Sermon Sept 17 Matt 18:21-35 Forgiveness Rev. Betsy Hogan
Do you know why we put the words to the Lord's Prayer on the screen every Sunday? It's still actually a fairly unusual thing to do, though I hasten to say that I'm glad we do. But we do it for two reasons.
The first is quite practical. It’s simply that not everyone knows the words to the Lord's Prayer. If some of us learned it in Sunday School, not all of us WENT to Sunday School – and if some of us learned it in ordinary public school, I’m fifty-five and we already weren’t taught it in ordinary public school when I was a kid.
So not everybody knows the words. Which is the main reason why we put them on the screen every week, like all the other words we say together.
But the second reason, and I suspect it’s the reason why the tradition initially started way back decades ago at St. Matthew's of putting the Lord's Prayer in the bulletin, is that THIS congregation's practice, for at least over a century, has been to pray "forgive us our debts" rather than the more generally-used "forgive us our trespasses".
Which can be a little startling if you're not expecting it. And then we’re all saying the Lord’s Prayer, and suddenly things seem like they’re sort of going off the rails a bit – but if you look at the screen, there it is: debts instead of trespasses.
And welcome to St. Matthew’s… and now you know… what’s sort of the essence of the place – which is that however everyone else does something, we probably do exactly the opposite. Just on principle. The roots of this congregation are 18th century “dissenting Protestant” – and that’s still pretty real, culturally, on the ground.
But there IS a story that’s been handed down about debts instead of trespasses here, and how it started. That it was the Rev. Thomas Fowler, who was minister here from 1901-1908, who insisted on using “debts” instead of “trespasses” because, as he noted, it’s St. Matthew’s and that’s how the Lord’s Prayer is written in the gospel of Matthew…
Now I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that maybe the Rev. Thomas Fowler just really liked “debts” because he was an oldy timey Presbyterian. But at any rate, he thought up a good line he could use for a rationale… and it actually worked.
And thus debts it shall be at St. Matthew's, world without end, Amen. And ultimately, either way, of course, the point is the same. If using the word "trespasses" for sins, for wrongdoings, with its subtext of physical encroachment – if “trespasses” resonates more with some of us, particularly those of us who are only too aware of the reality of personal vulnerability --
Then using "debts" for sins, for wrongdoings, has its own interesting and useful subtext. Namely, in the notion of what we owe to one another, as human beings sharing this world. What we owe to one another, in terms of our treatment of each other, by virtue of the fact that we are each of us, and all of us, valuable and beloved as God's people.
So it really is six of one, half dozen of the other -- debts, trespasses, whichever word stands in for “wrongdoings” or "sins" in the Lord's Prayer, it doesn't really matter. We all know what we're talking about -- we're talking about hurts. We're talking about harms.
Forgive us our sins -- our wrongdoings, the hurt or harm we cause -- as we forgive those who sin against us, who do wrong to us, who hurt or harm us. That's what the point is in the Lord's Prayer, and whether we say debt or whether we say trespasses – whether it’s what we OWE each other or it’s a way we’ve actively ENCROACHED on someone else’s personhood, it doesn't really matter. We all know what we're really talking about is sins.
Which is also, in the passage we just heard, what Jesus has been talking about with his disciples. They’ve been on the way to Jerusalem, walking along the road with him; he’s been teaching them, teaching them, teaching them – when Peter the disciple finally breaks in long enough to ask him a question.
About sins, about those who sin against us, but more to the point about forgiveness. And not just one-off forgiveness but extraordinary, unceasing, over and over and over again forgiveness. When someone sins against us.
Which notion has really gotten Peter a bit worked up. Because, really? Over and over and over again forgiveness? In a culture that places extreme value on honour and emphasizes the justness of retribution in carefully equal measure – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?
Over and over and over forgiveness in a world in which there are people who will just keep doing you harm? Over and over and over again? Really? For Peter it’s all a bit much. So he stops Jesus and asks him outright: "If someone sins against me, how many times? How many times do I have forgive? As many as seven times?"
