How great is God’s forgiveness? (A sermon from Matthew 18:21-35)

My article for Baptist News Global this month focused on the importance of reading the Bible critically as well as spiritually, and I used this text as an example. The reason it’s so important to read a text critically is that it helps to prevent us from spiritually misusing and misapplying the text. The stories and teachings of Jesus in the Gospels and the stories about Jesus in the Gospels did not drop down out of heaven on the wings of angels. Before these stories were ever written down by a  Gospel writer they were told and retold and retold. Scholars call this the oral tradition. These stories were passed down by word of mouth decades before they written. I’m sure you can imagine how these stories were altered and changed in the process of retelling them. Some details would have been omitted while others would have been added. And then the Gospel writers themselves who brought these stories together in a cohesive narrative around the framework of Jesus’ ministry also made changes to emphasize what they wanted to emphasize. Today’s text illustrates the kind of changes a biblical author might make. A critical reading of this passage in Matthew 18 suggests that the logical conclusion to the parable is in verses 32-33 where the king says to his servant: “You unjust servant! I forgave you all that debt because you asked for mercy. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had on you?” The careful reader can recall a similar conclusion to Jesus’ instruction to love one’s enemies in Matthew 5:44-48. In that passage Jesus instructs the disciples to love their enemies, to pray for them and do good to them because then they will be like their Father in heaven, who sends blessings (“rain” and “sunshine”) on the just and unjust alike. Then Jesus concludes by saying: “Be perfect (be mature, compete, spiritual) therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Luke’s version says, “Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate.” God loves God’s enemies, therefore we are to love our enemies. Here in Matthew 18 the reasoning is the same. We should forgive magnanimously just like God who forgives us all our sins.  

The parable is prompted by Peter’s question: “If a brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times.” According to one scholar there was a popular Jewish teaching in that day that a person could be forgiven three times, but not four. So Peter, no doubt, thinks he is being extremely generous and should merit a commendation from Jesus. But instead Jesus says (Jesus is always bursting our bubbles), “No, not seven times; rather seventy times seven,” which is an expression that basically means, “there is no limit on how much you should forgive.” And then to highlight this point Jesus tells the parable about an official serving in a king’s court who incurs a huge debt through the mismanagement of the king’s resources. The debt is beyond anything possible. (Jesus had a real penchant for employing hyperbolic and shocking elements in his stories to get his point across and he does that here.) The servant has a debt of “ten thousand talents,” which would have been impossible; it’s an unrealistic number. One talent was equal to the wages of a manual laborer for fifteen years. The annual tax for all of Herod’s territories was 900 talents per year. No one person could have accumulated a debt of ten thousand talents in a thousand lifetimes. The point here is that a debt was incurred that would have been impossible to repay. So, the servant finds himself in a hopeless situation. But here is where the good news is such good news. Astonishingly, the king does the unconventional, outlandish thing. He forgives the debt. Is there any doubt that the action of the king in the story is intended to represent the action of God. God dispenses unlimited and outlandish forgiveness. Period. That’s the point. Therefore, we who are children of God are to do the same.

End of story right? Unfortunately, no. And here’s where a critical reading of the text is so important. The text continues in verses 34-35: “And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured [which is so unlike God right?] until he would pay his entire debt [that would be forever, since the debt was unpayable]. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Now, a critical reading of the text would suggest that in verses 34-35 that is not Jesus speaking, rather, that’s the author speaking. You don’t need a seminary degree to recognize the clear contradiction and inconsistency here. The king takes back his unlimited forgiveness and responds vindictively punishing forever the servant who failed to practice the forgiveness he received. I have no doubt Matthew added this to the original parable. Scholars would call this a “Matthean embellishment/redaction.” In lay terms you can say Matthew has an ax to grind. Matthew, the fallible, human author of this Gospel, like all of us, struggles with the unlimited, outlandish forgiveness of God. We like to claim it for ourselves. But we have a hard time dispensing it to others.

Now, we might be able to at least applaud Matthew’s concern that he addresses with his commentary in verses 34-35. Matthew wants those in his community to forgive one another. That’s a good thing. But in so doing, in urging them to practice God’s forgiveness, he takes the focus off God’s forgiveness, he takes the focus off the immensity and magnanimity of God’s unlimited forgiveness, and turns God into a torturer of those who fail to forgive, thus diminishing somewhat the very character of God and the teaching of the parable.

Understanding this keeps us from drawing unwarranted and foolish spiritual and practical applications form Matthew’s own comments. If one takes Matthew’s comments too seriously then one might conclude that God is the kind of God who can give forgiveness one minute and take it back the next. One might conclude that one could actually do something to merit eternal damnation without any hope of redemption. One might use a text like this to turn God into a petty, punitive Ruler rather than the loving Abba that God is. Without this critical reading of the text, it would be fairly easy for one to spiritually misuse and abuse the text. That’s why a critical reading is so important.

Should we then get rid of Matthew’s comments? Should we cut them out of our Bibles? Of course not. We just need to understand the value and limitations of what the Bible is and learn to read it critically as well as spiritually. The positive thing about reading the Bible this way is that Matthew’s very human and fallible comments invite us to struggle ourselves with God’s outlandish forgiveness and our own vindictive desires for retribution, and our own unwillingness to forgive others as we have been forgiven.

And we do struggle with that don’t we? We can think of a hundred excuses why not to forgive. He needs to learn a lesson. I don’t want to encourage irresponsible behavior. She needs to learn that actions have consequences. I was the one wronged; it’s not up to me to make the first move. How can I forgive if he’s not even sorry? Oh, we can think of a hundreds reasons why we can’t or won’t reflect, why we can’t or won’t practice the outlandish, unlimited forgiveness of God.

