Lectionary blog for Sept. 17
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13;
Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
A few years ago, I heard about an article in the Oakland Tribune about a gun amnesty program in a California town. A woman brought in a loaded pistol she had bought 20 years before, planning to kill her husband with it. She never shot him, but think about it—she kept the gun loaded. All too often, our forgiveness is like the woman choosing not to kill her husband. Someone does us wrong and we do nothing—we neither make peace nor make war. We don’t “shoot them,” but we keep our emotional guns loaded, just in case. Forgiveness is easy to talk about and hard to do. And sometimes, in certain circumstances, it feels almost impossible.
In today’s Gospel lesson, when Peter says to Jesus that he thinks forgiving seven times is enough, Peter is feeling pretty good about himself. After all, the law only requires that we forgive an actual brother, a blood relative, three times for the same offense. Peter generously expands the notion of “brother” or “sister” by including members of the church. Then he more than doubles the amount of forgiveness required.
But Jesus stuns Peter by expanding it even more, to 77 times, or maybe to 70 times seven—the Greek text is unclear. Either way, that’s a lot of forgiving, isn’t it? Jesus is making an important point, one that he expands with the parable of the master and the unforgiving servant—our forgiveness of others is the only appropriate response to God’s limitless forgiveness of us.
The master calls in a slave who owes him 10,000 talents. This the slave cannot pay. He begs that the debt be forgiven. The master takes pity on the slave and forgives the debt. That very day, that very hour, this recently forgiven slave goes out and cruelly throws a fellow servant in jail over a debt of 100 denarii.
Let me see if I can make these numbers make sense: 1 talent = 6,000 denarii. So, doing the math, the first slave owed the master 60 million denarii while the second slave owed only a 100. Talents, denarii, dollars—it doesn’t matter; the point is obvious. The first slave owed the master an unpayable debt—and yet the master forgave it. The slave walked out of his master’s office a debt-free man. And then, unbelievably, he almost immediately refused to forgive someone else a debt that amounted to a little pocket money. All too often, this is the way we treat one another. God has forgiven us so much, and yet we are so reluctant to forgive. Only by remembering how much we have been forgiven do we learn to forgive one another.
We all owe to God a debt we cannot possibly pay. Yet God forgives us. Not because of our promises to be good, not because of our promises of future service, not because of our commitment to give more to the church. None of that is enough. God forgives us because of who God is and because of what Christ has done for us on the cross—not because of who we are or because of anything we have done or will do.
All too often, this is the way we treat one another. God has forgiven us so much, and yet we are so reluctant to forgive.
The grace and forgiveness of God are free, but they are not cheap. The cross is a constant reminder of the cost and a constant invitation to us to take up our cross and forgive one another. How can we, who have been forgiven so much, fail to forgive others their sins against us? That is why we pray in the Lord’s Prayer that we are to forgive others the things they do to us because God has already forgiven us everything.
Martin Luther, in the Large Catechism, said, “For just as we sin greatly against God every day and yet he forgives it all through grace, so we also must always forgive our neighbor who does us harm, violence and injustice, bears malice against us, etc. If you do not forgive, do not think that you are forgiven in heaven. But if you forgive, you have the comfort and assurance that you are forgiven in heaven—not on account of your forgiveness (for God does it altogether freely, out of pure Grace …)” (Book of Concord, Fortress, 2000 edition, p. 453).
On April 25, 1958, in Philadelphia, In Oh Ho, a Korean student at the University of Pennsylvania was attacked by a street gang. He had gone out to mail a letter to his parents. He was beaten, robbed and killed. There was a great public outcry, the prosecutors called for the death penalty. Before the trial, a letter addressed to the DA’s office arrived from Korea. His parents, devout Christians, had written:
“Our family has met together and we have decided to petition that the most generous treatment possible within the laws of your government be given to those who have committed this criminal action. … In order to give evidence of our sincere hope contained in this petition, we have decided to save money to start a fund for the religious, educational, vocational and social guidance of the boys when they are released. We have dared to express our hope with a spirit received from the Gospel of Jesus Christ—who died for our sins.”
Amen and amen.