Which Peter actually thinks would be crazy. But, not even close, says Jesus. Not seven times, but seventy times seven times. Which, as I know you know, does NOT actually mean that at sin number 491, all bets are off… Because in fact, the phrase seventy times seven is basically bible-speak short-hand for infinity.
How many times do we have to forgive? Not seven times, but infinity times. It's a little mind-blowing, this Way of Jesus. And the mind-blowingness is not especially materially assisted by the parable Jesus tacks on to drive home the point. The parable about the slave who is himself forgiven a great debt, but then with no small amount of hypocrisy fails to ‘pay it forward’ as it were by forgiving the debts that others owe HIM.
Because as a reminder that God loves unconditionally and forgives all, and therefore we too should love unconditionally and forgive all, this parable of Jesus seems to pointedly ignore the unfortunate flaw in the whole argument.
Namely, that we are not God. And in the absence of being God, the unconditional love of forgiving over and over and over every single time somebody does us harm, seems unlikely any time soon to be anything other than a little mind blowing.
But having said that – and it’s true that forgiving seventy times seven for us as mere mortals is probably always going to be something we try for rather than achieve. But having said that, there IS a way in which this parable actually offers us something useful when we think about forgiveness.
Because it’s not by accident, I think, that what Jesus does here with this parable is that he construes the notion of someone “sinning against” Peter, or any of the disciples, or us, in the quite concrete terms of debt. Like, actual debt, where someone owes us money.
Because the slave in the parable owes his master a great debt – and the master forgives it. The master, in other words, makes a specific decision to be done with the whole matter. He no longer needs anything from the slave. There’s no more “owing”: no repayment, but also no apology, no excuses, no promises it’ll never happen again.
There’s no more “owing”. It’s done, the matter’s closed – and crucially, the master’s also letting go of needing anything to happen to the slave – in terms of punishment or retribution or even a poor credit rating.
Two sides of the same coin, that are somehow easier for us to get our heads around when we think of what it means to forgive an actual debt, like money, like in the parable –
And it’s in this way, through this money-debt parable, that we actually get a good, and I think helpful, understanding of what Jesus means when he’s talking about forgiveness generally. Because following the parable, forgiveness then becomes less a kind of vague sort of feeling that we’re trying to grasp in relation to someone who’s hurt us, and instead really quite a bit more concrete.
It’s just a letting go of those two specific needs: needing anything FROM the person who’s hurt us – whether that’s an attempt to ‘make up for it’ or it’s an apology or even an acknowledgement of what they’ve done –
And needing anything to happen TO the person who’s hurt us – any kind of revenge or payback or punishment or humiliation.
It’s actually quite concrete, the way Jesus builds for us an understanding of forgiveness generally in this parable, by lining it up alongside what we already know in the actual world is meant by the forgiveness of a debt.
Because we can see in the parable that it’s a decision that the master makes. It’s a decision to declare the matter closed: he needs nothing further from the slave, and he needs nothing further to happen to the slave. It’s done. And he moves on.
Which is not to say that that “moving on” was necessarily easy… But in fact the next question we might have expected Peter to ask Jesus, of course, is “but should the master ever lend the slave any money again?” Because the whole conversation was provoked, after all, by Jesus telling Peter to forgive over and over. Not just seven times, but seventy times seven times.
But this is where things get interesting. And a little muddier. Because we know, in fact, what Jesus would say, “should the master lend him money again tomorrow”. And Peter would have known it too. Because Jesus would totally say yes. This is, after all, the same Jesus who said ‘if someone asks for your coat, give them your shirt too’. And ‘if someone says ‘go one mile’, go the second mile too’. So should the master lend the slave money again tomorrow? Absolutely. Because when it comes to calling us to operate with that kind of wholly selfless and sacrificial generosity, Peter knows, and we know too, Jesus means it.
But that’s why here’s the crucial thing that we have to remember, as we hear this passage. In which Jesus grounds an answer to Peter about forgiveness generally in a parable that’s about a straightforward and concrete financial debt.