Seminary professor Thomas Long tells about the time he walked into his beginning preaching class and told the students he was giving them a test. He would not grade this test, but it was an important test nonetheless. He explained that he would list some theological words on the board and their job would be to write a paragraph for each describing how they personally experience these concepts.  “After all,” said Long, “good preaching involves taking big, sometimes abstract theological ideas and showing how they are flesh and blood realities.”

The first word he gave them was the word “hope.” They all started writing. They wrote about hoping for babies to be born, standing at the bedside and praying for healing or standing at the graveside and hoping for joy to rise from sorrow.  They knew much about hope. The second word he gave them was the word “faith.” Again, they started writing. They had stepped out in faith to come to seminary. Some of them had walked out of secure careers to become ministers. They knew about faith.

Next, he gave them the word “forgiveness.” And the pens stopped writing. When the students did write, they wrote about trivial things like a mother’s forgiving words over a broken vase or a teammate who said, “Don’t worry about it” over a missed final shot. But they knew little, says Long, about deep, healing forgiveness.  Surely, says Long, there was in there lives places where forgiveness was needed—broken relationships with parents, pain with a spouse, trouble with children, a breach of trust with a friend—but they were silent about these things.

Maybe we have trouble looking deeply at such things because should we do that, should we search our hearts about such things, we would have to acknowledge all the ways our actions and words have contributed to the brokenness and alienation. In order to understand and experience the greatness of God’s forgiveness and be able to channel that forgiveness to others maybe we have to understand and experience something of the hurt and pain our betrayals, untruths, and offenses have caused others.

The late popular Christian author Brennan Manning tells about the time he was standing outside the Schubert Theater in New York City during the intermission of a play. He says that the gentlemen in tuxedoes were in an intense discussion with the ladies in evening-gowns, and Manning says he was just about “to deliver a timeless observation that would have precluded further discussion on the subject for at least a hundred years.” Just then, an old woman peddling Variety newspapers approached. She was wearing tennis shoes and a cab driver’s cap. Manning, who was wearing a clerical collar, thrust a coin into her hand and snatched the paper.

The woman implored, “Could I have a word with you, Father.” “Yes,” Manning snapped, in a frustrated tone, “just wait a minute.” As he turned around to his friends who were breathlessly awaiting his commentary, he heard the elderly woman say, “Jesus wouldn’t have talked to Mary Magdalene like that.” Then she disappeared down the street.

Inside the theater the reality of what had just happened hit Manning with spiritual force. He had been so preoccupied with his own standing and reputation that he treated the woman like a vending machine. He put a coin in her hand and out popped a magazine. He realized that he had treated her like an object. He realized that he had shown no appreciation for the service she performed, and no interest in her life. He realized how his comments were dismissive and demeaning and assaulted her basic humanity and dignity. Manning began to wonder how his treatment of the woman might add to her feelings of worthlessness. Manning says, “If she came to church on Sunday and I was in the pulpit exhorting her to love God above all things . . . what hypocrisy [she would feel] from the man who helped undermine her ability to love anyone.” Manning says, “A shriveled humanity has a shrunken capacity for receiving the rays of God’s love.” It’s true. A person beaten down and devalued – with no self-worth or value, most likely has limited capacity for receiving love from anyone. (As a general principle; there are always people who beat the odds).

Maybe the only way we can actually experience the depth and greatness of God’s forgiveness is by digging deep into our own hearts and souls and confronting the ways  we have dismissed and demeaned others in order to advance our place or position or further our own agenda. Maybe before we can know the outlandish forgiveness of God we have to face honestly how we have hurt and offended and denigrated and manipulated others, and treated people as objects for our use.

Then too, maybe we also need to realize that when we have acted in these ways we have not only devalued and disparaged the humanity of our brothers or sisters, but whatever we did to a brother or sister we did to God.

Remember the Christ’s words of judgment in the parable of Matthew 25 (which also has several Matthean embellishments; in fact, the whole parable may have originated with Matthew). The Christ says, “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” And they answer: “When did we not do any of these things to you, Lord.” And the Lord says, “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” The living Christ (the cosmic Christ) so identifies with every person, especially “the least” of these (who are not the least in God’s eyes, but in the eyes of the world), that to fail to be merciful to the “least” of these, the most vulnerable among us, is to fail to be merciful to the Christ. When we hurt a sister or brother, when we hurt a fellow human being, we hurt God.

It’s also important to note that in that judgment story the ones indicted are indicted not on the basis of what they did, but what they failed to do. You see, sisters and brothers, to be silent, to fail to side with, stand with, speak up for, show mercy to the oppressed, the poor, the marginalized, and the impoverished, to fail to do the just thing and the compassionate thing can be just as harmful as saying or doing something cruel and evil. And until we come to terms with how our actions and even our silence, our doing nothing, hurts others and hurts God, we will not be able to experience the outlandish forgiveness of God. And we certainly won’t be able to channel that forgiveness toward others.

Gracious God, forgive us for the many ways we have failed you be failing others. We are so often blind to the ways we have hurt others and our egos are too fragile for us to admit how we have used others for our own benefit. Help us to see just how much we need to be forgiven. So that perhaps, we might experience how outlandish your forgiveness really is. And if we cannot channel this forgiveness to others, if we cannot lavish on others your outlandish forgiveness, then we surely haven’t really experienced it ourselves. Open our hearts, work through our bodies, ignite our souls so that we might be changed and become like you. Amen.


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