+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.
The text for our meditation is from our Gospel lesson, especially where Peter asks the question, Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times? and Jesus’ response, I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…
The story goes of a young man who worked at a nursing facility, and how he provided care for an older woman. In the course of his work, he had done something he should not have done – I’ll refrain from saying what it was, but suffice it to say, he had transgressed against this elderly lady. While certainly a sinner in this regard, this young man did have a conscience, and soon it burdened him enough to the point that he had to confess. He went to the lady, told her flat-out what he had done. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I was stupid and foolish, and while I know I don’t deserve it, I hope you will forgive me and give me a chance to make it up to you.” The woman stared at him, a mild frown on her face as she studied his. “Hmm…” she said at length. “I forgive you, young man … but NOT a second time.”
Maybe we all know why this older woman said this. After all, we’ve all been on the receiving end of someone promising to amend their ways, promising to do better, only to face disappointment as they fail yet again. The frustration, the anger that such broken promises bring to bear is enough to drive us mad! “You said you were going to change! Why haven’t you?! I thought we were past this!”
We’ve all been in those shoes. We’ve been there, whether it’s a child promising never to do “it” again (whatever “it” happens to be), a student who promises to never again not do their homework, or the parent who says they’ll never cave to their addiction again. Broken hearts from broken promises, and at a certain point, we may certainly ask with Peter, Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times? It’s reasonable, we think. Fool me seven times, shame on you; fool me eight or more times, shame on me. We can’t be expected to forgive again … and again … and again … right? At a certain point, the one who asks for forgiveness must not be forgiven if they keep on making the same mistakes again and again … right? Forgiveness, at that point, seems absurd, right?
WRONG. And not just wrong – it’s DEAD-wrong. “Not seven times,” Jesus corrects, “but seventy-seven … or seventy-times-seven … times.” Regardless of what the Greek actually meant, it’s a symbolic numbering meant to show Peter and us the absolute absurdity of keeping number of the times we are sinned against. Jesus is saying, “STOP COUNTING! Knock it off! Stop keeping track of the offenses and simply forget; don’t do the math!” I don’t’ think that He could be any clearer here, and I don’t think the emphasis is wrong. It is simply absurd to think that we should do otherwise! And Jesus’ parable which follows shows us why.
We’re told about a king who is attempting to settle accounts with his servants. In the process, he comes across one servant whose account is short by ten thousand talents – to put it in modern fiscal terms, that would be as if your average Joe owed the government between $7 - and $12 billion. It’s an absurdly high debt which the servant could not settle, not with an entire lifetime of surrendering 100% of his pay. Even more absurd is the servant’s promise that, given time, he would make good on this insane debt. Instead of calling shenanigans on the servant, the king takes pity on him, and forgives that massive debt. All of it. Not a shekel does that servant owe any longer. He’s free.
And what does this, undoubtedly, relieved and unburdened servant do? He goes out. He zeros-in on a fellow servant who owes him a pittance by comparison: a hundred denarii, or close to $6,000 – a sizeable debt, to be sure, but by comparison, to the billions of dollars the first servant owed, it’s a drop in the bucket. That first servant finds this fellow servant who owes him a few grand, and almost verbatim, the second pleads for mercy from the first. He promises to pay back the debt (a more realistic feat, honestly) if he is just given more time. But the second servant finds no mercy here. Instead, he finds himself thrown into the debtor’s prison until the total amount would be paid off.
You can imagine the fury of the king when news of this happening gets back to his ears. He summons the first servant, castigates him for his lack of mercy, and orders him, not just to be thrown into debtor’s prison, but to torture, until he pays back that entire $12 billion debt. It’s a parable that should make us a bit uneasy, especially when Jesus caps it off by saying, So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.
Jesus’ point here? Our personal experience of God’s forgiveness should shape our attitude of forgiveness toward others. Because, let’s face it, we’ve all been in the shoes of the person who’s fallen for the same old trap, the same old temptation yet again. Whether it’s something as mild as being a clumsy oaf yet again, or that you’ve fallen off the wagon yet again, the disappointment, the heartbreak, the frustration with one’s self, the desire for forgiveness and the chance to try again, is something we are all familiar with. We’re familiar with it because we come to that same place at the end of every day, as we look back and reflect how we have sinned against God and neighbor in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. I have no doubt that, some days, you find yourself thinking, “Wow, did I really do that again?” So knowing this, how often we all consistently fall for the same temptations and vices, the question becomes, “Do you really want God doing the math for your sins??”
No, of course not. To imagine God as vindictive, to imagine Him holding grudges the way that we sometimes do, is terrifying. But the plain and simple fact is that He does not do this to those seeking His pardon, mercy, and grace. When one repents of one’s sin – it doesn’t matter if it’s the first time or the fiftieth time that one has fallen into that trap or caved to that temptation – for the sake of Christ, our heavenly Father announces His great Te absolvo – “You are absolved. Pardoned. Forgiven.” And the more we hear how we are forgiven in spite of our insurmountable debt, the more that forgiveness rubs off on us. He who is forgiven much, forgives much. That’s part of the reason why we have confession and absolution week in and week out – to proclaim that “Because of Jesus’ sacrifice of His own life on the cross on our behalf, your sins are FORGIVEN” and because you are forgiven, you should be as quick to forgive others as our heavenly Father is quick to forgive us. Will you do it perfectly? No, but that’s the beauty of living in repentance – we’re always confessing before God our sins and recognizing His life-giving absolution for the sake of Christ and His all-atoning sacrifice. That is why we partake of the Lord’s Supper, receiving Jesus’ very body and blood in those supper elements, receiving – not only the forgiveness of sins incarnate in that bread and wine, but also knowing the promise of the Holy Spirit to soften hearts to no longer bear a grudge, but rather to harbor forgiveness toward our fellow servants.
Let’s go back to our story from the beginning. The relationship between the older lady and the young man working at the nursing home was healing. However, one day, wouldn’t you know it, that idiot of a young man did it again; he transgressed against the lady once more. What’s worse, this time, he remembered her words from before: not a second time. Understandably, he was terrified of the repercussions of what awaited him as he approached her room to confess. Was he going to lose his job? Get arrested? What was she going to inevitably demand happen to this multi-transgressor? He entered her room, bearing the full weight of his guilt, not even able to look her in the eye. “Ma’am,” he said, “I’ve got to tell you, again, I have transgressed against you. Even though you warned me that you would not forgive me a second time, I did it again. I know how this looks, and I know I have absolutely no business asking it, but I must, once again, ask for your forgiveness.” He finally looked up and saw, instead of anger, a look of confusion, puzzlement, on her face. “What do you mean, ‘once again’? I forgave you for what you did before – that’s wiped away, gone forever. We’re starting over again! Of course I forgive you – but I won’t … a second time. That would be absurd!”
+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit + Amen