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Don't Ask the Question, Unless . . .

Text: Matthew 18:21-35

Peter is the punching bag for lots of people. Not me. Actually, he is my kind of person – straight and to the point. Peter would never be thought of as someone subtle and hard to understand. So, it is not surprising that as our text from Matthew opens today, Peter asks Jesus a very direct question and he wants a direct answer. Peter asks Jesus, “How often shall another Christian sin against me and I forgive them?”

You can almost see the wheels turning in Peter’s calculating mind. “If someone sins against me two or three times, I can forgive her. Even four times – possibly. Five times is asking way too much and six times is simply ridiculous. So, I’ll put a number out there that even Jesus will see as absurd and will see me as compassionate for being willing to be so forgiving.” So, Peter goes on to ask Jesus, “As often as seven times?!”

Yes, Peter is my kin. I get Peter. If Peter and I are nothing else, we are reasonable guys. I wish I could say the same about Jesus. Once again, Jesus is a source of irritation in this story as he throws a wrench into what Peter considers an extravagantly graceful question. For Peter’s question was nothing more than asking Jesus, “What’s the maximum number of times that I must forgive those who have done me harm?” Being straightforward in his own way, Jesus responds, “There is no maximum. Not seven, I tell you, but seventy times seven.”

Jesus tells Peter that forgiveness is not a matter of quantity but of quality. We cannot live into Jesus’ approach to forgiveness without forgiveness becoming a part of our daily lives, as essential to our well-being as the air we breathe. Forgiveness is not an occasional generous act; it is a prevailing attitude that takes hold in our hearts and reshapes them. Writing from a Nazi prison cell to his niece about her upcoming marriage, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “In a word, live together in the forgiveness of your sins, for without it no human fellowship, least of all, a marriage, can survive” (Letters and Papers from Prison). For Jesus, for Bonhoeffer, forgiveness is a way of life, a way first paved for us by Jesus; it is not a piety calculator.

Knowing Peter well by this point, Jesus is not entirely sure that his loquacious disciple grasps his answer so he tells Peter a story with a point that no one can miss. The late pastor and scholar, Clarence Jordan, retells the story from the perspective of the rural South. He writes, “There was this big business man who wanted to settle the accounts of his customers. As he started to do so, one customer came in who owed a bill of more than one hundred thousand dollars. He had nothing to pay on the account, so the businessman told the sheriff to put up for sale everything the guy had and apply it to the debt. But the fellow did a song and dance. ‘Please give me some more time and I’ll pay every cent!’ he begged. The businessman was touched by the guy’s pitiful pleas, so he let him go and marked off the debt.

“Then the same guy went out and found a man who owed him just a hundred dollars. Grabbing him around the neck, he choked him and said, ‘Pay me the money you owe’. ‘Please give me a little more time’, the man begged, ‘and I’ll pay every cent’. But he refused, and instead, he swore out a warrant for him. When the little man’s friends found out about it, they were really upset, so they went and told the big businessman all that had happened. Then the big businessman sent for the guy who had owed him the huge debt and said to him, ‘You low-down bum! I marked off all that debt for you because you begged me to do so. Shouldn’t you, then have been kind to that little man just as I was kind to you?’

“Still hot under the collar, he turned the fellow over to the law to be thrown into jail until every last dime of the debt had been paid. And my Father in heaven will treat you along the same line unless every single one of you forgives each other from your heart.”

Surely Peter, Mr. Straight and to the Point Guy, appreciated such a clear and no-nonsense moral: be like the forgiving businessman, not like the low-down ungrateful bum. Maybe so. Or, maybe Peter was as much like me as I am like him. Because it does not take long before all this forgiveness talk begins to grate on me. Forgiveness is tough work, costly work, and it sounds like Jesus is inviting us to live in a religious “never-never” land, the “seventy times seven never-never land.” And, I am not sure at all if I want to live in that world, even if I could.

I was taught early in my life that forgiveness is for those who live in the fantasy world, not the real world. The real world has certain standards and in the real world anyone who falls below those standards are not forgiven or given a second chance. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote, “Ask an innocent young woman, who . . . becomes the mother of an illegitimate child. She will tell you that society is slow to forgive. Ask a public official, who . . . betrays the public trust. He will tell you that society is slow to forgive. Make your way to death row and . . . Capital punishment is society’s final assertion that it will not forgive.”

Sometimes Peter and I are slow to get the point that Jesus is making even though Jesus makes the same point in every story he tells. And, the point is this: you and I who follow Jesus do not live in “never-never land” but we do live in a different society, the society of Jesus. I do not mean anything mystical about this as if you and I live in a secret club with a special password. The society that you and I live in is not exclusive but it is different. It holds different values, calls us to live in different ways, and expects of us different attitudes toward others.

You and I and every Christian across the world lives in a society first formed in a Bethlehem barn and permanently defined by Jesus’ last words from the cross, “Father, forgive them.” Jesus could have said, “Father, get even with them” or “Father, let loose the mighty thunderbolts of heaven and destroy them” or “Father, let them suffer like I am suffering.” But those are not the last words that Jesus speaks. His words are different. His words are ones that most societies in the world do not understand and never will. Again, King said it as well as anyone I know, “Jesus knew the old eye-for-an-eye would leave everyone blind.” So, Jesus formed a new society, the church, with a different philosophy. It is a society born in death, inspired by resurrection, and established on the foundation of forgiveness.

Sound like good ole preacher-talk, doesn’t it? After all, isn’t that what preachers are supposed to talk about: sin, forgiveness, salvation? I can close the sermon now with a pithy pitch to forgive and forgive and then forgive some more. And, you can leave committed to giving it your very best try.

Well, actually, this is not pious preacher-talk, at all. It is not some nice moral lesson that can be practiced like the piano until we get interested in something else. Forgiveness is not a moral, it is a way of life, a gift given to us by Jesus, a gift we can practice because we have been bathed in the waters of God’s forgiveness. And like all exercise, forgiveness requires the muscle memory of practice.

One day, Peter asked Jesus, “How many times must I forgive? As many as seven times?” “No, my friend, as many as seven times seventy.” I wonder if Peter went home that day and wished he had never asked Jesus the question. Matthew does not tell us.

What I have learned over my lifetime and in my own prayer life, never ask Jesus the question, unless . . .


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