September 17, 2017

Preached by Rev. George Yando on September 17, 2017.

Exodus 14: 19-31
Psalm 114
Romans 14: 1-12
Matthew 18: 21-35

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The Quality of Mercy

This past week has put us in a real crunch between the Gospel lesson for last Sunday and the one we read this morning.  You’ll recall how last Sunday Jesus talked with his disciples about the manner in which those who are members in the fellowship of the faithful ought to settle differences that arise between brothers and sisters in the faith.  If someone has offended you, it is your responsibility to initiate the process of reconciliation.  If the church is to have a ministry of reconciliation in the world, to quote the apostle Paul, it begins with being reconciled with one another.  And reconciliation begins with forgiveness.

That’s a hard lesson, especially this week, when this past Monday, the world marked the anniversary of September 11th, 2001, and the terrorist attacks on the United States that levelled the World Trade Centre, devastated the Pentagon building, and hurled four airliners and several thousand people in them and the collapsed buildings to their deaths.  Sixteen years have passed, yet the memories for countless millions are still fresh, for many – in particular those who lost loved ones – still very raw.  Those sixteen years have been marked by remembrances and reflections on our response.  We have seen and heard all manner of opinions expressed in regard to what that response should have been and has been: vengeance and retribution chief among them.  What we haven’t heard are many – if any –suggestions of forgiveness; indeed, if any have given thought to such a response, or attempted to give voice to that suggestion or insistence, those words have been lost amid the din of demands for retaliation and reprisal.

What we’ve also heard over the past fifteen years, one and a half months is the ongoing story of Omar Khadar, a Canadian citizen of Afghan descent who was detained by the United States at Guantanamo Bay for ten years, from the age of 16, during which incarceration he pleaded guilty to the murder of a U.S. Army medic, among other charges.  The saga of his recanting of his confession and appeal of his conviction, his eventual return to Canada, the subsequent suit against the Canadian government for alleged infringement of his rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and its settlement earlier this year has been the subject of much debate.  Again, we’ve heard all manner of response to the news, ranging from satisfaction at what seems like justice being done to outrage that a convicted war criminal should be financially compensated. Again, what we’ve not heard is any discussion about forgiveness.

The gospel lesson this morning has Peter embroiled in a debate with Jesus about forgiveness.  It’s all quantitative: how many times should we forgive?  Societal norms of the day suggested once, or twice, maybe three times, but not four. Peter stretches it by asking, “What about up to seven times?”  Jesus responds, “No, not seven, but seventy-seven, according to more recent biblical scholarship and more modern translations – or in the classical translations, seventy times seven.

No matter.  Jesus pushes the limits beyond what anyone could imagine to be limits.  Then He goes further to tell a story to reinforce the point even resoundingly.  It is the story of the ungrateful servant, a story that hardly seems to the hearer to be good news.  Granted, it’s not news, because we’ve heard it before.  But that still doesn’t make it palatable.

The Bible repeatedly tells us that we ought to forgive those who have injured us.  We know that.  It is ingrained in our minds from the Lord’s Prayer and from passages such as the one that was our Gospel lesson for this Sunday.  Congregations are full of people who know they should forgive; those who recognize intellectually that there is some positive value in letting go of long-held hurts, but who find it well-nigh impossible to do so.  Being cheated on by a spouse, double-crossed by a business partner, having a confidence betrayed by a trusted friend – these and so many other wrongs of a similar nature are experiences that engender embarrassment and shame, anger and even rage, events that leave the injured party feeling defective, defeated, never quite good enough.  To be told that one ought to forgive and let go of the pain simply does not effect a change; in fact, it may add further aggravation to the situation – like salt in an open wound – by heaping a load of guilt onto an already vulnerable victim.

It’s in such a setting then, we seek to read and interpret the two pieces of our Gospel lesson from Matthew chapter 18.  The first piece is a brief exchange between Peter and Jesus about the extent and nature of forgiveness.  Some biblical scholars in recent translations have had Jesus telling Peter to forgive seventy-seven times, rather than the classic “seventy-times-seven.”  Regardless, it is Jesus’ way of telling Peter that forgiveness is not a commodity to be reckoned on a calculator.  Forgiveness is not about arithmetic, but about mercy.  Forgiveness has no limits, indeed it can’t even be quantified.  The language of numbers is simply inappropriate when one contemplates forgiveness, a lesson well illustrated in the parable that follows, with the absurdity of the indebtedness of the first servant.

