Forgiving from the heart

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
September 17, 2017
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 19A

Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:1-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Joseph_Forgives_His_Brothers

Joseph forgives his brothers  (Providence Lithograph Co., 1907)

My Friends: The great American writer and humorist Mark Twain once quipped: “Forgiveness is like the weather.  Everyone is always talking about it, but no one ever seems to do anything about it.”  Indeed, this is the situation to which rabbi Jesus seems to speak directly in today’s reading from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, that most Jewish of the four canonical Gospels. In fact, because of the structure, themes, and the distinct Hebraisms of this Gospel, many biblical scholars believe it was originally written in Hebrew and only later translated into Greek.  Be that as it may, within a framework so typical of early rabbinic Judaism, Saint Matthew has the disciple Peter—the usual spokesman for Jesus’ inner circle of disciples—question his “Master Teacher” on behalf of the group concerning the Book of Leviticus’ requirement “not to hate your brother in your heart” and “to love your neighbor as yourself.”  They very much want to hear his interpretation of the gathering Oral Torah on this very important matter.  Jesus, after all, has made forgiveness the centerpiece of his teaching by joining it to the Shema’“Hear, O Yisra’el, ADONAI is our God, ADONAI alone.  You shall love ADONAI your God with all your heart and soul and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two mitzvot,” these “commandments,” “hang all the Torah and the Neviim,” that is, the “Law” and the “Prophets.

So first, Jesus answers their query directly by telling them that they must forgive “not seven, but seventy-seven times.”  And by using this deliberately exaggerated multiple of seventhe number for wholeness and completeness in the Hebrew Bible’s system of numerology—Jesus is unequivocally telling his followers that their forgiveness toward other members of “Kehillah Yisra’el,” the ”Assembly of Israel” must be limitless and infinite.  In good rabbinic fashion, however, Jesus extends his blunt answer by telling an interpretive story in the form of a “mashal” a “parable.”

And what a parable it is!  In striking language, this tale of a slave infinitely forgiven by his “King,” who always represents God in a rabbinic story, illustrates the all-too-human inability of the forgiven to forgive a fellow slave, even a tiny amount.   We can see this easily when we translate the numbers used by Jesus, the master storyteller, in the parable.  The wicked slave owes his King 10,000 “talents,” each one of which is the equivalent of 6,000 “denarii.”  And a single denarius is the typical payment of a whole day’s wage to a poor day-laborer.  Thus, the forgiven wicked slave in this story would have needed to work for 164,384 years, seven days a week, to pay his debt.  In other words, he owes the King a huge fortune and faces an absolutely impossible feat.  Clearly, the debt to the King is incalculable, and so the compassion and mercy shown the wicked slave through the forgiveness of this debt is also infinite.  But, as soon as that same wicked slave is forgiven, he literally turns right around and refuses to forgive the comparatively tiny debt owed him by a fellow slave who uses exactly the same plaintive words that the wicked slave had just used to petition his King for forgiveness.  Indeed, the whole shameful act of stunning and egregious ingratitude happens on the wicked slave’s way out the door from his own audience with the infinitely forgiving King.  And he has his fellow slave thrown into prison until he pays the debt.  No wonder his fellow slaves are outraged by this breathtaking cruelty and hypocrisy as they promptly report him to the King.  And, if you are at all like me on my first hearing of this story, you probably identify with these outraged slaves and cheered the King’s reversal of the wicked slave’s fortunes.  “Good for him,” I thought, “That slave got precisely what he deserved.  Imagine the audacity, the epic ingratitude, the hypocrisy, the cruelty, the small-mindedness of this wicked and ungrateful wretch.  Three cheers for the king!”

