|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on September 14, 2020 at 1:35 PM|
When is enough finally, enough, Jesus? That’s what Peter’s asking this morning. Fresh off hearing how we’re invited to confront our siblings in Christ when they have harmed us and welcome they back if they change their ways, Peter says what some of us were thinking.
So Jesus, um, some people mess up A LOT. They keep doing the same stupid thing over and over. And they don’t get any better. It’s exhausting and it hurts people and it makes the church look bad. Not to mention, welcoming them back over and over doesn’t seem really fair to people who make good choices most of the time. So when is it all enough? When can we stop accepting them back? How about seven mistakes? That seems pretty reasonable- even generous.
But it’s not enough, Jesus says. How about seventy times seven! Being reasonable is not enough when it comes to forgiveness. When you’re dealing with your siblings in the faith, forgive so many times that you lose count. Forgive so much that people around you start thinking you don’t know what you’re doing. Then forgive some more. I tell you, you don’t ever get to write someone of as a lost cause. You don’t ever get to stop forgiving.
Now let me tell you a story, Jesus says (which is what he always seems to do when he’s telling us something hard to take in!) So there was once a head servant, Jesus says, who owes his master more money than he can ever repay- think like 100 years of paychecks. Now it’s time to settle up and the servant can only pray for a miracle. He can only plead for mercy from the king because he can’t get out of this mess any other way. And this king looks at the debt that was owed and he looked in love at the face of his servant. And in an act of mercy too extravagant to make sense, he forgave the debt.
It was amazing! That head servant was set free. But instead of letting the king’s extravagant generosity overwhelm him, instead of letting this mercy teach him how to live, that first servant goes right out and finds someone who owes HIM a little bit of money. And he throws that guy in prison until he can pay the debt.
And the master is horrified. Horrified that the head servant learned nothing by his extravagant mercy. So that master reinstates the debt and tortures the servant.
Now, I don’t believe that God will torture us when we fail to forgive others or when we try and just aren’t able to yet, but parables tend to use exaggeration to make a point. Jesus wants the disciples to understand how incredibly seriously God takes forgiveness. This is my command, Jesus says. It isn’t optional! You are entrusted by God with the gift of forgiveness so that you can release others, not so that you can withhold it to purposely make them suffer.
Because, Jesus says, my forgiveness is supposed to fundamentally change how you live in the world and how you encounter others who are hurting like we are. Forgiveness is supposed to re-make us in the image of the loving God we serve. And that God is both relentless in upholding justice, and merciful beyond measure when it comes to setting people free.
Because forgiveness is meant to do both. Too often we think that forgiveness means tolerating the bad things people do and saying everything is ok. But that’s just ignoring something. Forgiveness forces us to take evil and sin seriously first- to call a thing what it is. Just like the king acknowledged the debt of the servant and made him look it square in the face.
But forgiveness also means taking the life of your neighbor even more seriously. It doesn’t mean being soft on sin, but it means valuing the life of your neighbor so highly that you are willing to release them from the burden of your anger so that they may have life.
When our sibling in Christ sins- or even when they participate in systems that harm others- we need to say that what was done was not right. It was not what God intended. And we will still need to take action to restrain those who do evil to keep them from harming others. We may need to force those who have done evil to fix what is in their power to fix.
But in all this, we are commanded to love those who have harmed us so much that we pray and work for their turning around, for their health. Jesus says- look on your neighbor with the love that I looked on my servant who had too much to forgive. And see their life more than their sins. Pray that they will be restored the person to who God intended them to be. Don’t do it because it makes sense, do it because I have made you to be people who forgive as you’ve been forgiven, people who love like you’ve been loved. And do it together as a community.
This is not easy and it’s not supposed to be. This is not our regular way as people- but it is God’s way. And as much as I’ve read Scripture, God’s way always seems to make things harder and less like our gut tells us to react. But God’s way is also the way that rescues us and our fellow servants of God from the pain we cause each other. It’s the way that helps us live again in freedom and love. So being people of forgiveness is simply who Jesus made us to be.
But we don’t have to do it from our own strength. And thanks be to God, because we probably know how well that turns out! When forgiveness is hard, the only hope we have is to accept the gift that God gave us first. And perhaps that is the hardest step for some of us. To know that truly, our God loves us beyond our failures. By the cross- and by the love that led him to the cross- Jesus set us free from those mistakes that we can never undo and those debts to others that we have no hope of ever repaying. Jesus values our life and our future so much that he releases us from those things that we can’t release ourselves. Not because those things weren’t wrong, but because Jesus doesn’t want them to define who we will be or what we will do.
And when we cannot trust this forgiveness- when it can’t become real in our souls and our lives, Jesus draws us to worship, to be with our community in whatever way the season allows, so we can admit our failings and hear forgiveness pronounced for us. To hear the pastor tell us, “Cling to this promise: the word of forgiveness I speak to you comes from God. In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.” Here Jesus tells us that our lives are always more important than our mistakes.
He sets us free from the burden of what we have done so that we can be changed. So that we can live our lives so rooted in the forgiveness we receive so that we recognize the same need in others. And responded with mercy. So that, together with the whole Christian community, we may be people who reflect the extravagant forgiveness of our God. For the sake of our neighbor and for the sake of our world.