September 14, 2014, Pentecost 14 – Forgiveness: A God’s Eye View
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When we had our little farm, we got an aerial photograph of it from the US Geological Survey agency that does mapping. It was amazing to see our familiar farm from a completely new perspective. Sizes and relationships were very different from what they looked at ground level. The little brook that ran across the back of our woods was the same brook that we drove over along the road to town. And our woods, that seemed so big when we were walking through them, touched on a state forest that was enormous and absolutely dwarfed our tiny little woods. Seeing the farm from that perspective gave me a much better, much more true, idea of the place I lived in, the place I thought that I knew so well.
The parable that we just read from Matthew’s gospel does the same kind of thing for our understanding of forgiveness. It’s a difficult issue, forgiveness, even though it’s one we wrestle with almost daily. Forgiveness has recently made the front page news with the kidnapping of the little Amish girls. It is a wonderful testimony to the faith of the Amish that they openly forgive those who have injured them: in this recent case here, and in the terrible incident of the shooting at the schoolhouse in Nickel Mines Pennsylvania. For the Amish, forgiveness is a simple matter of obedience. They pray, as we do, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”, and therefore, no matter how hard it is – and I am absolutely sure that it is as hard for them as it would be for any of us – still, they forgive, because God has commanded it.
That speaks loudly to a world in which there is far too little forgiveness, and it is a wonderful thing, and a good example for us all. And it is true that Jesus made it crystal clear that the Father wants us to forgive those who have injured us. But when Peter came to ask Jesus about forgiveness, Jesus didn’t just lay out a command; he told a story, a parable, and this parable goes beyond obedience. The story of the unforgiving servant gives us a bigger answer to the question of forgiveness than “because I said so.” What this story does, is it gives the kingdom perspective on forgiveness, the God’s eye view, like an aerial map, that enables us to see it in a new way, more clearly, more truly.
It is kind of a hard story to hear, I think, and one of the big problems with understanding it is that we have a tendency to skip to the punchline – to the “moral of the story”. We go right to the end where Jesus says “the Father will do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother from your heart” and find ourselves squirming between our guilt and the seeming injustice of it all. It is hard to fit in with what we know of the good news of God’s grace. How can it be that a God who forgives all our sins won’t forgive unless we do? That seems to bring us right back around to legalism, that says we are only acceptable to God when we follow all the rules, and to a kind of conditional acceptance that says we are only loved if we are good. What about “while we were dead in our sins, Christ died for us?” We wonder if maybe, unforgiveness is the one unforgivable sin, the Catch 22 of salvation.
Often our reaction, when we read passages like the story of the unforgiving servant, is to turn the page to something easier and more comfortable. But there’s a good reason that the forgiveness of the Amish makes the headlines. And there’s a good reason that Jesus tells us over and over to forgive others as we are forgiven, and even so that we can be forgiven. And there’s a good reason that this parable makes us uncomfortable: and that reason is that forgiveness is life and health to us. We children of God, we citizens of the kingdom of heaven living in this world, we need to forgive. And that means we need to hear this story. But we have to hear the whole story, because that’s how you hear a parable – the purpose of a parable is to paint a picture with words so that we can see something more clearly.
In order to really hear the story as Peter and the disciples would have heard it, we need first to know what Jesus is talking about when he talks about denarii and talents. Jesus used familiar things in his stories, but sometimes 2000 years later they aren’t so familiar, so we need to translate them. A denarius was a coin that was worth one day’s wages for a laborer, what a man would have earned after about 12 hours out in the field, for instance. A talent, on the other hand, was a much larger amount; a talent is the equivalent of about 75 lbs of gold, so that one talent was worth 6,000 denarii, or about 16 years of paychecks. So now we can get some idea of how the story goes. The first servant owes his master 10,000 talents. It’s astronomical – it’s an impossible amount. He begs for mercy and promises to pay it all back, but it’s absurd. His debt equals 160,000 years of paychecks. There is simply no way. He’s in a hopeless mess.
It’s hopeless, except for the compassion of the master, who writes off the debt, completely. And then – we know the story – this man, who has just received an unthinkable gift of mercy, goes out and throttles his old workmate who owes him 100 denarii – that would be maybe 4 months’ wages. Despite his cries for mercy, and his promises to make good on his debt – which he could reasonably have done, given the size of the debt – the heartless servant, servant number one, has him hauled off to debtors prison.
And now we see why the other servants of the household were so outraged at the behavior of the unforgiving servant, because having received an almost immeasurable gift of mercy he refused even the smallest mercy to his companion. And if we hear the parable as we are meant to, we understand that the first point of the parable is that unforgiveness is an outrage in the kingdom of heaven, because unforgiveness reveals a heart that is without gratitude and without humility – a heart that has despised the greatest of kindnesses by refusing even the smallest kindness to his fellow.
