Scripture: MATTHEW 18:21-35
You and I know what it is to be wronged, don’t we. Maybe a spouse has betrayed you. Maybe a parent has disowned you. Maybe a business partner has double-crossed you. Maybe a formerly close friend has simply stopped speaking to you, for no discernible reason. Maybe a child can’t stand the sight of you. There’s no end to the litany, is there.
The fact is: if we’re human, we’ve been hurt, and perhaps diminished and demolished, sometimes by people we have trusted and respected, sometimes in far more casual settings. Long ago, in an early job I held, an employer of mine forced me to work on a Sunday afternoon in which my then-beloved Boston Celtics were playing in the seventh game of the NBA finals. I went to work, and he had absolutely nothing for me to do, and I missed the game. Though missing the game caused me no long-term harm, his behavior struck me as needlessly cruel and unfeeling. I was certainly not in a forgiving mood!
Forgiveness can be tremendously difficult. It sometimes asks of us everything we have, and, try as we might, still we are not able to do it. It can just go so thoroughly against the grain. If someone has wronged me and I forgive them, after all, doesn’t that look exactly the same as my letting them off the hook? ‘He forgave me,’ the person could easily think; ‘I might as well do the same thing again! Let’s see how much I can get away with.’ Offering forgiveness for bad behavior sounds like a surefire recipe for being a doormat. I don’t think so!
Yet Jesus is insistent: forgiveness is fundamental if we’re to embody the spirit of God. In one of the numerous bracing and challenging stories in Matthew’s gospel that we’ll look at over the next few months, Jesus presents his disciples with a ridiculously demanding standard. It is, in fact, a completely outrageous standard. In Jesus’ time, Jews were expected to offer forgiveness three times, which, when you think about it, is hard enough. But that was it. They weren’t required to forgive a fourth time—that was more than was needed. So when Peter asks Jesus whether they should forgive not just three times but as many as seven times—which would have been a notably increased demand—Jesus instead sets the standard at an insanely immense “seventy-seven times” (18:22). Or, as it’s sometimes translated, “seventy times seven”—or 490 times—that’s the sort of forgiveness that’s needed if you’re going to be true to Jesus.
Just to show how absurd his expectations are, Jesus then goes on to tell a story in which a servant owes a king 10,000 talents. A talent was the largest of all coins, and equaled fifteen years’ wages of a day laborer. To put it in today’s terms, thinking conservatively, if a day laborer were to make $20,000 for a year, she or he would owe the king $3 billion. That’s $3 billion, with a “b.” To show how crucial forgiveness is, after the servant pleads with the king, the king totally forgives the entire loan. And that’s what’s lifted up as the standard
It’s a nonsensical story. Who of us can do that? It’s hard enough to forgive in much smaller ways. One day, when I was a boy, my younger brother, Tim, offered me a straw-shaped container of a powdery candy called “Lik-m-aid.” He had, though, earlier emptied the container of its candy and replaced it with unsweetened Kool-Aid. When I poured it in my mouth, I completely gagged with how utterly repulsive it was. I’m still bitter about it! So how in the world does Jesus expect you and me to forgive much more significant wrongs—negligence and cruelty and violence! And seventy-seven times to boot!
And yet there the standard sits: forgive again and again and again; release others from the weight of their worst sins. Free them, in other words, of the equivalent of a $3 billion debt. In some traditions, when the gospel passage is read in worship, the reader finishes by saying, “The Word of the Lord.” And the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.” I suspect this morning that congregational response to Jesus’ story would be just a tad half-hearted and muted. Who of us can genuinely give thanks for a standard so ludicrously impossible to meet!
And yet, in this non-literal, hyperbolic way, that’s what Jesus pushes us to, isn’t it. If you want true community, he seems to say, if you want relationships that are rich and deep, if you want to live in tune with the way God created the universe, then you will practice forgiveness over and over and over again.
It’s not easy to be community, is it. And it’s certainly not easy to be church. That woman talks way too much; no one else can get a word in edgewise. That man wants church to be something I have no desire to be part of. And that preacher—what an absolute ninny! As our faith witness made clear this morning, at church we’re expected to “pass the peace even with the ones we like the least”! Who needs it!
We do, that’s who. And that’s especially true in these pandemic times. Jesus reminds us that, in true community, we do indeed make peace with the ones we find to be the most difficult. It’s true in families, it’s true in workplaces, it’s true in schools. And it’s true in the church. In church, we connect not just with the ones we like, but also and especially with the ones we may find a bit trying. In church, we learn to find common ground that ties us together beneath our differences. In church, we seek some deeper connection than the more superficial qualities that may draw us to some and repel us from others.
And that’s not easy in these challenging times, is it. While for some of us who are more introverted, this may seem like an ideal world, for many of us there may well be an underlying anxiety and discomfort with the way things stand. Tara Haelle, an educator and science writer, talks about how these times test what she calls our “surge capacity.” Many of us do fine in crisis situations. We get a “surge” in our energy, we get adrenalin that lets us deal with the crisis until it moves past. The trouble with these times is that the crisis doesn’t pass. We may, of course, make some adjustments to this odd new world. Haelle’s point, though, is that the adaptations we make to get through a crisis eventually can’t be sustained. She describes a general malaise she sees in so many people, a sense of weariness and despair.
