Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
Ordinary 24A; Proper 19
What is it about human beings that we like keeping score?
We don’t just keep score in card games or sports, but in life. We never seem to outgrow our childish ways of judging – judging who got the bigger portion of dessert, or how many presents our siblings got at Christmas compared with our gift count, or even trying to figure out which among the kids is grandma’s favorite. We may change the categories we count and measure, but we still count and measure. Now we look to “likes,” “shares” and “followers.” We scrutinize peers’ posts to see who among us is aging well, doing well, living well, and in so doing we can discern where we fall on the spectrum of success and well-being. We can feel righteous and right in our political positions. We can assure ourselves that our children are all above average. We can tally up the aggregate score of our worldly worth and, depending on the day, judge that we are better than some, usually better than most and at least not that guy.
Peter seems to want some definitive boundaries on forgiveness. He wants to be able to keep score and judge where he is on the mercy scale. His question to Jesus about how many times he should forgive another member of the church comes right after Jesus’ detailed instructions on how to handle discipling a fellow believer. Perhaps Peter wants to know how often that time-consuming process must be undertaken. When is enough, truly enough?
I suspect Peter is feeling magnanimous with the proposition of seven. It’s a nice biblical number. It is greater than two, not up to four and surely five is right out. (Any Monty Python fans reading?) Forgiving seven times would rank Peter high on the righteousness scale, wouldn’t it? Given that common saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me,” forgiving seven times should grant us fools for Christ status. It also provides a means to keep score on our faithfulness, obedience and goodness. I rather like this idea as it would allow me to know where I stand with God and my fellow church people. Akin to when the New York Times website alerts me that I have read nine of my ten free articles this month, I can weigh whether that headline is worth clicking, finding another device or simply skipping. Sorry, Bob, I’d love to forgive you, but you’ve maxed out your limit.
But Jesus refuses to free us from the obligation to be in community with one another. He basically says to Peter, “There is no limit.” Seventy-seven is a metaphor for infinity. Seventy-seven is code for: “Don’t keep score.” Seventy-seven is a way of reminding Peter and us: Forgive as you have been forgiven and you likely don’t want to calculate that amount. You can’t calculate that figure.
Jesus drives home the point with a parable, the crux of which is this, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I have had mercy on you?” The consequences for lack of mercy toward our fellow slaves are grave, “and in his anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Notice the intensity of the language: “in his anger” and “tortured.” Clearly, it matters a great deal to God how we treat our brothers and sisters. Those of us who have been granted grace and mercy are expected and required to extend grace and mercy to others – not seven times, but always.
It is easy to read this parable and be indignant about that unforgiving slave. I find myself thinking every time I read this story, “I would never do that.” And yet, it doesn’t take much additional self-reflection to realize that, in fact, I often fail to be moved by the plight of my fellow human beings. I hold them to a much different standard than I hold myself. I often fail to recognize how much mercy I have been given and therefore fail to be merciful.
I am an immigrant, brought to the United States as a child, legally. I had a Green Card for years and eventually became a naturalized citizen. Over the years I have visited the land of my birth. The language is the same, even if the accent is different. There are many cultural overlaps, but also many cultural divergences. I have wondered if I would feel at home there if I moved back, having spent far more years in the United States than in the place where I was born. However, whenever I have wondered that I have quickly concluded that I would never choose to return, as much as there is to be lauded about my homeland. I would never go back because my life is here: my family, my friends, my work, my network of relationships, my schools, everything. When I go back to Canada, I go as an appreciative visitor, as curious as any other tourist about the local history, food and customs.
I had no agency when I came to the United States. None. My parents packed up the powder blue Impala, put my siblings and me in the back, and we headed south. Mercifully, my family was able to secure the necessary paperwork. They had the means, the language skills and the education to do so. We were not fleeing persecution, violence or financial duress. This meant, that through no merit of my own, I was able, when the time came, to go to school, work and, after I’d passed the test and paid the money, become a citizen of the country that was really the only place I’d ever known as home.
But what if I had been brought here without proper documentation? I still would have had no agency. I still would have all of my connections and relationships in this place, and I still would feel like a visitor in the country from which I’d come. The astounding difference would be that through no fault of my own, I might be forced to leave everything I’d ever known. Where is the mercy in that?
While I recognize that not everyone is an immigrant, none have gotten to where they are unaided by others. All of us have been extended help, grace, forgiveness and mercy. None of us could stand before our God were it not for the saving death of Jesus Christ. Each of us needs to remember that we’ve been ransomed, redeemed and reconciled not through any merit or agency of our own, but solely because God is good. Only then will we forgive as we have been forgiven and be the blessed merciful we are called to be.
Matthew Crawford, in his book “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” quotes Charles Murray, who wrote (in “Real Education”) that Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary said: “No one should be allowed to work in the West Wing of the White House who has not suffered a major disappointment in life. … The responsibility of working there was too great … to be entrusted to people who weren’t painfully aware of how badly things can go wrong.”
Crawford notes: “Those who belong to a certain order of society – people who make big decisions that affect all of us – don’t seem to have much sense of their own fallibility. Being unacquainted with failure, the kind that can’t be interpreted away, may have something to do with the lack of caution that business and political leaders often display in the actions they undertake on behalf of other people.”
Such lack of knowledge of their own fallibility also breeds the illusion that they don’t need forgiveness or mercy and therefore they have no obligation to extend it to others. Jesus would argue otherwise.
- When have you been extended forgiveness or mercy by another? When have you extended forgiveness or mercy to another?
- Describe a time when you have acutely been aware of your need for God’s grace. Did you realize it had been given to you? What was your response to that grace?
- When have you “interpreted away” your failures?
- Look for other biblical texts that describe “the king” becoming angry? What is the cause of the king’s anger? (Check out the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22.)
- What does it mean that we must forgive from the heart? Can we force the heart to forgive?
- The lectionary selection from Romans tells us not to judge and that each of us will be accountable to God. Given this truth, how do we faithfully hold one another accountable?
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