The following is a condensed version of a recent sermon delivered by the Rev. Carroll Bundy, pastor at New Hope United Methodist Church.
We recently learned from the Gospel of Matthew that our goal as Christians is to reconcile; to bring others back to God and to regain a sense of community, oneness and unity as fellow believers.
While last week’s message was about swallowing our pride when we are harmed and bringing others back into the fold by teaching them and by going above and beyond to reconcile our differences, this week’s message is a bit harder.
Last week, I think it was assumed that we forgave our brother or sister for any harm done to us personally.
But immediately after that passage in Matthew, Peter asks a question that is on all of our minds: “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?”
I think we need to give Peter a big at-a-boy. How many of us would consider forgiving a brother or sister seven times? It’s hard to forgive your own kids seven times, let alone someone who is not actually related to you.
I struggle to forgive people even once. I mean, I can say the words, but honestly, a lot of times when I look at someone, the first thing I remember, the first thing I remember, is that time 20 years ago when that person hurt me. And I hurt all over again.
Recently, Pastor Vickie Woolard, a member of my pastor group, sent me a meme which had a picture of Jesus talking to his disciples in which he said: “Not just seven times, but rather as many as 70 times 7....” And to that one of the disciples shook his head, and thought out loud: “GREAT! Not only do I have to forgive my brother, NOW I have to do math as well....”
How in the world can Jesus expect us to keep up with how many sins someone has committed against us? Do we keep a log? Do we write down each individual sin, or do we just put another check? When you get to 490 checks, boom, finished, you are cut off. No more forgiveness for you!
In the Lord’s Prayer, there is a line that teaches this passage: “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
In some versions of this prayer, the word “trespass” is replaced with the word “debt.” Lord forgive us our debts, as we forgive others their debts to us. Lord, please forgive us our debts, what we owe you — just like we forgive others what they owe us.
Part of the good news is that we don’t have to do math. We don’t have to remember seven offenses, or 70, or 77, or even 490. We don’t even have to remember one. We are called to just forgive. Be careful what you pray for.
In the passage today, the first servant — which is us by the way — God calls for a reckoning of what’s owed. People we need to understand, one day, each of us will stand before God for this reckoning, this balancing of the books.
The amount owed doesn’t really matter. Regardless of whether it’s 10 talents or 10 bags of gold, the servant owed a debt that could not be repaid. The Common English Bible says the debt is the equivalent of 60 million days’ wages. That’s equal to 164,383.56 years of wages — almost 2,200 lifetimes of work. It was a debt that could not be paid. It could not be forgiven in full because that’s how God works. That how it is in the Kingdom of Heaven. That is how much God loves you.
But after the master forgave his servant’s tremendous debt, that same servant went out and refused to forgive a small debt owed to him.
This is even harder for us to grasp. How can someone who has been forgiven so very much, not turn around and do the same for their brothers and sisters? How can this story even be true? It’s unreal, that someone could be that cold and uncaring for their neighbor.
In Matthew 18, verse 28, the Bible states, “When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred coins. He grabbed him around the throat and said, ‘Pay me back what you owe me.’”
One hundred coins, about 100 days wages. That compares to the 2,200 lifetimes of debt the servant was forgiven.
In Verse 35, Jesus says, “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Remember what I said earlier about looking at someone and remembering the sin they committed against you? I think when you forgive someone from the heart, their sins won’t be the first thing you think of.
You know I love these funny sayings, and here is another that I have heard often. Satan knows your name, but calls you by your sin. God knows your sin, but calls you by your name.”
When you look around at your brothers and sisters, do you see them by their name, or do you see them by their sin?
Pastor Woolard wrote my pastor group the following email on this topic of forgiveness:
“I want to try to re-emphasize the idea that what we do and how we love, now, matters, not just for us, but because we live in community with the people around us. We were created to live together in this community and we choose, or are drawn to each other, in our specific churches.
“One of the things that brings us together in our faith communities is forgiveness. We are forgiven our sins, and so we respond to God in worship. All of us. Forgiveness is forward thinking. The point of forgiveness is that we no longer live in the past, that the past, our past, no longer controls our future. A different future is possible for us, after we forgive, and after we are forgiven.”
Another member of our pastors group, Karen Pruett, wrote this in response: “I think for me, it is difficult to forgive someone who never asks for forgiveness, and does not even recognize that they have done anything to be forgiven for. I think, for some people at least, that tends to be true of the smaller, everyday wrongs.... But I love the idea of forgiveness being something that ties us together in our faith community. We probably need to be reminded that, just like the servant in the Matthew passage, we have all been forgiven much, so it is our responsibility to be forgiving.”
I love that idea that forgiveness is letting go of the past, and living a different present and future. Forgiveness is key to everything we understand about Christianity. Forgiveness is key to our very faith. It is key to our knowledge of God’s love for us and his desire to reconcile with us.