14th Sunday after Pentecost
Pentecost 14.20 “Maybe Start With One Time?” Matt. 18:21-35
All this talk about forgiveness has gotten Peter thinking. It is dangerous, sometimes, we see in the Gospels, when Peter thinks too much. Lessons for all of us there, no doubt! He’s tracked with Jesus pretty well on this whole forgiveness thing. If your brother sins, tell him his fault (hey, Peter can point out his brother’s faults with the best of them—Andrew’s given him plenty of practice, so no problem there—can do, Jesus!). If he listens to your fault-finding (as he should!) and repents (hopefully, with tears and great contrition) then all good. Fine, so far!
If he doesn’t listen (and Andrew is better known for his talking, Gospel-sharing, than his listening, we must admit) then take a pal or two and go over the fault again. If he listens then, well and good. If not, tell it to the whole church; and, if he doesn’t listen to the church, treat him as a pagan and a hedge fu… uh, tax collector. Again, can do! Maybe the rite of “Farewell and Godspeed” can be adapted as a kinder, gentler form of excommunication? “We’re really going to miss you, Sam and Sally.” “Uh, I didn’t know we were leaving the church?” “Now you know!”
But, thinking about it for a while, Peter sees a problem: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Real thought has gone into this question. I mean, knowing Andrew’s proclivities, Peter sees how the church could easily spend all its time on fault-finding, fault-admission, and forgiveness. How would we get anything else done? It’s a somewhat cumbersome process Jesus has saddled us with here in Matt. 18. Surely some limits on how often we do this would be wise?
To be honest, it’s such a cumbersome process—meeting one on one, two or three witness, church council, rite of “Farewell and Godspeed”, that honestly—I have very rarely seen it done in the church. I’m sure it can’t be done on Zoom, at all. Those who’ve tried it once rarely repeat the experience. Far easier to just make a cake (“See you in 5-7 years”) and skip right to the rite (see what I did there?) of “Farewell and Godspeed”. Don’t ask me how I know this…
Honestly, seven times per member seems awfully generous to me. I can tell Peter’s never even tried the Matt. 18 3-step one time at this juncture in ministry. If he had done, one per customer or maybe once every seven years would have been his more reasonable proposal. From the sinner’s perspective, seven times doesn’t seem a lot. But from the church administrator side of the desk, it’s a lot, trust me! If you’ve ever been through Synodical Reconciliation, you’ll realize one time is a lot! Again, don’t ask me how I know this…
I have often wondered if Jesus was really serious about the Matt 18 3-step as an actual process to follow scrupulously, or if He was just messing with us—suggesting this as something we’d try one time, then maybe go and entirely reevaluate our approach to this whole forgiveness business. And I’m quite serious about this. I really do think Jesus is joking, messing with us a lot more often in the Gospels than is commonly recognized (i.e. “this kind of demon can only come out by prayer and fasting” I believe is a joke, said with a grin, not a serious recommendation for exorcists). Irony and sarcasm are subtle arts that, surprisingly, our Lord is highly adept at… (!)
I think the serious part of Jesus’ teaching here is that before we set a number on how many times we have to forgive brothers and sisters, we might want to try forgiving a brother one time, see how that goes, consider: whether we still, seriously, want to do numbers and sizes on Jesus and forgiveness?
I think this because of the story Jesus tells to illustrate His point, the takeaway from which, for me, is that forgiving a brother, one time, for a relatively minor debt is so difficult for us that if forgiveness depended on us following the Matt 18 3-step rigorously, stone-cold seriously, we’d all end up in hell with evil jailer angels torturing us constantly. Which, honestly, is what we deserve, but surely not what we want?
I can relate to Peter. He hears Jesus lay out a fairly rigorous program for moral and spiritual improvement, 3 challenging and exhausting steps, a tough fitness regimen. Think how spiritually fit we will be following Jesus’ program! Should I do it every day, or just three times a week? Hey, if 3 is good, 7 times a week’s better, right?!
I remember sitting with Bonnie at Optimist Pool one evening, shortly after turning 40, watching our kids’ swim practice, and Bonnie suggested maybe we should swim instead of sit?
The next day we’re suited up, on deck, and I go: “So, what kind of workout are you thinking?” Bon was like “I’m just going to swim a lap and see how it goes.” I went, “That’s nothing! You won’t get in shape like that! I’m going to start with a breezy 500 free, then maybe 10 100s on a minute fifteen, like fast Fridays on my old swim team.” Bonnie’s eyes twinkled; she went: “Go ahead!” I dived in and barely finished one 50. My shoulders were burning. My lungs were on fire. I thought I was going to die. Bonnie, by contrast, breezed right along, very pretty freestyle, lapping me constantly and I think actually did 500 without stopping. Better still, she never said anything but “Your stroke looks pretty good; let’s do it again tomorrow!”, because Bonnie is nice.
Is 7 sets of the Matt. 18 3-step workout enough, Jesus? Oh! 70×7! Now, You’re talking, Jesus! Of course, for an athlete like me, no problem…!
Even being forgiven all our sins—not the least of which being the brutal murder of God’s only Son by a Roman cross—being given a free pass, a 10 billion dollar debt wiped clean, we’ll still go out and choke a fellow servant who owes us 5 grand. “I’ll start with, say… 7 times forgiving Andrew, step it on up from there…!”
Take Joseph, in our OT reading, please! I think he’ an overrated snot, Joseph, the original state monopolist as Franz Pieper says, but most revere him. Yet, Joseph couldn’t forgive his brothers even one time. “I’ll take care of you” is what the mafia boss says to his enemies (and pretty much how it worked out for Joseph’s family, as they spent 400 years in miserable slavery thanks to Jospeh’s “taking care” of them!). Cold comfort and callous kindness! (That last line of the OT reading’s sarcasm too, I bet!). Next time someone says “Please, forgive me!” Don’t go: “It’s OK, forget it”. Actually forgive them! Say the 3 magic words: “I FORGIVE YOU” and see the difference IT makes…
I think Jesus expects us to fail spectacularly at the forgiveness business. I think He knows we won’t make even one circuit of the Matt. 18 3-step without our shoulders burning, our lungs on fire, feeling extremely foolish. I don’t think Jesus wants us to structure the church around the Matt 18 rules. I think He wants us to try forgiving our brother/sister one time, fail spectacularly, and then laugh at ourselves, our hubris, our ridiculous over-estimation of our abilities and importance (which, I believe, is the dictionary definition of “arrogance”?) so that we will see forgiveness is a Divine Gift, a true miracle that only Jesus can do and (thank God!) has already done for all the sins of all the world.
So, here’s a different workout plan: just let Jesus do it all, and (by faith alone!) bask in that forgiveness, that laughter and love of His that brings Peace, surpassing understanding, guarding hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.