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Things we Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said#3:
Tears, Fears and Forgiveness.

Pentecost 14, Common Lectionary Year A 

Matthew 18:21-35

©2014 Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

We have two rich stories crowding
our imagination today
and both have to do with the vexed question
of forgiveness:

Joseph’s brothers with their tears and fears,
and their politically calculated attempts
at truce-making that are completely overwhelmed
by a full-on forgiveness from Joseph
that defies logic and human nature.
And then we have the crazy arithmetic
and outrageous parable from Jesus.

Because we’re in the middle of a mini-series on
“Things we really wish Jesus hadn’t said”
we’ll wrestle primarily with the Gospel reading.
And when we’re done,
there’s still far more that could have been said,
so if this feels unfinished, in a way it is.
It’s a seed to sow and germinate
long after this worship is done.

In the category of things I wish Jesus hadn’t said,
his response to Peter’s question is right up there.
To Peter’s “How many times must I forgive the one who keeps sinning against me?”
Matthew’s Jesus answers in confusing Greek,
which either means “ 77 times”
or “Seventy –times seven.”

I have two problems with this.
First the arithmetic:
I don’t know about you, but I’m not made that way.
I can’t get anywhere close to 77, let alone 490.
I’m too perfectionist, judgmental, stubborn, for that.
I tend to charge a fee for forgiveness
– “promise you won’t do that again?”
I get it that forgiveness if part of being in loving relationship, but it’s hard.
My arithmetic of forgiveness takes on a bit of algebraic equation…
I’ll forgive, because I hope others will forgive me when I need it, as I surely will.

And it gets worse, for my commentaries tell me
that this compound number of sevens is actually biblical code for
“Completely, always.”
And I have real trouble with that.
forgive everyone, everything, all the time?!

Jesus needn’t say any more. I’ve stopped listening.
He lost me at “77, Completely.”
For I keep company with many others who’ve deliberately driven off
the forgive- til- you -lose count freeway.

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 husbands, 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.
Forgiveness when it leads to fear and tears cannot
be part of the Dream of God, surely?

So let’s wrestle some more with this text.
Let’s put the text back into its larger Gospel setting,
zoom out the screen shot to remind ourselves
that Jesus is in the middle of a master class
with his disciples, on the way to shape a community
according to the contours of God’s Dream.

We have to remind ourselves, too,
that Peter, having ticked Jesus off with his refusal to
accept the upside vision of God’s Dream,
is now doing his best to get back in Jesus’
good graces.
So, in response to last week’s crazy ‘Aha!’
that we are to treat the wrongdoers among us as God would;
Peter brown-noses with a reasonable question:
“Erm, so, sure…. but, how many times should we
be forgiving of the wrongdoer? What’s the right number, Rabbi?”

Doh! You can sense Jesus snap to attention,
and everyone else watching too,
will he tear a verbal strip off yet again Peter again?

It’s hard to tell,
when we pick up a leather bound,
red-letter bible
that what happens next in Matthew’s screenplay
is satirical humour that would put Jon Stewart
or Steve Colbert to shame.
This is no sonorous, pious lecture that Jesus delivers.
But with zinger- filled imaginative hyperbole,
designed to rock Peter, and us back on our heals,
with ridiculous rhetorical excess[1], Jesus subverts
any attempt we may make
to calculate in human terms
the limits of forgiveness as practised
in the realm of the Dream of God.

Stone from stone he dismantles
our human notions of forgiveable righteousness:
the debt $100,000 or 10,000 talents was more money
than a slave would earn, or repay, in 15 lifetimes.
In other words impossible.
Likewise the extent of vindictiveness
is also a ploy of the satirist designed to make us outraged, then laugh,
our own shallow pettiness.

And while there are still giggles in our throats,
he twists the ending, catching our guts
in the knot of fear
that perhaps forgiveness withheld
is worthy of God’s divine displeasure,
after all?

“It’s impossible” we whisper.
We can’t forgive like God, surely?

We are uneasy.
Peter is uneasy.
The community of Matthew is uneasy.

We don’t know where we belong in the story.
If we’re not the king, are we the first servant?
We want to be forgiven that’s for sure,
but, surely it’s impossible
that we could then be so unforgiving
to the second servant……
Indeed, says Jesus, with a smirk on his face.
For the community that chooses to be shaped
by this parable
is one that knowing it is forgiven,
can be nothing other than forgiving,
nothing other than the flesh and bones
forgiving of God mending the world.

And this is what it looks like.

YouTube video


[1]  From Stephen Webb, “A Hyperbolic imagination” Theology Today 50, (1993), cited in Feasting on the Word. p.71.

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