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The Sacred Arithmetic of Forgiveness

Pentecost 15, Common Lectionary Year A
Matthew 18:21-35.

©2020 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones

Scripture and introduction
Sermon
Reflection music after sermon

Do you have a list of things
you wish Jesus hadn’t said?
I know I do. And this is one of them.
I wish Jesus had not answered Peter’s question,
“How many times must I forgive the one who keeps sinning against me?”
with such confusing math.

I have two, no actually a few problems with this.
I don’t know about you,
but I think, I’m just not made that way.
I can’t get anywhere close to forgiving someone who has done me wrong 77 times, let alone 490.
My arithmetic of forgiveness,
unlike Jesus, who sticks to multiplication,
indulges in algebraic equation…
“I’ll forgive, because I hope others will forgive me when I need it, as I surely will.”
But my guess is that’s not what Jesus is trying to teach me here!

And it gets worse, for the commentaries will tell us
that this compound number of sevens
is actually biblical code for
“Completely, always.”
“Forgive everyone, everything, all the time”…?!

Jesus needn’t say any more.
The parable is completely lost on me,
because I’ve stopped listening.

For I keep company with many others who’ve got a real problem with what seems like
a “forgive til you lose” teaching from Jesus.

I’m thinking of the women, children, and men
who’ve stopped forgiving the abusive taunting,
the black-eye bruising, the mind or body abusing
behaviours of partners, parents, siblings, strangers, systems.

I keep company with those who refuse to let
a religion dictate for them
a life of victimhood to abuse.
I keep company as an ally,
with people of colour, indigenous people,
gay, lesbian, bi-, non- binary and transgender people
who do not need to be forgiven for who they are and who they love.
And who do not have to forgive me for holding on to my white, straight, colonial privilege.

I’m stumped. And when stumped by a text,
the best thing to do with it is turn it, every which way
until the light of the Gospel begins to peek through.
Take a step back, and see this passage in the context
of Jesus’ “last lecture” – the cram lesson before the final test.

This is not Jesus’ first lesson on forgiveness,
but it’s the crucial one, and so maybe we expect it, then to be deadly serious, told straight,
fact and data only…..
But this is Jesus, the flinger of parables
the master of ironic hyperbole,
the gifted teller of tales
that get under our skin and into our hearts,
and this is one doozy,
with an arithmetic that boggles the imagination,
and subverts any attempt we may make
both to calculate our own righteousness in terms of our capacity to forgive, (7, 77 or 490 times)
AND our attempts to quantify what is and is not forgiveable.

Number by number he recalibrates
our understanding of Kingdom forgiveness.

After the mind-bogglingly impossible call to forgive the sins of others more times than we can count,
Jesus crowds our brains with even more incalculable numbers to describe the debt-load that we all suffer under.
10,000 talents:
1 talent was equivalent to 15 years’ wages.
So that would take…. 150,000 years to pay off that sort of debt!
In other words absolutely impossible by human standards.
Likewise the extent of vindictiveness of the debt-forgiven slave, in not forgiving a debt that would take a mere 3 months to pay off,
well that’s the time-honoured ploy of the satirist
to get us to see our own shallow pettiness in relation to the capacity of God to forgive the unforgiveable in others, and in me.

I don’t know how many other heads are spinning
with all these numbers…
which, I suspect was Jesus’ point.
The sacred arithmetic of forgiveness in the realm of the Dream of God
is incalculable.

Which is all well and good, but, how does it work?
Here on earth, here and now?
I could go in so many directions here,
but based on conversations in the first of our
congregational care cluster gatherings,
and the zoom conversation with parents and with youth as they prepared to head back to new semesters,
this is where I’m going to go this time…
in search of Gospel in this teaching of Jesus.

As in the parable, the burden of debt,
the burden of care,
of responsibility,
the burden of fear,
of resentments,
of political dis-ease, distrust, unrest,
the burden of guilt over not being enough for our loved ones,
of not having answers,
of not being resilient enough,
of not being able to pray this virus away,
of not being able to visit with sick loved ones,
of not being patient enough with ourselves and others,
the burden of guilts and wrongs that don’t even belong to us,
these are for so many among us
unbearable and incalculable;
like 10,000 talents-worth, 150,000 years’ worth
of life-sucking trouble,
that, like a double-whammy, often causes us to be petty, and unforgiving of others…

What happens when we compound all of this burdened-ness with guilt, and with an incapacity
to believe ourselves worthy of forgiveness,
by others, by God, and of forgiving ourselves?

Jesus’ parable of impossible numbers is there to say, it doesn’t matter how long your list is either of those who’ve sinned against you, or the great burden of those failings and faults real and imagined, of your own… it’s not long enough
to be beyond the forgiveness of God.

And we won’t know that for sure unless it somehow gets beyond our ears and head to our heart and our gut. We need to feel it, to witness it’s power to free in someone else, we need to test it out for ourselves, perhaps, in order to believe it.

There’s a song I can’t play on livestreamed worship, by Matthew West. [But you can – here it is…]

I’ve shared both the song, and a video of the genesis of the song, provoked by the story of a woman who chose to forgive the drunk-driver who killed her daughter. West has turned to poetry the deep truth about forgiveness;
that often the act of us forgiving another sets us free.
and often the one we most need to forgive, and release, is ourselves.

Listen to some of these words, and then we’ll listen to
the choir bringing the words of St. Francis into conversation with Jesus’ teaching.

It’s the hardest thing to give away,
and the last thing on your mind today,
it always goes to those who don’t deserve.
It’s the opposite of how you feel
when the pain they caused is just too real
It takes everything you have to say the word,
Forgiveness, forgiveness.

It flies in the face of all your pride,
It moves away the mad inside,
It’s always anger’s own worst enemy.
Even when the jury and the judge
say you’ve got a right to hold a grudge,
it’s the whisper in your ear saying, “Set it free.”
Forgiveness, forgiveness
Forgiveness, forgiveness.

Show me how to love the unlovable;
Show me how to reach the unreachable;
Help me now to do the impossible.
Forgiveness, forgiveness.
Help me now to do the impossible
Forgiveness.

It’ll clear the bitterness away,
it can even set a prisoner free.
There is no end to what its power can do,
So let it go and be amazed
by what you see through eyes of grace;
the prisoner that it really frees is you.
Forgiveness.

I want to finally set it free,
Show me how to see what your mercy sees.
Help me now to give what You gave to me;
Forgiveness, forgiveness.
Forgiveness, forgiveness

Source: LyricFind
Songwriters: Matthew West / Matthew Joseph West
Forgiveness lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc, Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd

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