting, and you know, honey, I feel free and happy again.” From this story we see that the son was finally able to put aside his anger, he spared the life of another person and learned how forgiveness frees. This man learned that forgiveness is more of a gift we give ourselves, than a favor we bestow on others.
Yet for many, forgiveness is not easy because we can’t forget. On Monday our country remembers a tragic event that to this day is difficult to forget much less forgive those who initiated those terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. In thinking of this, I am reminded of a story of how a pastor suggested to a parishioner how to respond to events in life that are difficult to forgive and forget. The pastor made reference to the church steeple where they worshipped. The pastor commented that up in the church tower was a bell that was rung by pulling upon a rope. The pastor shared that after the usher lets go of the rope on Sunday mornings, the bell keeps on swinging making a sound. The sound becomes slower and slower until it stops completely. The pastor believed that the same thing was true when thinking of the subject of forgiveness. When we forgive, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we should not be surprised if unpleasant thoughts keep ringing in our heads for a while. They are just the sounds of the bell slowing down offered that pastor.
Perhaps we too can discover another secret of forgiveness. This secret is that as we struggle with our emotions and thoughts we can learn not only to trust in God more and more but also trust in each other. In thinking of trusting others, Thomas Edison was working on creating his first light bulb and it took a whole team of people 24 straight hours to put just one together. The story goes that when Edison was finished with this one light bulb, he gave it to a young helper, who nervously carried it up the stairs. Step by step the helper cautiously made their way up the steps. Unfortunately the young helper dropped the light bulb at the top of the stairs. It took Edison’s team another twenty-four more hours to make another light bulb. After its completion, Edison was ready to have the light bulb carried up the stairs. Edison gave it to that same young helper who dropped the first one, trusting that they could complete this task successfully.
Forgiveness also means the forgiving person takes concrete steps to restore good relations. In speaking of good relations I have heard Christians described as being a bunch of porcupines huddling together on a cold winter’s night. The colder it gets outside, the more porcupines will huddle together for warmth. However for Christians it has been said that the closer we get to one another the more opportunities we have to hurt one another with our “sharp quills” which in our case can be our words or even our actions towards each other. Yet as Christians we are called upon to forgive each other as Christ has forgiven us.
Peter’s attempt to try to limit forgiveness showed that he and the other disciples had not understood the true nature of God’s grace and forgiveness. In God’s eyes, we are all sinners. We are blessed to have that safety net known as grace that will catch us when we fall short of where God wants us to be in life. We cannot live our lives with a bean-counting mindset concerning who we forgive and there is no use in talking as if forgiveness were easy. It’s not. But the work of forgiveness has to be done over and over again. The unforgiving servant in Jesus’ parable begged for mercy as he was about to be thrown into prison. He should have been merciful when he came upon his fellow servant who owed him a little money, but he was unwilling to be forgiving of another. While our gospel reading today speaks about forgiveness it also touches upon other subject matters like tolerance, mercy, and graciousness. These are all qualities that Jesus exemplified in his life on earth. We too must exemplify these qualities.
I believe that often there is a dark shadow that is being cast upon the Church. This is the shadow of judgment, exclusion and division. Judgments have been leveled against anyone or any group who looks, or thinks or speaks different than others. The greatest fear of any religious institution is that tolerance, mercy, graciousness and forgiveness are just words on a page, not actions or examples of behavior practiced by those who are members. Together we must become more gracious. People must live together realizing that yes, we will sometimes offend others, and yes, we will be offended. That is a part of life. Our gospel lesson calls us to move these words from the pages of Scripture to the pages of our lives. We are called to remember God’s forgiveness towards us. God’s forgiveness is linked to our willingness to forgive others. So said Jesus, and so we say in our Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…”
There is no limit to God’s forgiveness towards us. Perhaps the important thing in the end is not who was right and who was wrong or who was offended or who took offense. The important thing in the end is that by the grace of God, we have each other to love and support as we strive to be faithful followers of God. Together we are called to love without limits.
The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.
September 10, 2017