Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sermon; Proper 19A; Matthew 18:21-35

Today's gospel passage is a continuation from last week.  If you remember, last week Jesus laid out a three-step process for forgiveness.  If someone sins against you, go and tell that person.  If they listen to you, you have regained that one.  If they don't listen to you, invite two or three other people along and again try to regain that person.  If they still don't listen, involve the whole church.  And if they still won't listen, treat them as a Gentile and tax collector.

So today Peter presents Jesus with a quandary:  And just how many times should I forgive that person?  Seven?

Jesus answers, “No, not seven.  You should forgive them seventy-seven times.”  In other words, you should always be ready to forgive.

I think there are two common misinterpretations about forgiveness; or maybe one misinterpretation and one abuse.  I’ll start with the former.

One common misinterpretation is when we insist that the victim has to forgive the person who sinned against them “because the Bible says so.”  This is a misinterpretation because it changes the dynamic.  Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault.  If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”

In other words, if John sins against me, I need to go and point that out to him.  He, in turn, should apologize, repent, and ask for forgiveness.  At which point I am to forgive him.  But because we deal in real life, that is more complicated than that basic outline.

What seems to happen far too often is that the sinner puts the onus on the victim.

“I'm sorry you were offended.”
“I'm sorry you took it the wrong way.”
“I'm sorry you didn't get the joke.”

Oh, and by the way, because you were offended, you need to forgive me because Jesus said so.

That leaves no room for honest repentance.  That leaves no room for amendment of life.  That leaves no room for behavioral changes.  And that only serves to place the blame for the problem on the victim who was offended.

It is this misinterpretation that can lead to abuse.  It has led to abused and neglected children being forced to forgive those who hurt them without calling the abuser to accountability.  It has led to women being told to not press charges for domestic violence because Jesus told us to forgive and move on.  And it has led to victim blaming where domestic violence or rape is defended because “she asked for it.”

This isn't how forgiveness works.  If I offended you, it's not my job to say, “I'm sorry you were offended, but you really need to forgive me.”

Instead, it's my job to say, “Wow, I'm sorry I hurt you.  How can I make this better?  Will you/can you forgive me?  I ask/beg/plead your forgiveness.”

If we are confronted as a sinner, we need to admit that we have sinned.  We need to own up to our error and work to ensure it never happens again.  Our job is not to place the blame for our actions on those whom we have harmed.

On the other side, forgiveness is not necessarily for the sinner, but for the person who was sinned against.  Forgiveness isn't a way to poo-poo the event – “It wasn't a big deal . . . it doesn't matter . . . I guess I’m just overreacting.”  It was a big deal, it did matter, and we aren't overreacting.

Forgiveness is a way for us to say, “I won't be ruled by hatred.  I won't look to get even.  I won't use this as a reason to escalate hostilities.”  Forgiveness allows us to move on.  Forgiveness gives us the ability to live in peace.  Because, quite honestly, it's hard work being angry all the time.

Forgiveness ultimately means we don't hold grudges.  We recognize we have also been forgiven, and that we, in turn, forgive others as we ourselves have been forgiven.

To illustrate this point, Jesus told the parable of the unforgiving servant.  He uses the example of a servant owing 1000 talents, being forgiven that debt, but then turning around and not forgiving someone who owes him 100 denarii.

Let me put a modern spin on that.  You may remember several years ago when Michael Vick was arrested and sentenced to three years in jail for running a dog fighting ring and horribly abusing dogs.  There was no doubt that he had committed this crime and he did, in fact, serve the time.  After his release there was a lot of discussion as to whether or not he would get picked up by another team.  As it turned out, Andy Reed signed him to a spot with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Ever since that event, Mike has supposedly turned his life around.  He works with the H.S.U.S. to speak out against dog fighting and animal cruelty.  There are people on both sides of this particular issue – some who see no sign of repentance and some who do.  I’ll let you to make your own determination.  But he has worked at it and he has done some good stuff and, in some circles, he has been forgiven for that heinous crime of animal cruelty.

Let's suppose, though, that after his release a Humane Society employee forgot to feed a particular animal one evening.  And then let's imagine that Michael Vick was the person who discovered the error and got the person fired on the spot.  Vick would then become the person in the parable who had been forgiven of a great amount and yet was unwilling to forgive another person of a small amount.

Forgiveness is not a tool with which we control others.  Nor is forgiveness a one-time event.  The path of forgiveness is a lifetime journey.  The goal of forgiveness is to grant us peace.  The grace of forgiveness allows us to forgive others as we have been forgiven.

As a victim of sin, may we strive to see the sinner as God sees us.  As a sinner, we need to remember that forgiveness lies in the hands of those whom we have harmed, and it is only through the hard work of confession and repentance that trust is regained and grace is bestowed.

Finally, as a person, we need to remember that we are all sinners in need of forgiveness.  May God have mercy on our souls.



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