Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20
1st Reading: Genesis 50:15-21
2nd Reading: Romans 14:1-12
Ok, everyone, I have here a tally sheet of how many times Joseph’s brothers sinned against him. I will need your help. First they were jealous of him. Then they plotted against him. They threw him in a pit. They took his coat, killed an animal, put its blood on it and took it to their father to lie to him and tell him his son had been eaten by a wild animal. They kept that secret for years. Should we put a mark for every year they kept that secret, kept Joseph from his father and family? Now they come to him, and they haven’t changed their ways. They’ve got another lie to tell. They said, “Dad told us he wanted you to forgive us.”
Now we could try to make a list of every time we sinned against God. I don’t know if that would be helpful or not. I’ll let you make your own list at home if you think it would be valuable. We’re going to make a mark for everything we owe God, every way God has been generous to us. A roof over our head: should we put one mark for every year we’ve had someplace to live, or every day? How about food to eat? Do we make a mark for every day, or each meal? How about our profession? Do we put a mark for each profession we worked? For each year, for each day. How about family? Do we just count each one once, or for every time one of them did something nice? Then we’ve got friends. How do we measure how generous God has been to us. How about our health? How many marks for that? How about our congregation? How do we measure all that God has done for us?
Of course, the point is that we owe everything to God. There is no way we could ever repay a debt that large. But I’ve been thinking of it in terms of parenthood. Now that I have a child of my own, I can see what my mother did for me. Five years of constant supervision, every meal, every bedtime, every bath, washing every article of clothing, shopping, cleaning, teaching, guiding, everything. In the same way that I could never repay God, I could never repay my mother and Sterling could never repay me. Except that parents don’t do it to be repaid. We would never say that if our child was a jerk to another child that all that we do stops. No, we work harder to help our child grow into a generous person, kind to others.
I can’t think of God like I do this king, as someone who would throw someone and their whole family into prison to pay back a debt or punish and torture a servant who was unkind to someone else. Thankfully, the scripture doesn’t say this king is God. Instead, I think this is a picture of the kind of lives many people live. We live with debt hanging over our head. We sometimes step all over other people in order to get ahead. It isn’t always on our radar screen how we’ve been given everything we have, that it isn’t our due from working hard. Plenty of people work hard every day and have next to nothing. Even when we’ve “earned it” someone else has picked our food, processed our gasoline, built our house, cared for our children, and so on. What if we stopped feeling entitled and started feeling grateful?
If we started noticing all the blessings we enjoy and remembering where they came from, we would probably approach our lives very differently. That’s what this reading is about. The king hoped that his forgiveness of the servant’s debt would make a difference in the life of the servant, would sink in and affect his behavior toward others, just like a parent hopes that all the energy they pour into their child will someday result in some beautiful relationships, a capacity for forgiveness, an attitude of gratefulness, a kind and generous person, someone who thinks of others and their needs. God doesn’t require gratefulness and generosity in order to be generous to us. But God delights when God sees that behavior being mimicked in the world, because that means God’s values have been internalized. We aren’t just taking, taking, taking from God and taking it for granted that we get what we want. Instead, we are receiving more than just blessings, but an open and generous heart, a heart like our parents, like God. And when we have such an open heart and open hands, sharing what we have, we help create the world that God has in mind where everyone is valued, where resources and money are shared, and where everyone has enough and live in love and peace.
Now translate this from resources to forgiveness. We can make our lives a big contest to gather resources to ourselves and to take care of ourselves. That doesn’t fit into God’s value system and it isn’t going to do us any good, because eventually we all get sick and die. Sharing all that is what is going to mean abundant life, not just for us, but for our whole community and neighborhood. We can also make life into a game of innocent verses guilty. Since I make the rules, I always have myself in the innocent category. My behavior can always be explained or excused, but I make up stories in my mind about why the other guy screwed up and is worse than me. God says, you’re all alike in my eyes. There is no innocent. We all owe God a debt. None of us has lived a life above reproach or even near what we could have done if we had really trusted God. Jesus says we must forgive our neighbor, our brother, or fellow member of the church 77 times. The number 7 means “complete.” Put another one next to it and we’ve got completely complete. This is simply a number that says there is no number for forgiveness. There is no amount of times or tallies you can make on forgiveness. It is a process. You may think you’ve let go and it comes back to you. How do you even know if you’ve forgiven? Do you even want to forgive?
I think of Joseph. If it had been me, I probably would have said so self-righteously. I’ll forgive you all the rest if you prove you’ve changed your ways and admit you’re lying to me that dad said to forgive you. I’d want to lord it over them that I knew they were lying and that they needed me and they were afraid. That’s not what God says to do. It says to forgive. I’ve been looking at definitions of forgiveness this week, because it is such a difficult subject. The best definition I’ve heard is this: “Forgiveness means letting go of the hope that the past can be changed.” It doesn’t mean we aren’t vigilant with someone who has hurt us before. It doesn’t mean we let others hurt us, over and over. It doesn’t mean we never think about the wrong that happened to us. It is just a letting go of an obsession that wasn’t doing us any good to relive again and again. And another point, what is the alternative to forgiveness? As hard as forgiveness is, there is no viable alternative. We can seek revenge. That doesn’t help anyone. There is no satisfaction in that. We can keep going over it, again and again. That’s only hurting us. Forgiveness is the only possible way forward, the only opportunity for health for us and for others, the only way to freedom.
Thankfully, God is all for forgiveness. God sent the Son to show us that love and forgiveness is what God’s all about. And when we practice the values of our Father and forgive others we experience heaven and they experience heaven, the Kingdom of God right here, right now.