But more than that, if we are very honest in our listening, we might see ourselves in that ugly, ungracious servant, because we, like Peter, are so often inclined to measure out our forgiveness carefully and ungraciously – how many times do we have to forgive our brother? As many as 7 times? Really? And if we allow the parable to touch our hearts as well as our minds we are reminded of the immeasurable gift of grace that we have been given in the presence of God himself among us, in his coming to share his life with us, in his giving of himself on the Cross, in his continued presence with us in his Spirit. In our self-righteousness and hurt, we have sometimes forgotten the value of the sacrifice made on the Cross, that paid a debt we could never in a million years have paid. Do we really comprehend, even a little, the enormity of what God has given to us? And owning that gift, do we refuse the much smaller debt that our brother owes us? That is the first message of the parable.
But the second message comes in the form of a dire warning. The second message is that unforgiveness not only harms our brother; unforgiveness kills us as well. The servant who refused to forgive his fellow’s debt landed himself in a world of hurt; he was sent off to be tortured, and cast back into the slavery of his un-payable debt. Unforgiveness never preserves justice or dignity or self-respect – those are lies we might tell ourselves – but the truth is, unforgiveness brings us pain – because it means casting ourselves back into debtor’s prison, into the pain and torment of legalism and ungrace and hopelessness. It has been scientifically proven, if we didn’t believe Jesus already – that unforgiveness literally makes us sick: physically, mentally, and spiritually. If we step outside the freedom of forgiveness, we will find ourselves in that outer darkness of bitterness and grudge-bearing, and that is a cold and ugly place.
So that’s the heavenly perspective on forgiveness, the God’s-eye view. The bottom line when all is said and done is this: What should we think about ourselves if we know that we have failed for forgive someone. What does that say about us? What it says is this: we are sinful people, in great need of God’s grace and forgiveness ourselves. It means we are all the more in his debt. But didn’t we already know that?
John gives us some of the best perspectives on our own sinfulness. If we say we don’t sin we are outright liars, John wrote. But if we confess our sins, God is faithful to forgive us, and to cleanse us. And in chapter 3 of his first letter, John wrote – whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Whenever our heart condemns us. Do we fail to forgive? Of course we do. We have all failed. We have all nursed grudges. We have all hung on desperately to old wounds and old resentments, at one time or another. We are all sinners, in unforgiveness as in so many things, that’s John’s whole point.
And that means that unforgiveness is not an option, any more than murder is an option or adultery or gossiping. Those are not an options, they are sin. We can’t play games with forgiveness, wondering if we should or if we can or if we have forgiven the other person.
I think Jesus told this story to us in the way he told it because he means us to see unforgiveness as something even more monstrous than a mere “sin” – because sometimes we get a little numb about the word “sin” as if sins were just a matter of breaking rules – the parable shows us that unforgiveness is an outrage, a particularly poisonous and deadly thing. It is an outrage because it keeps us in pain even as we refuse comfort to another, because it kills us even as we refuse life to another. Left to ourselves, unforgiveness would torture us and kill us, slowly but surely. The good news is that we aren’t left to ourselves. We have all, at some time or other, failed to forgive those who hurt us. We have all, at one time or another, forgotten the immensity of God’s goodness to us in our resentment or our pain or our hurt pride. We have all, at some time or other, experienced the torment of living in bitterness.
We are all hopeless messes, at one time or another. But our God is a lover of hopeless messes, and when we come to the end of the story, when we find ourselves crying out to him, miserable and bitter and wounded, he brings us back to the beginning of the story, to his forgiveness. As John says, when we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness – even the unrighteousness of our ungrateful, unforgiving hearts. Every Sunday at the beginning of our worship we pray: Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid. God knows us; he knows our hearts; he knows our ungratefulness; he knows our unforgiveness. But when we find ourselves unable to forgive, and our heart condemns us, we can bring it to God, who is so much greater than our hard little heart. Without him, we suffer in the torment of ingratitude and thanklessness and bitterness and guilt. But with him we live – because as soon as we open ourselves to him we are on the road to freedom.
This parable is not an ultimatum, “forgive or else I won’t forgive you” – it is a call to life in the kingdom – to acknowledge above all else your immense need of grace and your debt of gratitude for the goodness and love of God. It is a call to see your brother or sister as a fellow debtor rather than an enemy. And it is an invitation to confess your failures to forgive – and you are not invited to make your confession only seven times, or even only seventy times seven, because there is no limit to the grace and forgiveness of God toward you. If you could view your life from that heavenly perspective, from that God’s eye view, you would see that all of your weakness and your failure and your guilt are no more than a speck beside the immensity of God’s love and goodness and compassion towards you. The story of the unforgiving servant is meant to do just that, not to scare or threaten you into obedience, but to give you kingdom eyes to see, so that you can grow in the abundant life of the kingdom.