Last Sunday, we stood back and examined the panoramic landscape of this thing we call "Christian community" and within this panoramic view we noted that Christian community is a dwelling place for God’s presence. Therefore, our actions are intimately connected to God’s action. Ultimately, when we looked at this panoramic piciture we affirmed that being part of an authentic Christian community can be hard work.
But this morning the gospel lesson invites is to pull out our telephoto lens in order to zoom in and take a closer, more intimate, look at one particular dimension of Christian community, namely, FORGIVENESS.
If there is one attribute that fundamentally defines what it means to be a Christian community, I think it would be forgiveness.
If we look at in the world in which we live, a world in which there seems to be yet again a resurgence of terror and violence and division, we face the challenge of seeking to be a community characterized by forgiveness and mercy. We face the challenge of being a community that takes seriously the exhortation of Jesus to love our enemies, even those who hate us.
And, of course, we face this challenge of forgiveness much closer to home as well. In the context of our own families, our friendships, and workplaces, we all have experienced the pain of betrayal or the sting of being hurt by someone we trusted. We have all been angry or resentful when the circumstances of our lives just don’t seem to be fair.
And so, whether it’s the pain of war, the fear of terrorism, or the anger and resentment that too often infect our hearts, we all need to hear again the radical call of Jesus to be a people of forgiveness and mercy.
Now in today’s gospel reading, Peter asks Jesus a question concerning how many times he must forgive a brother or sister who sins against him. Jesus responds by not only answering Peter’s question, but by also offering a parable about the nature of forgiveness. And this dialogue between Jesus and Peter AND the ensuing parable BOTH teach us several significant truths about the role of forgiveness in our lives.
One the central theological points that Jesus is making in today’s gospel reading is that…
Forgiveness is a matter of God’s EXTRAVAGANCE,
not human CALCULATIONS
Whether we realize it or not, most of keep a kind of mental ledger when it comes to relationships. This is not always a fully conscious activity, but we frequently keep track of debits and credits, positive and negative transactions in our lives. And there is something about human nature that makes us much more efficient at keeping track of the debits, those negative and hurtful transactions. When someone wrongs us, we often refer to this mental ledger and we frequently give or withhold love or forgiveness based on those calculations. I think it is this very dynamic that is motivating Peter's question in today's gospel.
In today’s gospel reading, Peter says, “Lord, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times.”
Now, in the first century, it was common for rabbis to instruct their followers to forgive 3 times, which was based on a passage found in the prophet Amos.
So, I can imagine Peter standing next Jesus thinking to himself, “The rabbis say we should forgive 3 times, the prophets say that we should forgive three times…so if I double that and add one, that’s seven…and seven is the biblical number of creation, the number of completion…and so Jesus is really going to love this answer!!!”
But Jesus just shakes his head and says, “Not seven times, but seventy seven times, which would have been considered a crazy, ridiculous, outrageous number of times to forgive.” In other words, Jesus is saying to Pere, this is not a matter of human calculations. This is about God’s generosity! God’s abundance! God’s extravagance!
In the parable that ensues, Jesus makes the same point…
The servant owes the king 10,000 talents. Now 1 talent was the equivalent of about 15 years wages for a servant in the 1st century…and so 10,000 talents was the annual wage for a servant for 150,000 years. This is a crazy, ridiculous, outrageous, level of debt; nevertheless, the king forgives this debt. This forgiveness is extravagant and generous beyond measure.
And yet...the servant goes right back into the street and pulls out his ledger. He finds the first fellow servant who owes him a hundred bucks and throws him in prison. Even though he has just experienced generous, extravagant forgiveness…he falls right back into the pattern of judgment based on human calculations.
True forgiveness is matter of God’s generosity, not our calculations!
As we reflect upon out culture, the church, and most especially, our own lives…how often are we like the servant in this parable? How often do we, having received the extravagant forgiveness of God, go back into our daily lives and pull our ledgers? How often do we pull out our relational calculators and we give or withhold love and forgiveness based on our human calculations.
If we are honest with ourselves, we have likely behaved like this servant more often than we would like to admit. However, when I at look at the world in which we live, I am frequently amazed and inspired by examples of extravagant forgiveness.
In 1999, it was Darrell Scott, the father of Rachel Scott, the first victim in the Columbine school shooting.
In 2006, it was the members of a small Amish community in Pennsylvania, grieving the loss of several young girls in yet another example of school violence.
Earlier this year, it was the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda…a country in which thousands upon thousand of widows and orphans have chosen to forgive rather than live with the pain and hurt of the past.
And of course, just a few days ago we marked the 13th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
In all of these situations, if we look at human calculations, forgiveness just doesn’t make sense. If we look at our relational ledgers, we have every reason according to our own calculations to remain angry and resentful.
But in each of these cases, there are examples of extravagant forgiveness. Courageous men and women who were will to lay their ledgers and calculators aside and choose to forgive.
It's not easy. No one said forgiveness would be easy. There is no switch that we can simply "turn on" that will make us more forgiveness and merciful. But rather, extravagant forgiveness is the fruit of a life that has been radically transformed by the love and forgiveness of God. Extravagant forgiveness flows out of a life that has been shaped and formed according to the character of Christ.
Yet it is this kind of forgiveness that is ultimately the path to freedom and peace. When we choose to lay aside our ledgers and calculators in order to offer generous, extravagant forgiveness. As one theologian has put it, "Forgiveness is a decision about the past that ultimately determines our future."
So, this morning, as we hear the challenging words of today's gospel reading, may we be willing to lay down our ledgers and calculators in order to choose the path of forgiveness, which is the path of life, the path of peace, the path of freedom.