It is the parable told by Jesus that forms the second piece to our lesson this morning.  It is a vivid story, a story of a king who forgives one servant an impossible amount of indebtedness, but that servant is then unable to forgive a fellow servant a reasonable debt, a paltry sum by comparison.

The questions that go begging for answers are not about how either of those two servants came to be indebted – the second to the first and the first to the king. Rather, the first most pressing question is,  “Why does the first servant, having been treated so generously by the king, immediately act so ruthlessly toward his fellow servant?”  The king certainly seems justified in his harsh retaliation – torture and imprisonment.

But when we sit with the parable awhile and reflect on the difficulty of genuine forgiveness, it takes on a different tone.  Does the final verse mean that if I do not forgive those who injure me, God will withhold forgiveness?  Is divine forgiveness conditional on my letting go of grudges and hurts and wrongs committed against me?  That seems to be the point, but perhaps, not necessarily so.

Look again at the parable.  The most obvious point is that human forgiveness is rooted in divine forgiveness.  The king forgives the servant an incalculable amount of indebtedness. Depending on which biblical scholars you read concerning their best guesses of the relative value of different currencies in the time of Jesus, 10,000 talents is thought to represent more than the wages of a day labourer for 150,000 years!  It’s a financial burden in the order of the national debt.  The story doesn’t tell us how one individual even came to have control of such an astronomical sum, let alone how responsibility for retirement of the debt would ever be accomplished.  It’s just not an issue here.  Whether or not it is simply hyperbole, a fantastic number Jesus drew out of the air for no other purpose than to make his story listeners gasp in awe, or whether the individual involved had a position of responsibility that would make him a modern day counterpart to the Enron executives, is really anybody’s guess.  Again, it’s not the point.  The scenario calls for an impossible debt that simply could never be repaid.  It’s like sending a serial killer to prison with multiple life sentences totalling several hundred years; the point is, the individual is never, ever going walk free again.  The first indebted servant is buried so deep in debt that he will never see the light of a debt free day.

Again, the point is not the amount of the indebtedness but rather, the extent of God’s generosity.  There’s simply no way to measure the extent of God’s generosity when it comes to forgiving.  “Seven times,” or “seventy-seven times,” or “seventy-times-seven” just doesn’t say it, any more than suggesting “ten thousand talents” quantifies one’s indebtedness to God   Mercy isn’t about math, forgiveness isn’t something you can quantify, not where God is concerned.

But entrenched therein is the difficulty with the story, the problem with the first servant.  What happens to him?  There is a remarkable disconnect in the story.  He just doesn’t get it.  On hearing of his release from his obligation, the servant shows no appropriate response – no rejoicing, no gratitude, no celebrating with his wife and children who are spared from debtors’ prison, no reflection on the meaning of freedom and a fresh start.  We hear only that on the way out, he refuses the pleas of a colleague.  This “missing piece” makes the parable a puzzle, yet one that has to be taken seriously.  The first servant clearly has not discovered or experienced “forgiveness.”  We catch a glimpse of the problem in his initial plea to the king: though the debt is beyond any conceivable capacity to pay, he nevertheless makes his case to the king on a quid pro quo basis, “Give me time and I’ll pay you everything.”  He imagines he is dealing with the king on the basis of equity, of justice, of what’s due and deserved.  What he receives, but never grasps, is the king’s mercy.

Forgiveness has to do with something very different from distributive justice.   The parable wants us to know that.  The first servant still thinks of indebtedness and forgiveness as a kind of power game.  He has not come to view himself in a new light as a person who has truly been gifted, blessed, as the recipient of mercy rather than justice.  Consequently, he is simply not able to view himself in the same situation as the second servant, and is not able to show mercy in the same way that mercy has been shown to him.  The final verse makes it clear that forgiveness is a matter of the heart.  It involves a transformation of the inner disposition of the one who receives mercy, something the first servant just didn’t discover.

How then does this passage speak to those who are seriously injured, those who are battling with shame and alienation?  It portrays in a rather dramatic story the incredible kindness of God, who surprises people not by dealing with them on the scale of justice, even though they seek it in anticipation of a more favourable outcome, but by showing mercy.  It invites those who read or hear this passage to view themselves as forgiven debtors – no more, no less – living with and among other fellow debtors.  The difference between debtors is only slight.  To be forgiven means to give up the power game of playing innocent versus guilty, and to join a fellowship of forgiven sinners.