Sunday, October 23, 2005

Sermon: Trinity 22

23 October 2005 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 18:21-35 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving steward is a simple story.

A man owes his master a lot of money, but pleads his way out of paying off the impossibly large debt. Having been forgiven, the man goes to a fellow servant who owes him a small debt, and ruthlessly demands payment in full. When the master hears of this, he is outraged at the servant’s hypocrisy, and restores his debt and sends him to prison.

Our immediate reaction is one of outrage. How dare this servant behave this way? What a hypocrite! Having been forgiven a huge debt, why can’t he just forgive the small one against him? A simple story, with a simple villain, and a simple moral.

But if only Jesus’ stories were truly simple! Let’s meditate on our Lord’s words, shall we, my fellow hypocrites? My brothers and sisters who have been forgiven the huge debt, and yet respond by our own refusal to forgive. For we all do it, and it isn’t quite so simple when we are the ones in the shoes of the unforgiving steward. And this is exactly why Jesus is telling us this story!

We need to understand the concepts of “debt” and “forgiveness.” Most of us understand debt in terms of percentages on loans. The kind of debt Jesus is talking about here is the debt of our sins (which is symbolized by a debt of money owed to someone else). When we pray: “Forgive us our tresspasses,” the original Greek word is actually “debts.” Just as it is in the next part: “As we forgive those who tresspass against us,” that is to say: “As we have forgiven our debtors.” Our sins are a debt owed to God – a debt that involves a cosmic interest rate so high, that we can never get out of debt by working off the loan. The interest rate exceeds our entire income. Try as we might, work as hard as we can, and we only get further into debt. We become like poor old Brer Rabbit, stuck hands and feet to the Tar Baby. The more we struggle, the stucker we get. Our only hope in this situation is a kind of divine bankruptcy, a holy chapter 11 that will enable us to once again clean the slate and be freed from the burden of debt.

Of course, this chapter 11 is actually found in chapter 27 of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus assumes our debts at his cross.

The other concept that we have to address is forgiveness. There is an old saying: “I’ll forgive, but I will never forget.” While it sounds very pious, this kind of forgiveness is not what Jesus is talking about. The word translated “forgive” in our text is often translated with other words elsewhere. It is the word translated as “let” or “permit” when Jesus tells his disciples “Let the little children come to me.” It is the same word Luke used to describe the fever leaving Peter’s mother-in-law when Jesus healed her. It is the same word that Paul uses for “divorce” in 1 Corinthians. It is the same word translated as “yielded” when Jesus “yielded” up his spirit as he died on the cross.

So the word translated “forgive” in our text also means to let or allow, to yield or surrender, to leave or depart, even to divorce or abandon. This doesn’t sound like the begrudging “forgiveness” when someone decides to “forgive” – while not forgetting, does it? It sounds like our Lord is calling for something more radical than simply deciding not to retaliate. He is calling for us to forgive and forget, to allow and let those who have sinned against us to depart in peace, to yield the hold we have on them because they owe us, and to surrender our victim status just as the True Victim, the one who forgave us, surrenders and yields his Spirit to his Father.

For does our Lord “forgive, but not forget?” Thanks be to God he doesn’t! For our Lord promises that when we confess our sins to him, our sins no longer exist. They have been abandoned, yielded, permitted to depart, and forgiven. As the Lord declares in Hebrews: “For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” Through the Psalmist our merciful Lord proclaims: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.” The word translated “removed” in this Psalm is the same Greek word used for “forgive” in our text.

Our Lord is calling upon us to forgive others the same way he forgives us: unconditionally, without reservation, to the point of forgetfulness.

This is not to say that we will never be angry, or hurt, or beaten down by evil. Far from it. We live in a fallen world, and evil lurks about everywhere – especially from ourselves. There are times when we ought to refrain from taking Holy Communion, since our anger is such that we are in a state of unrepented sin until we resolve it. There are times when we need to cool off, when no matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to forgive. So what do we do in such a case? What do we do when we can’t seem to forgive those who tresspass against us?

Confess! We need to confess our sinful refusal to forgive. We need to see ourselves in this parable, that hypocrite, that unforgiving servant who accepts God’s forgiveness in great measure and then refuses to give it in a small measure. We need to confess this sin to God – even if seven times. Even if seventy times. Even if seventy-times-seven times! For, dear brothers and sisters, here is the Gospel in this text: God himself does as he bids us to do. No matter how many times we fall into the same sin, he will not refuse us his grace, his forgiveness, his cosmic bankruptcy plan.

Our Lord has given us pastors to speak his word of forgiveness, of release, of surrender to you personally. And if you have to confess the same sin 490 times, seven days a week – then so be it. There is no limit on the Lord’s forgiveness. And the more we are forgiven, the more we can forgive.

For as that wise pastor St. Augustine astutely pointed out fifteen centuries ago, the sin of refusing to forgive is vanity. He declares: “Imagine the vanity of thinking that your enemy can do more damage than your enmity?” What he is saying is that it is pure selfishness to think our own refusal to forgive is somehow a lesser offense than what was done to us. Such thinking elevates us to the status of victim (which in today’s society is the highest social status). Victims get sympathy, victims get rights, victims get special treatment. Real victims do indeed deserve mercy and benefits. However, there seems to be a long line at the station of people trying to get on the “victim” train – whether they have a ticket or not.

And what a better way to extend our status as “victim” (even when it is deserved) by holding onto a grudge, by portraying ourselves as put-upon, day after day, year after year, decade after decade. Dear Augustine got it right – our refusal to forgive is nothing less than our vanity. And think about those whom we have victimized. There is a long list for all of us, ending up with the ultimate victim, our Lord Jesus Christ: who is both our victim and our priest. As victim, he is the payment for our sins, and as priest, he is the one who absolves us. Can our own victimhood hold a candle to our Lord, the one whom we victimized and crucified?

For how can we even see the speck in our brother’s eye with the plank in our own? Perhaps we should all focus on our “accounts payable” (the debts we owe God) instead of wallowing in our “accounts receivable” (the debts others owe us). Maybe we should think of the fortune of ten thousand talents our Lord has forgiven us, as opposed to our claim to the measly hundred denarii owed to us by our debtor.

Augustine was right about something else too: our refusal to forgive ultimately hurts us more than the person who hurt us to begin with. For a hundred years from now, what difference will it make who did what to us? Our own vanity and hypocrisy are more harmful to us (and to those we love) than even the most violent criminal, the most brutal dictator, the most evil enemy, or the person we’re angry with for whatever reason.

Dear Christian friends, let us allow our Lord’s Word to do its divine and holy Work. Isn’t that why we’re here? Let us confess our stubborn refusal to forgive – even up to seventy times seven times. “For he has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Let us allow our Lord to show us what is good through his Law, through his warning to us, and let us be receptive to his healing us through the ministry of reconciliation that he has given us from his cross.

“And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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