Sunday, September 14, 2008

Proper 19

Matthew 18:21-35

21Then 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?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, 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. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But 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.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

For those of you looking for simple ways to improve your life, look no further than Google. To qualify for truly simple, I’m thinking that a good improvement should take no more than three steps. Here’s a sample:

3 Steps to Staying Healthy
3 Steps to Becoming a Millionaire
3 Steps to Clutter-Free Living
3 Steps to Quick Healthy Meals
3 Steps to Saving for Retirement
3 steps to perfect eyebrows
3 Steps to making your own baby wipes
3 steps to Fabulous Curtains
3 steps to turn worry into action
3 Steps to Achieving Your Big Dream
3 Steps to True Happiness
3 Steps to Save Your Life

I expect everyone with an Internet connection to have achieved your big dream by next week, or at the very least have perfect eyebrows. Unless, of course, your big dream is to have perfect eyebrows, then perhaps you will have both.

I did find one “three step” bit of research that speaks to our lessons today, and that is the three steps to a meaningful apology. The author, Beverly Engel, claims that the people who have some difficulty apologizing can follow her three steps and reap the benefits of a really good apology.

In an attempt to make it memorable, Engel breaks it down to the three R's: regret, responsibility and remedy.** It works like this:

Regret: statement of regret for having caused the hurt or damage

This is the acknowledgement that something has happened. The secret here is to keep it simple: “I’m sorry I’m late.”

Responsibility: an acceptance of responsibility for your actions

“I’m sorry I’m late: I should have left earlier.” This is the place, of course, where most apologies go off the rails. The temptation to find an excuse lurks near step two, and suddenly traffic was heavy, the kids were in slow motion, or the dog ate my sermon (this really happened).

Remedy: a statement of willingness to remedy the situation

“I’m sorry I’m late, I should have left earlier, please dock my pay.” Okay, maybe “it won’t happen again” fits here too. Either way, the Remedy is an opportunity to make it right or at least indicate that you are aware of an alternate approach to the same situation for the future.

Taken together, the three steps offer an effective antidote to the glib way too many people throw around the words “I’m sorry.” It also counteracts the very Canadian habit of saying, “I’m sorry,” when we properly should have said, “pardon me.”


The parable Jesus shares with Peter is the long answer to a very simple question: "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?"

A couple of things we can notice immediately, one of which relates back to last week. Recall that whenever we see the words “member” or “church” we know that Matthew is being creative with the timeline, and that in fact he is addressing us rather than the original audience. Some find this takes away from the power of the story, but I would suggest that Matthew is simply underlining the urgency of the message, and the perhaps the extent to which the question of forgiveness was critical to the life of the early church. We can assume there was much to forgive.

The second point here is the use of seven. Within the Hebrew Bible, and in later Jewish writing, seven usually has some other meaning. Sometimes it points to something obvious like the seven days of creation, and in other places it is simply an exaggeration number.

Hands up if you have an exaggeration number. My mother’s exaggeration number is 68,000, and I knew as a kid that if my mother said 68,000 that was my cue to go to my happy place and wait out the storm. My exaggeration number is much lower, 700 to be exact, and if you ever you ever hear me complain about the 700 things I dislike about politicians during a general election, you will know that I may be exaggerating.

So Peter’s exaggeration number is seven (this is before inflation). Jesus’ exaggeration number, however is 490, since seven times 70 is such an outrageous number of times to forgive, and clearly not to be taken literally. Seriously, but not literally.


Jesus tells a parable. And luckily for me, I spent and entire week this past summer with Tom Long, and expert on these things, as part of my Doctor of Ministry programme in Chicago. Dr. Long had a great many things to say about parables, but I’ll ease in today with just one Longism to help shed some light on Matthew 18:

“Parable creates a new world, which sours, then requires the creation of another new world.”

And this, it would seem, is a near-perfect description of Jesus’ “Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.” The king becomes aware that one of his servants has amassed an enormous debt. The debt is forgiven, the servant departs and immediately confronts a debtor of his own. Forgiveness is not extended. The king becomes aware of the inequity, and bad things happen to the unmerciful servant.

There is one more thing I should say about parables: they are not “three step” how-to guides to human action. They are stories. And as stories, they have the potential for interpretive meaning, meaning that they can be read in a number of ways. For example:

The parable means forgive generously, but do some follow-up too. The parable means careless forgiving may not make people more forgiving. The parable means that unforgiving people can be tortured until they become more forgiving.

Each of these three conclusions can be found in the parable, it we read it literally rather than seriously. A serious reader will begin by “trying on” the parable. When have I been the king, or when have I been the servant, or when have I been the poor guy who was clearly in the wrong place at the wrong time?

And if your Bible did a more contemporary translation of sums, we might also catch the exaggeration number that lives in the middle of the parable. Ten thousand talents is somewhere in the neighbourhood of five billion dollars, and so the absurdity of the story would have met your imagination differently from the beginning.

Back to trying on the parable, we could also enter the story and track our own emotional response: It might be something like this:

Holy cow, that’s a lot.
How’s he ever gonna repay that?
Wow, what a guy!
Good Lord, you’re kidding!
Oh, that’s not right.
Good, good on him!
Yeah, torture that unmerciful servant, yeah!

Viewed this way, we go through the story with such a jumble of emotions, we can hardly keep up. And this is precisely the point. The parable is not a recipe to be followed, or a guide to how kings should deal with less than forgiving previously forgiven servants. This is more like an emotional roller coaster or maybe a funhouse mirror.

We enter the story and we find ourselves trying on different parts: I might be able to forgive that, I would be more grateful that that guy, I could never forgive his lack of forgiveness, and the story continues. We are teased into becoming precisely the person we condemn: We can’t forgive, we forgive, we could never forgive. Jesus is telling this story with a big smirk.

The smirk (we can only imagine) reminds us that this little story has the power to comfort or convict. Some won’t get the subtlety and draw a quick lesson from the story. Some will get angry that they were led down this emotional path. And some will simply shake their heads and imagine a world where feeble humans interact and often offend and try to forgive and fail to forgive and live another day: maybe a little wiser but maybe not.

And this is the point of the parable. It takes our world and it turns it upside down and gives it a bit of a shake and waits to see what will fall out. What usually falls out is whatever pride we bring to stories where other people fail and we imagine we would do better.


You will discover over time that I occasionally turn to the stories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, stories of fourth and fifth century monks who tried to live away from the world and recorded a tradition that has much to teach us. This is one of the stories of Abba (Father) Sisoes:

A brother whom another brother had wronged came to see Abba Sisoes and said to him, 'My brother has hurt me and I want to avenge myself.' The old man pleaded with him saying, 'No, my child, leave vengeance to God.' He said to him, 'I shall not rest until I have avenged myself.' The old man said, 'Brother, let us pray.' Then the old man stood up and said. 'God, we no longer need you to care for us, since we now do justice for ourselves down here.' Hearing these words, the brother fell at the old man's feet, saying, 'I will no longer seek justice from my brother, forgive me, Abba.'

And this, perhaps, is the ultimate meaning of the story: We always remain the people in need of forgiveness. We do some forgiving of our own, and we try our best to do it well, but ultimately we stand shoulder to shoulder with our fellow debtors, needing the forgiveness that only God can give. We will sometimes forget ourselves, and even act like we can “do justice for ourselves down here,” but that moment will pass, and we will remember that God does most of the forgiving and we receive most of the forgiveness. This is Good News, thanks be to God, Amen.



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