Homily for Proper 19, Year A, September 17, 2017

Genesis 50:15-21                    Psalm 103:8-13                           Romans 14:1-12                  Matthew 18:21-35

Today’s reading from Matthew starts out fine – then it takes a turn that seems to contradict the opening.  Jesus tells Peter that we are to forgive someone who sins against us, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.  God’s forgiveness is offered over and over again in our bible stories – and Jesus forgives the sins of people who come to him seeking healing.  So, for Jesus to suggest that our forgiveness should, is essence be unlimited, makes perfect sense.

The parable he tells afterwards, however, does not.  It presents us with a God who is forgiving, but has very little patience for the one who does not forgive.  For failing to forgive a fellow slave, the King has him tortured until he pays back his entire debt – which the King had previously forgiven.  The King we are told, does this out of anger.  Jesus then says, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Both the charge to forgive seventy-seven times and the warning that we must forgive from our heart are about forgiveness – but one challenges us and the other evokes fear.  Forgive and forgive and forgive again – or suffer the consequences.  Not exactly the point I think we want to hear.  Of course, we live in time when the thought of a King owning slaves is repulsive.  The very idea that a person would become a slave because he is unable to pay a debt is absurd!  It was, however, commonplace in that period.  That a King would even consider forgiving a slave’s debt was more difficult to imagine that a King who would torture a slave who fails to repay a debt.

The problem I have with reading this parable is, I believe, mostly because there is such a dramatic difference between the context in which I hear it and the context in which the people heard it said by Jesus.  The final verse of today’s gospel tells us what we need to know, we must forgive from the heart.

After the school shooting at Sandy Hook, Pennsylvania, the Amish community reached out to the family of the killer to say we forgive you.  I was at first taken back by this, since it was not the family who acted – just the one man.  Then, I read that by this they mean they did not hold it against them, and that they were offering their support to his family in their grief.

On closer examination of the Amish and their faith, it became clear that they understand the Lord’s Prayer to mean that we will not be forgiven unless we are able to forgive:  “Forgive us our sins,” we are taught to pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “AS we forgive those who sin against us.”  I had never before read the Lord’s Prayer to suggest that our forgiveness depends on us forgiving others.  But, today’s gospel parable reinforces this belief, suggesting that if we are unable to forgive others we will suffer.

I do know that when I am unable to forgive, I am tortured by it.  But I do not view my suffering as punishment from God, as it was for the unforgiving servant.  My suffering comes from holding onto what was done to me.  Forgiveness is what enables us to let go of past hurts and move on in our lives.  Forgiveness, however, should never be confused with forgetting.

To forgive and to forget are two completely different things.  We can forgive and still remember – and I think this is what we often need to do.  To forgive we must make a conscious decision to move past the hurt.  This does not mean that we let down our guard and allow the one who harmed us to do it again.  We forgive not to change the person who wronged us or forget what they are capable of doing to us, we forgive to change ourselves.  If we can truly forgive in our hearts, it means the hurt we experienced no longer keeps us from experiencing joy in our lives.

Author Rabbi Kushner tells of a woman whose husband left her and refused to pay child support.  She struggles to pay her bills each month and says to him, “I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies, while he’s living it up with a new wife in another state.  How can you tell me to forgive him?”  Rabbi Kushner responds:

“I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable.  It wasn’t, it was mean and selfish.  I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman.  I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically, but you keep holding on to him.  You’re not hurting him by holding onto that resentment, but you’re hurting yourself.”

His response challenges us to remember what Jesus teaches about forgiveness, we must forgive from our hearts.

In last weeks gospel reading Jesus tells the disciples “what you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and what you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  There, too, he is taking about how we are to respond to someone who had wronged us.  We forgive so that we might experience the freedom of being loosed from resentment and bitterness.

Forgiveness is therefore a spiritual discipline.  The Amish spoke of the need to do it daily, even hourly, to get past the hurt they experienced when the man entered their school and started shooting their children.  Jesus said to forgive, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”  And, in case you are wondering, if you are keeping a list of now many times you have forgiven someone in order to know when you reach 77 times, you haven’t even begun to forgive.

Let us pray.

Merciful God, whose nature is to forgive, help us, we pray, to forgive those who have harmed us that, then having freed ourselves from our angry and our hurt we may experience the joy you have to offer us.  We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.