That there is a difference, and it’s a difference that Jesus recognizes, between being wholly generous and selfless and sacrificing with our things or with our money… and being wholly generous and selfless and sacrificing with our own well-being.
Because throw in the shirt and go the extra mile, sure. But submitting to getting hurt by someone over and over and over again, like our well-being doesn’t matter? Like we’re not precious in God’s eyes? No way. It was never Jesus’ intent that we’d think we’re meant to line ourselves up for harm and hurt over and over and over again. Turn the other cheek is a response – it’s a claiming of power, it’s an intentional refusal to descend to the level of violence. It’s a response. It is NOT an invitation. And if it gets taken as an invitation? Then turn your other cheek and let your whole body follow it, and get outta Dodge.
Because God wants none of us to even experience -- never mind submit to, or theoretically have to forgive -- that kind of series of repeated hurts. That was never Jesus’ intent. Jesus stopped people from getting hurt. He protected the woman who was being stoned for adultery. He silenced the crowds who mocked Zacchaeus. What he wanted was for us to recognize one another’s value, and also our own. Not to line ourselves up for repeated hurt. That was never his intent.
So what is his intent, then, with this response to Peter, that can so easily lead us into dangerous and destructive territory.
I think in all honesty that what Jesus is actually poking at a bit here, with Peter and his “how many times do I have to forgive this guy who’s sinned against me”, is just the very real human struggle that we have with forgiveness in the first place. Due to not being God.
Because if we’re honest, when someone’s really hurt us, when someone’s really done us harm, whether we call it a debt or we call it a trespass, we can try to forgive. We can try to focus and we can pray and we can try to let go of the need for anything from them – to make up for it, or an apology, or an admission – and we can try to let go of the need for anything to happen to them – revenge or payback or shame or guilt –
And we can find our way there and we can say that we’re ‘done’ and we can say we forgive. And then we go to bed, and when we wake up the next day, we pretty much want to smack them all over again.
So how many times, Peter asks Jesus? Well, maybe infinity times. Maybe every single day, all over again. Letting go of the need for anything from them, letting go of the need for anything to happen to them, declaring it’s done, and moving on. Day after day. Seven times, seventy times seven times, infinity times, whatever it takes.
It’s Jesus understanding that for us, due to not being God, forgiveness sometimes has to be kind of spiritual practice. Renewed, refreshed, re-engaged day after day, over and over again, chipping away at that need for anything FROM the other person, at that need for anything to happen TO the other person. I think it’s Jesus understanding that for us, due to not being God, we might find ourselves having to work at forgiving even one piece of harm… infinity times.
Chipping away at the size and heaviness of it over time. A smaller and smaller weight we’re carrying. Because that makes it lighter, it makes us freer.
So how many times must I forgive, Peter asks Jesus, and we hear ‘infinity times’ and we think that means in response to ‘infinity hurts’. But I don’t think it does. Jesus makes really clear in his defending of a whole lot of people in the gospels that he is NOT okay with ‘infinity hurts’. That we are precious and we get to turn the other cheek and draw a permanent line and exit.
I think ‘infinity times’ is Jesus understanding how hard forgiveness is. How long it takes, how incremental it can be to chip away at that need for something FROM the person who’s hurt us or for something to happen TO the person that’s hurt us.
But how worth it, it is. Inch by inch, making ourselves lighter, making ourselves freer. Day after day, chipping away at the size and heaviness of the hurt. As a gift to ourselves because we’re worth it.
So, debts versus trespasses? I don’t think it much matters. What matters really is that the Lord’s Prayer, the daily prayer, it has right in the heart of it that little bit of Jesus’ understanding. Ya, maybe infinity times. Maybe two steps forward, one step back. Maybe let’s give that forgiveness another go today – we may not have gotten there quite yet, due to not being God.
But we’re not alone while we’re working at it, and it’s worth it. And so are we. Thanks be to God who helps us day after day. Amen.