Saturday, September 16, 2017

Overflowing Fountain of Forgiveness

Messiah Lutheran Church, Fargo, ND
Pentecost 15/September 17, 2017
Matthew 18:21-35

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

So, what’s so special about the number 77 in this morning’s gospel lesson?

Here, Peter asks Jesus a very good question:  “If another member of church sins against me, how often should I forgive?”

Then, like an eager-beaver, impress-the-teacher student, sitting in the front row of a classroom, straining to be noticed….Peter suggests an answer to his own question.   “Should I forgive someone ‘as many as seven times?’”
It may not be readily apparent to us in the 21st century, but Peter was being pretty generous here….  

..because the great rabbis of Peter’s day taught that Jews owed one another three gestures of forgiveness.

But Peter had been hanging around Jesus long enough to suspect that Jesus would want to raise that number--so Peter doubles the rabbis’ “three” and adds one more for good measure.

Seven!   Is seven the number of times I should forgive someone who does me wrong?

Though Peter comes off like a neophyte seeking to impress his teacher…the teacher quickly deflates Peter’s ego, by upping the ante elevenfold!

“Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy-seven times” (Some ancient manuscripts of Matthew’s gospel substitute:  seventy times seven).

Wow!   Peter sure missed that one by a country mile.   Forgiving someone seven times—really quite a feat, when you think about it—but it doesn’t even come close to what Jesus was angling for here.  Jesus multiplies Peter’s seven by eleven—amazing!

So I ask you, what’s so special about the number 77?  

We could, I suppose, come up with all sorts of answers, most of them having to do with seven being the perfect number in Jewish thinking…

…but I really doubt that this particular number—77--matters all that much.  It’s not a password or a PIN number or an access code to deep mysteries.

I think Jesus hit upon 77 as the number of times we need to forgive someone, because if you actually try to do that—to forgive someone exactly 77 times--sooner or later you will lose track…you’ll forget “the count.”

And when that happens, you’re probably going to chuck it all and stop bothering to keep score at all.

Then you’ll understand that the number “77” is a placeholder for “countless.”

“If another member of church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Peter asks.

And Jesus, in effect, replies:  “forgive count-lessly….forgive so many times you lose track of the score….forgive as God forgives….anything less than that will never do!”

In this manner Jesus shifts the conversation away from math and toward the very essence of forgiveness.   And as that happens we hit pay-dirt, because at its core, the biblical notion of forgiveness has to do with freedom.  Forgiveness is about setting someone free, and, in the process, being set free yourself!

In the Bible, you see, the root-word for “forgiveness” is closely related to the word for untying a knot.  

When was the last time you were mired in frustration, stuck dead in your tracks, trying to untangle a pesky knot in a shoelace, a power-cord, or a rope?  

Whenever that happens, time stands still.  Everything grinds to a halt until that pesky knot is undone.  

Only then are you free--free to move on with whatever you were doing--free simply to “be,” once more.

THAT’s the picture God wants to imbed in our brains, imprint on our hearts, and burn into our souls this morning.    

Forgiveness is about getting unstuck, it’s about breaking out, moving into a free and open place, into a wide zone of freedom. 

No wonder weekly worship often begins with confession and forgiveness.   We come here to church all tangled up in waywardness and worry…we arrive all tied up in knots….and before our worship even gets going, God sets us free!

We start our weekly worship the same way Martin Luther urged us to begin each day: by making the sign of the cross…invoking the name of the Father, Son and Spirit…returning to our baptism…reclaiming our freedom in Jesus Christ.

Then, we can embrace the day, because we are free!

More than anything else, God wants us to be free from everything that might hold us back, keep us stuck, leave us all tied up in knots.

And this freedom that comes from forgiveness—this freedom is meant to be shared.  

That’s the point of the parable Jesus tells next in our gospel text—the parable of the two debtors.   

To understand this parable, we need some background.

It’s most likely that both the first and the second servants in the parable worked for the king.   Their job was to produce and convey wealth to the king’s coffers, so that the king’s balance sheet will always show a profit.

Think of it as a first-century Middle Eastern multi-level marketing arrangement—also known as a “pyramid scheme!”[1]

The king was at the apex of the pyramid, and he had hundreds of “worker bees” laboring beneath him.

The first servant was a middle-manager, perhaps even the CFO (chief financial officer) of the whole operation, given the astronomical size of the man’s debt to the king.  

The first servant moved around scads of the king’s wealth, sometimes mixing in some of his own resources, sometimes winning big for the king, sometimes taking foolish risks on the king’s portfolio.

In Jesus’ parable, it’s definitely a “down” day for the first servant.   His personal balance sheet is dripping with red ink.   He’s so far in the hole he can’t even see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

So, knowing that his own avalanche of debt is insurmountable, the first servant threw himself at the mercy of the king—begging that his humongous debt be written off…

….which is exactly what the king does! 

Whew!   What a relief…the first servant’s thorny knot is untied.  

He can breathe once again.

But the unimaginable mercy he receives from the king doesn’t last long.  

No sooner does the first servant leave the chamber of the merciful king, but that he encounters one of his own underlings in the pyramid scheme, the second servant, who has his own debt crisis—though it’s of a magnitude far smaller than the first servant’s debt.

When the first servant gets a chance to emulate his master, the merciful king who had graciously forgiven him…when his chance comes to do the same thing for someone who was in his debt--the first servant comes down with a bad case of amnesia.

He refuses to write off his own underling’s debt.  In fact he removes the second servant from his position in the king’s pyramid scheme, tossing him into debtor’s prison.

When word of this reaches the king, he calls in the first servant and reads him the riot act:   "You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”  (Matthew 18:32-33)

So the king imprisons the first servant where he will be tortured until he repays everything he owed the king….which means he would be tortured forever.

What’s going on here?   What made the king turn on a dime, from lavish mercy to bitter retribution?

This isn’t about an emotional outburst by the king.

No—something far bigger was at stake.  When the king forgave the first servant’s astronomical debt, the king turned his entire business plan upside down.

Where formerly the king’s pyramid scheme was designed to send money upstream, toward the top of the pyramid…..the king—by forgiving the first servant--reversed that “flow,” bathing the first servant with more mercy than he could possibly “absorb,” so that he would have to pass it on all those who were beneath him in the pyramid.

In like manner…because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ…you and I have received more forgiveness, more mercy, more second chances than we’ll ever manage to “absorb” or just keep for ourselves.

God’s gift of freedom, that comes from God’s forgiveness, is something for us to receive—but never to keep for ourselves.  

You and I were created to be conduits, not holding tanks, for God’s merciful forgiveness.

Try to hang on to it selfishly, and it will melt in your hand.

But share it, as freely as God forgives you, and all that mercy keeps coming back to you, eleven-fold, a full measure heaped up, pressed down, and overflowing, right in your lap.

Freedom.  It’s what you and I were created for.

And today and every day, Jesus Christ is recreating us, to bask in but also to pass on this freedom….the freedom that perpetually springs forth from God’s overflowing fountain of forgiveness.
In the name of Jesus.

[1] For this understanding of economic arrangements in kingdoms around Mediterranean Sea in the 1st century, I’m indebted to Stanley Saunders,

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