09/17/17 – Forgive Us Our Debts

Forgive Us Our Debts

September 17, 2017 – Morning Worship
15th Sunday after Pentecost
Sermon: Ex. 14:19-31; Ps. 114; Rom. 14:1-12; Matt.18:21-35               
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones


We are approaching several of the most holy days in the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown this Thursday and ends at sundown on Friday. A week later, beginning on Sunday, is Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement, which is like our season of Lent condensed into one 24-hour period. For one day, Jews are to confess their sins, and the sins of the world, and ask God’s forgiveness. A week later is Sukkot, which is one of the three biblically mandated festivals on which Jews were commanded to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. The diaspora of the Jews did not end with the last exile in Persia. The Jewish people continued through the 20th century to be a people who were forced to leave the land they called home because of their faith. Even though Jerusalem became far away for many of the world’s Jewish populations, the idea of coming home – -like our Thanksgiving – remains a strong element of the festival.

The story of the freeing of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and being led to their own homeland, the Promised Land, is foundational to the faith and identity of the Jewish people. The exodus is the archetypal story upon which Matthew builds his case that Jesus led the new Exodus from slavery to sin to the Promised Land of salvation.

The authors of Exodus, Psalm 114, Romans and Matthew speak to the issues of sin and deliverance, judgment and mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation and grace and gratitude. In our Old Testament reading from Exodus, the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, led by Moses, were fleeing the oppression of the Pharaoh. Through no merit of their own, God had listened to the cries of complaint from the Hebrew slaves and had intervened to release them from their torment. But, the Hebrew people had barely left the Egyptian border when they cried out in complaint.

Pharaoh’s army was approaching and they had no means to save themselves. Immediately, they forgot all that God had done for them up to that point and cried out in anguish that God had led them out of Egypt only to let them be slaughtered by Pharaoh’s army. All that God had done to force the Pharaoh to ‘let God’s people go’ was seen as a set up for ultimate betrayal. Despite their lack of faith in God’s power and purposes and God’s chosen emissary Moses, God displayed omnipotence by parting the sea and saving them. The Hebrew slaves did nothing to deserve God’s salvation and they did nothing to aid in their own rescue. This was pure divine grace.

Today we wonder about the Egyptian soldiers who drowned. They were only doing their jobs. Why was not God merciful to them? We could get bogged down in that conundrum, but the point of the story would be lost. This story was handed down to the Jewish people to remind them that God is more powerful than any earthly ruler and deserves our sole allegiance.

Matthew took great pains in his gospel to show the continuity of the Jewish faith and heritage with the establishment of “Christian” communities. While Matthew reports on events of Jesus’ life and ministry, there is a second layer to his gospel addressing the new community of Christians, which consisted of both Jewish and Gentile Christ-followers. At this time, there was conflict between the two groups as well as conflict within the synagogues because Judaism itself was undergoing a time of great transition. Like the Protestant Reformation, Jews were breaking away from the priest-led worshipping community to the rabbi-led community, of which Jesus was an example. As with the Protestant Reformation, ecclesiastical rules and doctrine were being challenged by biblical scholars, who stressed the importance of the scriptures and taught their congregations to think critically about them. Jesus acted as a rabbi rather than a priest or a Pharisee.

The Jewish Christian community entered into this fray between old and new, with a new conflict between Jewish and Gentile Christians. In this chapter of Matthew, we find stories ofsin, conflict, forgiveness, and reconciliation woven together. And, there is one more theme that plays out here and that is the issue of power. One who is in the position to forgive is also one who has power in the relationship.

If you go back to the beginning of chapter 18 in Matthew, you will find the disciples asking Jesus: who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? “Lutheran theologian Elaine Ramshaw warns of the history and danger of churches and church leaders taking passages out of context. Matthew 18:15-17 has been used to get rid of those deemed to be troublemakers and Matthew 18:21-22 has been used to silence those who are abused, and to demand reconciliation without repentance. The key to the chapter, writes Ramshaw (in Word & World: Theology for Christian Ministry) is the opening verse of chapter 18 where the disciples ask: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1). Jesus answers them saying one must be like a little child, the most powerless in society, to enter. Ramshaw suggests that power is the critical issue. “We can’t deal adequately with the nitty-gritty issues of sin and reconciliation in community without first concretely addressing the nature of power and relative ranking in the community.” In any conflict, addressing the issue of who has power and how they use it is essential for reconciliation.

