Proper 19.A.23
Matthew 18:21-35
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

A Nun, Sister Elaine, liked to tell a story about a bishop who made fun of an old woman because she claimed that when she prayed to God, God spoke back. Now the bishop had devoted his whole life to the study of God, and he was certain that if God spoke to anyone, it would not be to one such as she. And, as the bishop himself had never heard God speak, he was dismissive of her claims.

But the woman insisted. “It’s true. God speaks to me.” “Prove it!” said the bishop in an arrogant, almost angry tone of voice. “Ask God what are my greatest private sins. If you return knowing these, then I will believe that God speaks to you.” The woman agreed to do so, and the two parted.

The following day she returned and the bishop greeted her with a smirk. “Well, did you ask God what are my most secret sins?” “Yes.” She replied. And the look on her face was so intense, so knowing, that the bishop hesitated but asked it anyway, “And what did God say?”

“God said…,” the old woman spoke softly, but with assurance. “God said…. He couldn’t remember them.”

Forgiveness. It’s hard, isn’t it. It’s tempting to reduce it all to something of a math equation--or an account book. In today’s Gospel, Peter comes to Jesus and asks: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” We’d probably agree that this sounds pretty magnanimous--after all, we’re famous for the phrase “Three strikes and you’re out.” Seven, of course, is the number symbolizing fullness and perfection, so I’m sure that at this point Peter is preparing himself for a pat upon the back.

But, as we know, this isn’t what Jesus does. Instead, it’s as if he says--Peter, if you want to do math, I’ll show you math--and he responds. “Not seven times, but I tell you seventy time seven times (that, by the way, is 490 times--an absurd amount). And that’s the point. It is absurd. There are no limits to the command to forgive.

Seeing that Peter wants to quantify forgiveness, Jesus proceeds to tell a parable about forgiveness using numbers whose proportions are themselves absurd (as if to say: “You want to talk numbers? I’ll give you some numbers to think about.”). Jesus tells of a king calling his debtors to account and dealing with one who owes him ten thousands talents--not dollars, not pounds, not euros or yen, but talents. Now, to place this in perspective, a single talent was a huge amount of silver, worth around 10,000 denarii (and a denarius was worth one day’s labor). Thus, 10,000 talents would come to a hundred million denarii. In other words--an amount of money which the debtor could never--not in a million years--hope to repay. Absurd, indeed.

Given the size of the debt, the King has every right to ruin, not only this man, but also his family. Yet, instead of taking the slave for all he had and letting the circle of injury expand to the man’s family, the king takes the debt upon himself. He forgives the man everything….all of it…the entire kit and kaboodle. Heavens, the man isn’t even required to make a token payment. Who does that?

But now the story takes a turn. This same debtor comes across another servant who owes him one hundred denarii--a large, but not impossible amount to repay. And what does he do? He seizes that servant by the throat and engages in a first century smackdown which lands the fellow servant in prison until he can pay that debt in full. The grace the first debtor was granted--is all but forgotten. He is a man who refuses to extend the same grace to his compatriot.

And word gets back to the King who responds: “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?”

This is a parable, not about money, but about grace. It’s a parable that tells us something about the nature of God. God knows us--and surely along with knowing us, God is aware of our sins. I doubt that anything gets past the Almighty. But God also possesses infinite mercy. God chooses to forgive--to wipe the slate clean, to offer each one of us--over and over again, the opportunity to begin anew. Like the woman in the story with which I began today’s sermon--God chooses to not remember our sins.

That kind of graciousness is a far cry from where many of us find ourselves when considering what it means to forgive. Frequently, we’re stuck somewhere along with Peter--wanting to be magnanimous--but also feeling the need to draw boundaries, no matter how wide. Because none of us wishes to be a doormat to someone else’s poor decisions.

But here is something to consider. Setting boundaries is different than offering forgiveness. You can set clear boundaries for behavior and still forgive. Forgiveness, in the large scope of faith, is about grace. Frederick Buechner puts it this way: “When somebody you’ve wronged forgives you, you’re spared the dull and self-diminishing throb of a guilty conscience. When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you’re spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded pride. For both parties, forgiveness means the freedom again to be at peace inside their own skins and to be glad in each other’s presence.”

This morning, at our 10:00 a.m. service, we have the joy of baptizing Patrick Connor Fogarty and ushering him into the family of God. In our Baptismal Covenant, Patrick, his parents, Godparents and all of us gathered together, will be asked this question: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” The answer is: “I will, with God’s help.” Now, Patrick, as of yet, is too young to be forgiven for much--save for keeping his parents from a good night of sleep. Yet, I suspect, given human nature, this will change. There will come a time when forgiveness will need to be issued.

If you take a good look at the question posed to us in the Covenant, you will notice that the question isn’t phrased: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and if you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Instead, it says “when”—“when you fall into sin…”. We all sin--each one of us. Failure is presumed at the outset. To be human is to fall short of the hope God holds for us. So, as parents, friends, siblings and members, each of the family of God, we are tasked from the very beginning of our lives to learn how to forgive. To accept forgiveness and extend it to others.

Today, my hope is that Patrick, and each one of us, will devote ourselves to learning and participating in the art of forgiving, because in so doing, our hearts and our spirits will be strengthened and we will grow closer to God and our neighbors, becoming a blessing to each in turn. In Jesus’ name. Amen.