In the early months of the pandemic, she says, most of us were able to use “surge capacity” to get by. Surge capacity is the resources we muster to deal with a flood, for example, or a broken leg. You gear up for the crisis of the moment, and then the crisis dissipates and that energy surge isn’t needed anymore.
As the pandemic has worn on, though, we’re not able to continue in that surge. As Haelle says, “the emergency phase has now become chronic.” Though she herself adapted adequately at the beginning, by late May, she says, “I wasn’t doing so hot. I couldn’t get any work done. I’d grown sick of Zoom meetups. It was exhausting and impossible to think with the kids around all day. I felt trapped in a home that felt as much a prison as a haven. . . . I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t make myself do anything—work, housework, exercise, play with the kids—for that whole week.
“Or the next.
“Or the next.
“Or the next.”
As she says, adjusting to the “new normal” is easier said than done. I mention Haelle’s observations because they form a backdrop not just to our own personal inner worlds, but also to all our interactions with others. The stress of the times can make us short with each other. It can make us impatient and less tolerant and more judgmental.
One of the ways this inadequate surge capacity can show up in church is in tensions that develop regarding policies or procedures, and maybe especially regarding how we deal with such matters as building closure. As one of our church leaders pointed out to me this week, there is what might be called a “change cycle” that happens in all significant changes. When an event such as COVID-19 comes along—not, we should add, that there are any other events quite like this pandemic—when an event with such far-reaching effects comes along, though, we all go through something like Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief, and we do so at different rates.
The change cycle has six identifiable stages: loss, in which the primary need is safety; doubt, in which the primary need is accurate information; discomfort, in which the primary need is motivation and small victories; discovery, in which the primary need is to make a decision and move forward; understanding, in which the primary need is to focus on the benefits and reasons for a change, and not just the features of the change; and integration, in which the primary need is flexibility and getting ready for the next change.
What’s important this morning is not the specific stages themselves so much as the fact that we go through them at different rates. So if Suzanne is in a place of loss and needs safety, and John is in a place of discovery and needs to move forward, and Madison is in a place of integration and is ready for the next change, there can be a lot of friction and impatience and head-banging. Maybe one person is upset that decisions were made without the congregation being consulted. Maybe another person is peeved that a one-time pew-mate hasn’t accepted this whole new reality. The job of church leadership is to hear everyone wherever they are, and to validate all those stages, and to say, as I do now, “I’m sorry if you haven’t felt fully heard.” And the job of the congregation, it seems safe to say, is to be patient and tolerant with one another. In other words, a central task for all of us is to forgive each other for not being in the same place we ourselves are in.
And this is true not just in church, of course. When people have hurt us, our job is certainly not to let them keep hurting us—that’s just masochism. There are numerous situations in which we are beckoned to put a stop to atrocious and harmful behavior, or even to report offenders to a larger authority. As forgivers, our job isn’t to excuse people their cruel excesses and say, “anything goes.” That cannot possibly be what Jesus wants.
Our job is, though, to keep granting the people who hurt us or with whom we disagree a fresh start. Our work, as Matthew’s Jesus says, is to let our hearts be changed (18:35), to keep reminding those with whom we are at odds that we hold them dear, that they are more than even their biggest mistake, that we love them. That’s what it is to live in Christ.
And how is such forgiving love possible? It certainly doesn’t appear by sheer willpower, does it. If you’re like me, you know the utter failure of trying to tell yourself to forgive someone. It’s like telling yourself to “be smart” or “sing better” or “be taller.” Ain’t gonna happen! Forgiveness is certainly something that requires our attention and intention. But seldom can we just flip a switch and make it happen.
If you’re trying to forgive someone for something, I’m guessing two things can help. One is to ask for God’s assistance. This is a great thing for which to go to God in prayer. If you haven’t asked for God’s help in forgiving someone, you are missing out on the very power that can let you do what may seem impossible. Talk to God. Ask God. You might even start by saying, “Hard as I try, God, I can’t seem to forgive so-and-so. Would you please come into my heart to move me in that direction. Would you please inhabit my being and make possible what I cannot seem to do on my own.”
So one thing to do to move toward forgiving is to ask God for help. The second is to remember that it’s not just others who need forgiveness. None of us is so pure that we ourselves haven’t needed that very gift. It’s pretty easy to vilify or demonize someone else, and think they’re the only one who needs to be forgiven. If we’re honest with ourselves, though, we will stop to remember that we each have done abundant things that stand in need of forgiveness.
And you know what? That is exactly what has happened. No matter what you or I have done—and Jesus really means no matter what, even a figurative $3 billion worth of interpersonal damage to family or friends—no matter what we have done, God has gazed upon us with tender eyes and said, ‘I forgive you. My word to you this Rally Day, in this very moment, says God, is: you get to start over. I love you. So live your life, in church and family and workplace, with grace and peace, forgiving each other as I have forgiven you. And all shall be well.’ That’s God’s word to us this day. May our hearts be changed by that love, that we might be vessels of such forgiveness everywhere we go, this day and always.