Then, if you remember our gospel reading from last week, this chapter moves on to the question of what to do about a member of a congregation who is, as we Presbyterians say, disturbing the peace and unity of the congregation. Jesus explained a painstaking, three-step process of bringing the perpetrator of conflict into reconciliation in order to avoid the final step of expulsion from the group. This week, Peter poses the same question and receives the famous answer, “forgive 70 times seven,” or, in other words, limitless forgiveness.

Jesus told the parable of the unforgiving servant to illustrate his answer. This parable demonstrates that God’s forgiveness and human forgiveness are integrally related. The king forgives his slave an extraordinary amount. A talent is 130 pounds of silver. Ten thousand talents would take about 150,000 years of work to earn at the ordinary daily wage of the time. The parable tells us there is no debt too large to be forgiven. Jesus explains that is what the kingdom of heaven is like – what God is like. This slave, however, refused to forgive his fellow slave even such a relatively small debt, 100 denarii, about three months of work at the ordinary daily wage.

So, we ask, which is Jesus’ definitive answer? Is it three strikes before you are out or is forgiveness without limit? And if we do not forgive “from our hearts,” will God really hand us over to be tortured as it says in Matthew 18:35? Or is this just Jesus speaking in hyperbole? I believe failure to forgive brings our own brand of torture. One of my favorite quotes of Anne Lamott is: “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and expecting the rat to die.”

It is rare to find a family, or a church family, in which there is not some long-standing feud between two or more members. This animosity tears at the fiber of the whole family. Broken relationships beget broken communities. Whereas the one who is wronged is in a position of power, Peter sees forgiveness as relinquishing that power. It is not surprising that Peter was looking for a quantifiable limit to forgiveness. Forgiveness is hard. Self-righteous indignation is a great salve for a wounded ego.  In the seventh chapter of Matthew Jesus warns his disciples:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”

“Forgiveness, for Jesus, is not a quantifiable one-time event. It is, rather, a quality of life – the way one lives, loves, relates to others, and perceives the world.

In our epistle reading from Romans we encounter the theme of being set apart. In this case Paul is talking about the conflict between meat-eaters and non-meat-eaters. Even today, there is no one more self-righteous than a new convert to vegetarianism…well, except for vegans. Paul addresses the issue of the motivation for following, or not following, traditional Jewish dietary laws. Paul explains that as long as the consumer is honoring God with their choice, neither partaking or abstaining from certain foods is right or wrong. “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” asks Paul. Just as we have received grace, mercy, and forgiveness, we, who are in Christ, are set apart to do likewise. Forgiveness is part of our identity as Christians.

This past week we observed another anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Since that terrible day there have been countless terrible days in which vengeance has been wrought. We are looking at the ever-growing Middle-Eastern conflicts. We are fearful of the increasing threat of North Korea using nuclear weapons to destroy the United States and its allies. This is the revenge for the United States using weapons of mass destruction that killed one-fourth of the North Korean population more than 50 years ago. The genocide of the Rohingya Muslims by the Myanmar Buddhists delivers pictures of atrocities too horrible to see. As with many conflicts wrongly attributed to religion, Myanmar is attempting to annihilate a group of people that are deemed different. In this country White Supremacists, once seen as a dying breed, have risen to assert their virulent hatred of people who are different – non-Christians and people with darker skin than their own. Reconciliation is viewed as a loss of power.

If we look critically at our own lives we will find broken promises, hurt feelings, harsh words all rendering emotional wounds. Each of us has stories of being hurt or victimized by another. The question of forgiveness lies festering in the wound. In Mere Christianity (p.115) C.S. Lewis writes, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until there is something to forgive.”

When there is still pain from the old wounds we are faced with the question of what to do. Choosing not to forgive we are left with the choices of striking back with revenge, ending or avoiding relationships, or letting our wounds paralyze us. But none of these actions will lead to reconciliation and inner peace, which is the way of Christ. None of these will free us from living in the past. None of these will unbind us from the sins of another. None of these will provide us abundant life and the future God is offering us.

Forgiveness does not mean we forget, condone, or approve of what was done that hurt us.  Never does forgiveness mean we ignore or excuse cruel or unjust acts. Forgiveness means we are freed from them. Jesus challenges us alter our perception so that we perceive and love more like God does.  Our salvation is meeting God as we align our life with God. To withhold forgiveness is to do what Paul warned against – to put ourselves in the place of God, the ultimate judge to whom we are all accountable (Rom. 14:10, 12).

And so, Matthew tells us in chapter 6 Jesus taught us to pray every day. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” No matter how familiar, or even rote, this prayer becomes for us, it is a prayer we always need to pray… and to live.

All power, honor and glory to our Triune God!



© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2017, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois