September 13, 2017
By Rachel Beam.
Scripture: Matthew 18:21-35 (NRSV)
Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “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?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should 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.’
I confess that forgiveness doesn’t come easy to me. In fact, if I’m going to be honest, I have a list of people who I have a hard time forgiving. I’m not talking about the guy who cut me off in traffic last week. I let go of that yesterday. Well, maybe this morning. I feel a bit like Peter: so how many times do I have to forgive? Is there a limit? Is there a loophole? Is there a statute of limitations?
And, like Peter, I may be willing to make as many as seven attempts to forgive, if absolutely necessary. But, according to Jesus, that’s not enough. Jesus invites us to forgive “seventy-seven times”; in other words, he asks for an unlimited supply of forgiveness to flow from my cold, impenetrable heart.
Well, why? It comes down to loving God with all my heart, receiving unlimited grace from God’s overflowing heart, and then loving my neighbor as myself. Because, truth to tell, as long as my list of unforgiven people may be, I’m guessing that I’m probably a featured player on someone else’s list. I have misspoken, misstepped, and mistaken my way so many times, as I have blundered through this world.
This parable in Matthew’s gospel invites me to remember that I have been forgiven, in a huge way. That is the outcome and benefit of grace, offered by a God who loves me without question and without limits. The grace and forgiveness I withhold from others keeps me in a prison of my own making, and I torture myself with anger and self-righteousness. If I don’t make the conscious choice to forgive others, my anger will eat away at my spirit, I will be more suspicious and untrusting, and I will isolate myself from community. My forgiving others, it appears, will not only help me move on and through my pain, but it will grow a stronger community of trust around me. My stumbling efforts at forgiveness will help to build a kin-dom.
Forgiveness is painful and difficult work. It doesn’t absolve the person who hurt me of their responsibility or guilt. It simply frees me from the painful prison I have allowed myself to build on their behalf. And so I work at it, slowly, painfully and painstakingly, not seven times, not even seventy-seven times, but over and over again, knowing that I am the blessed recipient of Divine Love and Grace, and I have a God who walks with me, every step of the way, on my own journey toward forgiveness.
Thank you, God, for loving me into new life every day of my life, and for being my partner in love on the journey. Amen.
Rev. Rachel Beam is the Senior Minister of First Congregational Church in Bethel.
September 13, 2017