September 17, 2023 – Pastor Elizabeth

16 Pentecost Year A

Sept. 17, 2023

St. Paul’s Random Lake

Matthew 18:21-35

Who’s Counting?

Let us pray. Lord, it is so hard to be patient when others continue to harm us and they somehow don’t see their wrong. We give thanks that, unlike us. You are infinitely patient. Grant that we may have a small fraction of the forgiveness in your heart. AMEN.

Twenty two years ago this past Monday the unforgettable events of September 11, 2001 took place. Every year it seems that readings come up that emphasize forgiveness. Is God  subtly trying to tell us something? Will we ever be to the point where we can forgive those brutal acts? We are certainly not to the point where we can forget them!

Today we hear about Joseph, who years later, forgave his brothers who nearly killed him, but opted to make some money instead by selling him into slavery.

In his letter to the Roman church. St. Paul encourages his readers not to judge others, but to learn to accept the religious practices of others that might be different from their own—although surely suicide bombing isn’t in the same category as eating unclean food.

Finally, we hear the question that Peter asks Jesus in today’s gospel about forgiveness and we are all poised on the edge of our seats waiting for Jesus’ answer: “Lord, if my brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

Peter’s suggestion seems more than generous. Imagine if a friend of yours at work kept taking the candy car you were saving for a special snack off your desk and each time you told that person to stop, you came back the next day and found it gone AGAIN! It would probably be less than seven times before you started to tuck that treat in a drawer and stopped talking to that person altogether.

Yet, Jesus goes way beyond seven! He answers Peter: “Not seven times, but I tell you, 77 times.” What? Is he crazy? You’d have to be Willy Wonda to give away that many candy bars! Jesus illustrated his teaching by teaching the parable of the “unforgiving servant” which I took the liberty of updating a bit.

One day, not long after his high school graduation, Jimmy borrowed his parents’ car to go to several friends’ grad parties. As day turned to evening and evening to night, Jimmy started to party heartier. After the day’s final party, Jimmy was more than slightly intoxicated and ploughed his parents’ car into a tree.

Upon Jimmy’s arrival home, Mom and Dad are less than pleased. “I can’t believe you would be so irresponsible! We trusted you and you blew it big time!” said Dad. “I have a good mind to take the money you’ve been saving to buy your own car and use it to replace ours! Even then it will barely pay for the repairs.”

Jimmy begged and cried: “Please, Mom and dad, it was only the one time! It will never happen again!”

Jimmy’s parents looked at each other and without exchanging a word they knew what they would do.

“The truth is, Jimmy, we’re just glad you’re alive and still with us. We forgive you and we just hope you’ve learned a lesson so that you never drink and drive again.” And unbelievably, that was that.

That is, until Jimmy came upon his younger brother, Steve who was desperately trying to hide a small object behind his back…

Jimmy snatched it away. “Hey, it’s my new I-phone! And it’s all smashed up! How could you?”

“I’m sorry, Jimmy, I’ll pay you back…”

“You bet you will. Every week when you get your allowance—it’s mine, bro. And until you pay me back, with interest, you’ll do all my chores around the house! And don’t you dare tell Mom and Dad!”

Steve agreed.

And Jimmy walked away, pleased with himself. Until he saw that Mom and Dad had heard everything.

They were not happy. “Didn’t you learn anything, Jimmy? You begged us and we forgave you. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your brother as we have had on you? No college for you! Every cent of your money will go to pay for that car!”

Keep in mind that the parable as Jesus told it with the King and his servants and my version are set in a pure fantasy world. What real king would ever forgive his servant what would be the modern equivalent of 150 million dollars. And what sort of parents would ever totally forgive a child after totalling their car without using it to teach a lesson in responsibility? What is this fantasy world where all debt is erased and no sin is counted against you? Jesus told us. For those who believe, it is the kingdom of God!

Now we live in a world where everything is counted. Parents, you know this is true. Don’t dare to show one child special favors because the others are paying close attention and will bring it up later. Humans can be quite merciless in the way we calculate rewards we think we deserve and the wrongs that have been committed against us. We hold grudges and nurse our hurts. We seek revenge because we want those who harm us to feel as awful as we feel. We point fingers and assign blame so we don’t have to carry it.

Hopefully, when we remember the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 we will begin to see that blaming and revenge don’t work as well as we thought they would. There was an incredible cost in conflict and war that took its toll on many innocent victims. Do we want to stay in a world where we continue to count wrongs and the cost grows higher and higher or is there another way?

Jesus says. “Yes, there is another way—the way of the kingdom of heaven, the way of forgiveness, a way, often impossible for us, but possible for God.”

Years ago in Confirmation class we were talking about how Martin Luther felt he was never worthy of God’s love. One of my students had a very wise answer when I asked how we as sinners could EVER deserve God’s love. He said, “It’s a parent thing. Like our parents still love us even when we mess up or do something wrong.”

God is our heavenly Father who loves us unconditionally and forgives us infinitely. In Jesus Christ God offers entrance into a world where we can live free from the bondage to the sin that holds us, where we can let go of the need to continually tally up our good deeds and others’ wrongs.

In the kingdom that Jesus opens up to us, even to forgive 77 times or 77 billion times is small because he gave his life to pay off evry single debt we owed to God. That is GRACE. God’s graces at Christ’s expense.

So how many times should you forgive the one who sins against you? The plain and simple answer is “Who’s counting?” AMEN.