Unmerciful Servant - Scot's Church Melbourne

Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, stained glass detail from Scot’s Church, Melbourne

But, for me at least, and only by the grace of God, that must not be the end of the story.  For how often have I—and maybe even you—failed to forgive my “neighbor,” my “near one,” my sister or brother in Christ—to say nothing of the biblical “ger,” the “stranger”—the little slights and offenses, the daily aggravations and thoughtless remarks, that follow inevitably from living together in community?  How much anger; how many grudges; what smoldering resentments for real injuries do I still carry around every day?  Will I, can I, ever forgive the very real outrages perpetrated by others against my spiritual, emotional, and even my physical integrity and security over the course of my life?  Is it possible to open my hands and my heart to let go of the festering anger and to, in Jesus’ words, forgive my brother and sister “from the heart”?  These are the challenging questions posed by Jesus’ parable this morning to me and to you.  And here, as Christians, we must acknowledge that this first-century, Galilean sage is so much more to us.  For us, Jesus of Nazareth is the “Mashiach,” the “Messiah” and the Son of the living God who has already inaugurated the “Kingdom of God” or— as Saint Matthew would have it, the “kingdom of heaven” —which demands such costly and wholehearted forgiveness.  For just as there is no cheap grace, there is also no cheap forgiveness.  Forgiveness always demands hard inner-work and, quite often, over a very long period of time.  And it is an absolutely impossible feat without the resources of grace and without the life of prayer.

 

My sisters and brothers in Christ, forgiveness does not require us to forget.  Nor does it ever preempt the equal demands for justice and reconciliation.  We can—in fact, we must—“forgive from the heart” and yet still hold ourselves and others responsible and accountable for our choices and actions.  God is a God of both justice and mercy, which are, according to the psalmist, “the foundations of God’s throne.”  “The Lord is gracious and compassionate; slow to anger and abounding in ‘hesed,’ in ‘steadfast love.’”  This dual mandate for both justice and mercy is illustrated by a famous midrash on the biblical account of the Creation.  The ancient rabbis tell the following story:

A King had some empty glasses and he said, “If I pour hot water into them, they will burst; if cold, they will contract and snap.”  What then did the King do?  He mixed hot and cold water together and poured it into the empty glasses; and so they remained unbroken.  Even so said the Holy One, blessed be He:  “If I create the world on the basis of mercy alone, its sins will get out of hand; if I create it on the basis of justice alone, it will cease to exist.  Instead, I will create the world on the basis of mercy and justice together—then, I hope, it will stand.”  (Genesis Rabba 12:15)

And so it must be with you and me.  Justice and mercy must always be exercised together, because justice gives direction to mercy, and Shakespeare’s “gentle dew” of mercy tempers the rigors of absolute justice.  For again, according to the psalmist: “If you, O LORD, should mark our iniquities, LORD, who can stand?”

So what are we to do, we wicked slaves who fail so often to forgive our sisters and brothers “from the heart”?  Shall we throw up our hands, drag our anger and pain and from-the-heart-handsresentments behind us like a ball and chain, and chalk it all up to the human condition?  I don’t think so.  We don’t have to do this because our King and our Lord Jesus the Christ, unlike the king in the Gospel’s parable, never revokes his offer of infinite and limitless mercy, compassion, and forgiveness to those who show genuine remorse and who earnestly strive for amendment of life.  He is waiting around every corner for us to let it all go by opening our hands and our hearts to him and to one another.  He does this every single time we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, during which he enjoins us to leave our offering at the altar until we have made peace in our hearts with our sisters and brothers.  Then he will give himself to us in the sacrament of his Body and Blood as a token of his infinite forgiveness, and as the real power to forgive others as infinitely and limitlessly as he forgives us: the “seventy-seven times” of the parable.  And, my friends, we cannot do this alone; the power for this sort of mercy and forgiveness is impossible for a human being without the grace and assistance of God.  But that grace and assistance is right here in the Blessed Sacrament that we receive this morning at this celebration of the Holy Eucharist.  Jesus extends this invitation in the Lord’s Prayer before Holy Communion when he teaches us to ask God to “forgive us our ‘debts,’ our ‘trespasses,’ our ‘sins,’ as we forgive those who sin against us.”  Will I, will you, accept this offer of God’s very self and God’s true kingdom by forgiving your sister and brother “from your heart”?  I can, you can—so long as we remember that the “kingdom, the power, and the glory” belong to God, “now and forever; Amen.”

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