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HOW OFTEN . . . . ?


A sermon preached by Rev. Richard A. Miller, Minister of Trinity United Church, Montreal, Quebec.  September 11, 2005.  Matthew 18.21-35


"Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?  As many as seven times?" 

- Matthew 18.21b


            Our Gospel reading this morning focuses on forgiveness.  How interesting that this is the appointed lectionary reading for today.  Nine-eleven.  Has it really been four years already?  And now – when this day carries us back to those live telecasts of the Twin Towers crumbling to the ground, and when we are trying to cope with the flooding of much of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as well as with the senseless deaths here in Montreal of two young men who had so much to live for – what is the Gospel reading appointed to be read on this day?  Matthew chapter 18, verses 21 and following.  And how does it read?  It begins with Simon Peter speaking to Jesus and saying to him:  "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?  As many as seven times?" 


            Yes, here we are.  Here we are on September 11, 2005.  And here we are with the aftermath of a hurricane, and with these two troubling deaths.  And for many – perhaps most – of us here we are out of sorts with people that we know well – whether they are members of our families, or neighbours, or friends, or other people who are part of the family of faith.  And whatever our own life-situation, here is Simon Peter asking Jesus the same question that we ask:  “Lord how often?”  “Lord, how many times?”  “How many times must I forgive someone else?”  “How many times, Lord??  And maybe we are also asking, “When can I stop?  When is my obligation over?  When can I stop forgiving?”


            I think that was Peter’s real question:  “When can I stop forgiving?  When have I done enough?”  And he offers a possible answer:  he says, “As many as seven times?”  Now his Jewish religion required him to forgive three times, so Peter probably thought that he was going far beyond the call of duty by suggesting seven times, for that was more than twice what he was required.  He may even have felt that he was approaching the standard of Jesus himself.  Imagine his surprise when Jesus said seventy times seven (or some translations read seventy times seven).


            When Jesus told Peter that seven was not enough:  that he would have to forgive seventy-seven times, Jesus did not mean this exact number.  You see, seven was the days of creation, so it was a number that signified perfection.  Seventy-seven – or seven beside seven – meant perfect perfection.  It was perfection to the nth degree.  So what Jesus was saying to Peter was that you don’t calculate forgiveness on the basis of arithmetic.  And he went on to tell a story to make the point.  He told a story about a servant who owed his king ten thousand talents, which amounted to something like twenty million dollars in our money.  Now it would have been impossible for anyone in that day to actually owe anyone that much money.  But at that time and place it was the most anyone could imagine.  If ever there had been such a case, the person’s property could be sold, and in many places he and his family could even be sold into slavery.  This would not have begun to retire the debt, but it would have given the creditor some return on what was owed to him.


            Well we know how the story goes:  this servant asked to be allowed to work off his debt - something which was absolutely impossible for him to do.  But next we are told something else that seemed impossible, namely that the king had pity on him and forgave him all that he owed.  Imagine that!  The debt was erased, just like that.


            Now let us stop here and review this story so far.  Peter had asked Jesus how many times he must forgive someone, and Jesus tells him seventy-seven which was like saying he must do it endlessly.  And then Jesus tells this story of how a servant owed more than could ever be repaid, but it was all forgiven.  So far it seems quite straight-forward.


            But Jesus does not stop there:  he goes on to say that when that same man left the king, he met someone who owed him a rather small amount - about $20 in our money.  But when that man asked for time to repay him - which was quite possible, the other servant refused and put him in prison – quite out of keeping with the grace he himself had just received. 


            “How often should I forgive?”  “When can I stop?” 


            The message of Jesus to Peter – and to us – is that we are all like the man who owed an unpayable debt and was forgiven it, for who can comprehend the greatness of God's forgiveness - let alone calculate its worth.  And just as we have been forgiven, so we too should forgive others.  And since we have been forgiven beyond measure, so we should forgive without measure – without trying to keep count.


            Now when we read on to the end of the story, what happened to the servant who had been forgiven but did not forgive?  What happened was that the king took back his forgiveness and had him locked up, saying, “Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant as I had mercy on you?"  In other words, God's forgiveness of us is related to our willingness to forgive a sister or brother.  When we refuse to forgive, we jeopardize our own forgiveness from God. 

            Of course, what we all know is that forgiveness is much easier in theory than it is in practice.  It is easier to talk the talk than to walk the walk.  Something I read puts it this way:


Forgiveness is not easy, especially when it comes to the deep wounds of life.  It might be done quickly when someone steps on our toes or bumps into us in the hallway; but when we face significant hurt, all good reason stops.  We freeze in the trenches of resentment, bitterness and revenge.  (John and Robin McCullough-Bade in Daily Discipleship, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Copyright © 2005)


Does that sound familiar?  Do any of us ever feel that way? 


            On this day – this September 11 – many people may well wonder how they can forgive.  And in a somewhat similar way, the people in and from Louisiana may wonder if and how they can forgive those who sat fiddling for days while they struggled to survive.  Fact is, probably most of us have our own experiences where we wonder how we can forgive someone.  We may even feel that we don’t want to.  Sometimes we may even feel that someone else deserves our resentment and bitterness and revenge.


            But these writers continue, and say:


The only thing is – we lose.  Our energy is zapped.  Hatred and resentment eat away at joy and life-giving activities.  Thus, we become victimized again.  There is no room or energy to follow Jesus Christ in mission and ministry.


            Like Peter, we too ask, “Lord, how often shall someone sin against me and I forgive her or him?”  And the Lord tells us that we are to do it without measure, in the same way that God's love and forgiveness is given to us without measure.  This is the measure of love, and we may feel that it is too demanding for us.  But it is also the good news of the gospel.  For it is because of the love which God has given and continues to give to us that we are called to be a community of faith, and that we are empowered to live as people of faith.


            Dear friends, I think the underlying question about forgiveness is this:  do we know God’s love?  Have we experienced God’s love and forgiveness – in our own life?  If so, we know what we have to do – to forgive as we are forgiven.  But if we have not experienced God’s love and forgiveness, let me declare that it is ready and available to us – as close as our breath.  In that case, God invites us to open our lives so that we may experience his love and receive his forgiveness, and then to be empowered to go forward – sharing that love with anyone and everyone who themselves stand in need of it.  Amen and amen.