TITLE: Put Away Your 3 x 5 Card SCRIPTURE: Matthew 18:21-35
Jesus had a lot to say about forgiveness. Most of it is hard to hear. Jesus said:
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:43-45).
He taught us to pray:
"Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors"
And he went on to explain:
"For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:14).
In our Gospel lesson today, Peter comes to Jesus asking:
"Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?"
The New Testament was written originally in Greek. What Peter really asked was this:
"Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive him?"
"If my brother sins against me." The New Testament speaks of Christians as brothers and sisters in Christ. Think about that for a moment. We who are assembled here today are family. We are all related to each other through our bond to Christ.
Does that make a difference? I think it does. I am reminded of something that the poet, Robert Frost said (in his poem, "Death of a Hired Hand"). He said:
Home is the place where, When you have to go there, They have to take you in.
Isn't that beautiful! Let me repeat it:
Home is the place where, When you have to go there, They have to take you in.
"They have to take you in." That suggests a kind of forgiveness, doesn't it! Parents have to forgive children, and children have to forgive parents. Husbands have to forgive wives, and wives have to forgive husbands.
That doesn't mean that we must become enablers of abusive behavior or drunken behavior. When things spin out of control, we might need to practice Tough Love. But the family is a place where we can find more acceptance and tolerance and forgiveness than we will find in most places.
And we are family. You and I are brothers and sisters through our connection to Christ.
But back to Peter's question: "Lord, if my brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive them?"
Now Peter was the kind of man who couldn't keep his mouth shut. He suffered badly from "Foot in the Mouth" disease. He often spoke when he should have been silent. In this case, he kept speaking when he should have quit. He asked the question and then proposed an answer. He should have stopped after the question.
But this is the answer that Peter proposed. He said, "As many as seven times?" In other words, "Should I forgive my Christian brother or sister as many as seven times?"
Now Peter was being generous. The rabbinical standard for forgiveness was three times, but Peter knew instinctively that Jesus was going to demand more. How much more? Seven sounded like a good guess. Seven was a holy number to the Jews. Yes, seven sounded very good. So Peter said, "As many as seven times?" In other words, "Will I fulfill the requirement if I forgive my Christian brother or sister seven times?"
And then Peter stood there waiting for a pat on the back. He thought that Jesus would say, "Seven times would be wonderful, Peter. Forgive your brother or sister seven times, and you will live."
Peter wanted to hear Jesus say, "You got it right, Peter! Attaboy!"
I used to work for a company manager who had an "Attaboy!" rubber stamp. When a member of the staff submitted a proposal that he liked, he would stamp it "Attaboy!" and send it back for action. He had another rubber stamp for proposals that he didn't like. I can't remember what it said, but it doesn't matter. I could not repeat it in this sermon anyway.
You would be surprised at the power of those rubber stamps. I have seen grown men glow with joy for two or three days after getting an "Attaboy!" That's what Peter was looking for -- an "Attaboy!" from Jesus.
But he didn't get it. His proposal to forgive seven times was generous, but not generous enough. Jesus responded:
"Not SEVEN times, but I tell you, SEVENTY-seven times."
In the King James Version, it said, "seventy TIMES seven"-- which would be 490 times -- but scholars tell me that "seventy-seven" is probably more accurate.
But it doesn't really matter, does it! Seventy-seven times or four hundred and ninety times! We can't really keep track of either one, can we?
Now I know that there is someone in this congregation who is thinking, "I could do it. I would just get a three-by-five card. I would divide it into seven columns and eleven rows so there would be seventy-seven little spaces. Then I would make a check-mark in one of those little spaces each time I forgave a person. Once the little spaces were full, I would have fulfilled Jesus' requirement. The next time that person did something wrong -- Sha-ZAAM!!!"
But let me ask this. If you made those check-marks on your three-by-five card, would you really be forgiving the person? Or would you just be storing up your anger -- keeping score until you could justify "lowering the boom"?
If I understand forgiveness, it means letting go of the offense -- letting go of our anger. Making little check-marks would be just the opposite, wouldn't it! If we were to make little check-marks, we would just be storing up offenses, wouldn't we be -- storing up anger -- preparing for the day when we could justify taking revenge. That doesn't sound like forgiveness to me. It sounds like preparation for a nuclear attack.
When Jesus told Peter that he had to forgive seventy-seven times, it was just a back-handed way of telling him to get rid of his three-by-five card -- to get rid of his spreadsheet -- to get rid of his calculator -- to quit keeping track.
Then Jesus told a story. A slave ran up a debt of millions of dollars -- billions -- zillions -- an incredible amount. The king, to whom the slave owed the money, ordered the slave to be sold -- along with his family and everything he owned -- so that the king would get some money to apply to the debt.
But the slave begged for mercy and promised to repay every cent -- something that he could never do. So the king took pity on him and forgave the debt -- forgave the whole thing -- forgave the millions and billions and zillions. Wow! The slave was off the hook!
But later the slave encountered someone who owed him a few hundred dollars. He demanded payment. The debtor begged for mercy, but the slave had him thrown in jail.
Other slaves learned what had happened, and reported it to the king. The king became very angry. He summoned the slave -- the one whom he had forgiven -- and this is what he said:
"You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.
Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?"
So the king directed that the slave be tortured until he paid off his millions and billions and zillions -- which is another way of saying that he would be tortured forever.
Let me explain that parable to you. The king is God, and we are the slave who has been forgiven. Jesus is warning that, if we refuse to forgive our Christian brother or sister -- or our husband or wife -- or our parents or our children -- or our neighbor -- we put ourselves in grave danger. If we, who have been forgiven much by God, refuse to forgive someone who has offended us a little -- listen to what God is likely to say to us:
"You wicked person! I forgave you all those sins because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your brother or sister, as I had mercy on you?"
I would like to soften that a little, because I hate threats. But Jesus wasn't threatening us. He was warning us -- warning us of danger -- helping us to avoid the danger.
Some years ago, a family was living in Germany. They got in their little Audi and drove through the Swiss Alps. They had a wonderful vacation, but on the way home they found the road blockaded with a big sign. The husband couldn't read the sign, but it was clear that he was supposed to turn back. But he didn't want to turn back! How would they get home if he turned back? How would they get across the Alps?
So they drove around the barricade and proceeded down the highway. They were hoping to find a few workers patching potholes -- someone who might be persuaded to allow them to proceed. They drove slowly, just in case. After a minute or two, they saw the workers, but they weren't filling potholes. They were looking into a huge chasm -- a chasm into which the bridge had dropped. If they had been driving the usual 130 km/h (80 mph), they would have plunged into the chasm.
So they turned around to find another route.
When they first encountered the sign, they were angry -- but after they saw the bridgeless chasm, they were no longer angry. The sign, which had originally seemed a threat to their plans, turned out to be a warning to save their life.
That's what Jesus is doing when he tells us to forgive one another. He isn't threatening us. He is warning us to save us. He is warning us that God expects us to forgive others as God has forgiven us.
Let me close with a question. It's an important question. Here it is. Who is it that you need to forgive today? Who is Christ calling you to forgive today? Give that some thought now. Who do you need to forgive? I am going to give you 60 seconds of silence to think about that.