The Reverend Kathleen Killian
Proper 19A Christ Church
Pay it Forward
Our gospel passage this morning is the conclusion to Matthew’s chapter 18, in which the extraordinary principles of the new order—the kingdom of Heaven that is near and present in Jesus—is made known to the disciples. So let’s begin by taking a brief look back through the chapter to better understand its rather challenging ending.
Matthew 18 opens with the disciples asking Jesus: Who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven? They have already been vying for position amongst themselves, so to some extent their question is self-serving. And Jesus’ answer, no doubt, was not what they were expecting. He calls a little child to come and sit among them, and says to the disciples: To enter the kingdom of Heaven, you must become like a little child; in other words, you must change. You must become not great, but lowly and the least.
Then Jesus tells them the Parable of the Lost Sheep, and the joy of the shepherd at finding the one sheep that has gone astray; but it is never the will of the Father, he says, that any of these little ones should be lost.
The next section of Matthew 18 turns to the subject of conflict within community, as we heard about last Sunday, and the steps to take towards reconciliation.
This brings us up to the question that Peter asks Jesus in our gospel this morning: Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times? Jesus’ answer is rendered as either 7x70 or 77x—the exact number is not clear in the Greek. But it is to say without measure. The perfect number of times to forgive is whatever it takes.
Jesus goes on to elaborate upon forgiveness by telling the parable of the Unforgiving Debtor. To recap: a servant-slave owes the king 10,000 talents, which translates into an absurd sky-high sum of money that could never and would never be repaid. The slave pleas and begs for mercy and moves the king to cancel the entire debt. But that same slave shows no such forgiveness to a fellow slave, who owes him a relatively small amount of money. Instead, he grabs him by the throat and throws him in jail. But this unforgiving slave is ratted out to the king, who says to him: Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you? Then he hands him over to be tortured, until all that was owed is paid—which will be never.
And this, Jesus says, is how my heavenly father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart. With that, Jesus left, leaving the disciples, and us, with a very hot potato.
Is God’s forgiveness conditional? And worse yet, is it dependent on our ability to forgive or not? And if we do forgive, there’s a caveat: it’s gotta be from the heart and no mere lip service. Unsettling as this may be, each time we pray forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, we evoke this conditional forgiveness. Earlier in Matthew, after Jesus taught the disciples the Lord’s Prayer, he reiterated (translation from the Message): In prayer there is a connection between what God does and what you do. You can’t get forgiveness from God, for instance, without also forgiving others. If you refuse to do your part, you cut yourself off from God’s part (Matthew 6:14-15)—which is the self-inflicted “torture” of the unforgiving debtor.
I think that Jesus is urging us to seriously consider the relational nature of God’s kingdom, and the genuine synergetic effect between heaven and earth. As above, so below. To know the self is to know God, and to know God is to know the self (St. Augustine). We never truly act in isolation, nor can we as the body of Christ. Kingdom living requires that we give back the love, mercy, and forgiveness that God has given us; kingdom living requires that we pay it forward; and by doing so, no debt remains outstanding—except, as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans—the continuing debt to love one another.
Did you hear it? As Christians, we are indebted to love. I am indebted to love you, and you to love me. Our mandate is unequivocal. So why then is this so very difficult? Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Paul asks. Why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. Each of us will be accountable to God.
Perhaps we shun our indebtedness to love because we’d rather be “right,” no matter the cost, privileging pride and judgment over peace and humility. Perhaps even, we choose tolerance over unity—though unity with God and each other is the very mission of the Church (BCP p. 855).
This is not to say that the very real pain of being hurt, sometimes horrifically, is to be ignored, stuffed down, or glossed over. We must feel what we feel, as did Jesus. To quote writer Debie Thomas: Forgiveness in the Christian tradition isn't a palliative; it works hand-in-hand with the arduous work of repentance and transformation. Forgiveness does not condone wrong or evil behavior, nor is it about forgetting; it takes time and sacrifice. A heart that wrestles is one seeking freedom from that which binds it, be it anger, rage, resentment, bitterness, hatred, victimhood or vengeful thoughts.
Part of our vocation as Christians is to pray for and bless each other and the creation. But if we are knotted up with stagnant or toxic emotions, the full power of our prayer and blessing is obstructed, like a kink in a garden hose that impedes or even cuts off the flow. So too, we are less able to receive and be nourished by the grace and mercy ever offered to us.
Sometimes forgiveness is a private and internal affair, in that, sadly, reconciliation of relationship may not ensue. If this is the case, we can know that no one is permanently beyond the reach of God’s transforming grace; for it is the joy and will of the Father to seek and find the lost little ones, and God’s judgment that is ultimately redemptive. St. Paul puts it this way: We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's.
A number of years ago, I had a dream in which I was given the message that the bottom line and purpose of all relationship is to learn to forgive—and to do it, exclamation point! When I woke, I didn’t really get it, but I’ve also never forgotten. I’ve since come to understand forgiveness as a movement or current of love, and the how of the way God loves us—beforehand—not after-on-the-account-of—but in advance. God fore-gives. Our love is first God’s love. And, because sin is so overwhelmingly convoluted, forgiveness can only be a pre-existing condition of all relationship, including the one with the self. Forgiving ourselves, and fully receiving absolution, can often prove more difficult than forgiving another. Yet, to quote poet David Whyte: At the end of life, the wish to be forgiven is ultimately the chief desire of almost every human being. So, let’s learn to forgive, and do it!
During our long journey home, God’s Holy Spirit inspires us to become “little ones,” who walk together in love, light, and peace. In the beginning was shalom. But becoming humble, honest and kind is simply not possible apart from forgiveness, which is never ours alone to give; for it is Christ’s forgiveness that we give, and from the heart of God that all forgiveness flows.
Matthew’s chapter 18 is bookended by two questions: who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? and how often must we forgive? May we consider these questions and Jesus’ answers well, as therein are revealed the extraordinary principles of God’s kingdom.