“If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector. I assure you that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven. Again I assure you that if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, then my Father who is in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”
Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?”
Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle accounts, they brought to him a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold. Because the servant didn’t have enough to pay it back, the master ordered that he should be sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, and that the proceeds should be used as payment. But the servant fell down, kneeled before him, and said, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ The master had compassion on that servant, released him, and forgave the loan.
“When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred coins. He grabbed him around the throat and said, ‘Pay me back what you owe me.’
“Then his fellow servant fell down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he threw him into prison until he paid back his debt.
“When his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply offended. They came and told their master all that happened. His master called the first servant and said, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ His master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners, until he had paid the whole debt.
“My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” --Matthew 18:15-35 (CEB)
I’d like you to think, for just a moment, about how stories help us to picture and imagine things differently than simply hearing someone state an explanation or a rule. As we heard last week, Jesus often uses stories - or parables - to teach. We’re going to have a little fun this morning. I invite you to turn to a neighbor or two and together brainstorm as many parables from the Bible as you can think of in three minutes. Select one person to write them down as you go. Hint: We heard three of them in last week’s reading. Ready? Set. Go.
Why do you think Jesus chooses to use so many parables in his teaching? Many of Jesus’ parables begin with the words, “the kingdom of God is like…” Jesus is trying to explain to his disciples what life is like in God’s kingdom.
As we continue through the Sundays of Lent, we will be discovering many different glimpses of God’s kingdom. We’ll be asking a lot of questions about these to try to understand how we might learn to live these ways in our present time to help make this community and, then, our broader lives, a little more like God’s kingdom as we await its fulfillment. God will bring the kingdom fully, but we can make our spaces look a little more like it each day.
Today, Jesus is talking about forgiveness in the kingdom of God. And, particularly, about forgiveness within community. When I use the word “community,” how do you understand that? What are some of your communities? Allow time for responses.
Matthew, the gospel writer, was writing this for his specific community. It was a community that was under stress. Mostly Jewish, they had been cast out of the temple, out of an entire way of life. On top of that, they were experiencing the very real possibility of persecution. So, part of Matthew’s goal in narrating this parable from Jesus is to help his community learn how to be in relationship with one another, even in the midst of these major stressors.
It begins with civility. I’d like to read a paragraph from a book written by Gilbert Rendle. He is a church consultant who works with resolving church conflict. This is what he writes in the opening introduction to his book, entitled, Behavioral Covenants in Congregations: A Handbook for Honoring Differences:
My work as a senior consultant with the Alban Institute regularly puts me into working relationships with congregations that are experiencing conflict and in which members exhibit behaviors which stand in contrast to my understanding of the teachings of their faith. I have witnessed small groups in which some members demand that other members leave the room because they do not trust speaking in front of them. I have interviewed congregational members who have leveled accusations against others based not on what they themselves have experienced or witnessed but rather on hearsay information repeated and embellished by friends whose personal preferences were not being met. I have worked with a congregation in which very wealthy and powerful members of the governing board held a formal victory party in the home of one of the leaders to celebrate their success in forcing their rector not only out of the church but out of town as well. He was sufficiently hurt and damaged that he would tell no one, not even his bishop, where he had gone. I have counseled with clergy who have considered or chosen to take legal action against their governing boards, casting all blame on the board rather than accepting their part in a difficult relationship that would require change and the seeking of forgiveness in order to be productive in ministry.
Do any of you know any congregations or clergy like that? (It may be too scary to answer that.) And, now, a harder and, honestly for me, a scary question, do any of you experience any of that here? Or with me? (If your answer is yes to that question, I encourage you to speak to me.)
Rendle goes on to add this:
Although my relationship as a consultant makes me privy to more extreme examples of uncivil behavior than others who live and work in congregations, all clergy and laity commonly encounter behaviors that fall short of faith standards. I suggest that such behaviors are rooted, in part, in an inheritance based in cultural and congregational assumptions that we are now beginning to understand. Chief among those assumptions is the current notion that as individuals we do not have to defer to the need of the larger group, be it family, congregation, or community.
This book was first written in 1989, then updated in 1999 - nearly 25 years ago. I’m wondering, if we look at our world today, has much changed? Do we demand that our individual rights, or individual beliefs, are more important than communal rights or beliefs?
What is the goal of conflict? That may seem an odd question, because I don’t think we often consider that there is a goal to conflict. The goal of conflict is reconciliation. Reconciliation with one another so that the community may be whole. Always. That is God’s definition of justice. When there is conflict within community or between community members, the whole community is impacted.
So, what do we do when we experience hurt from another? Jesus gives us a clear cut path. In fact, Jesus orders this clear cut path. First, we go to that sibling to address it. In other words, we don’t go on social media. We don’t triangulate - meaning we don’t go complain about that person to anyone else. We don’t even go to the pastor. We go to that person who has hurt us. And we try to reconcile with them. Period. Notice that, in our text, when 2 or more are gathered, Jesus says he is present. So, if we believe that, how might it change how we approach the person who has hurt us, knowing that Jesus is standing beside us in that conversation? Or how does that change our response if we are the one who has caused the hurt?
But, the direct approach may not always work. So then, Jesus tells us to take one or two community members with us to speak with that person. To try to find reconciliation.
And that may not work. It is then to be reported to the entire community. And, if that doesn’t work then, as Jesus says, you should treat them as you would a tax collector or Gentile. But not so fast. Anyone remember how Jesus treated tax collectors and Gentles? That’s right. He took them to lunch. He didn’t cut them off. He took them to lunch. What does that say?
Our relationships matter. Here in this community and outside this place in your other communities. They matter to God, so they should matter to us.
There’s a flip side to this conflict resolution that we also have to notice - the entire point of the parable Jesus tells. It’s about forgiveness. When we go to someone who has hurt us. And when (notice I said when) - when they acknowledge that they have hurt us and they repent and seek forgiveness from us, we are to forgive them. It doesn’t mean that, depending on the deepness of the hurt, it will happen immediately. In cases of abuse, it may take a lifetime. But, we, if we have been the victim of harm, are also called to do the work of forgiving. Not just within ourselves, but with the perpetrator of harm. As difficult as that may be. To not forgive is to keep ourselves trapped in the effects of the harm. Or as Marjorie Thompson writes, “Forgiveness means the power of the original wound’s power to hold us trapped is broken.”
Because, ultimately, what is at stake here isn’t just a matter of debt and repayment, or sin and forgiveness, but the balance and integrity - the authenticity - of the community. Because this is the example we have from our Creator. Mercy. Or grace. Which is the thread that holds the kingdom together.
One final note: In Hebrew there are something like five different words for sin. All different types of sin. But, one of those words defines the sin of not believing you are forgiven. I dare say that some of us - perhaps, many of us - have difficulty believing that we are forgiven by one another. And, even more so that we are forgiven by God.
May we, through the power of the Holy Spirit, live into forgiveness and into being authentic followers of Jesus as we build these authentic communities of faith. Amen.
Preached Sunday, February 26, 2023, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, with Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Readings: Matthew 18:15-35; Psalm 32:1-2