“Wait, How Many Times?” Matthew 18:21-35
Delivered to Church for the Highlands, Shreveport, LA
Sunday, September 13, 2020
One thing we have learned about COVID-19 is what it does to some people’s hearts, leaving them damaged and reducing their strength and function. This is but one of the scary things we’ve realized about this ravaging disease. And it comes as a reminder of how vital our hearts are to our health and well-being in the world. Jesus knew how important hearts are and, as we’ve heard in our gospel text from Matthew this morning.
Matthew continues Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness that we looked at together last Sunday, about how the disciples were to practice forgiveness with each other when there was conflict among them. Peter was already thinking of possible challenges with what Jesus has said, possibly agreeing with him but also wondering how many times a person had to be forgiven. It’s like he was looking for a loophole of sorts or thinking surely there had to be a cap to the number. So he throws out a number to Jesus, “As many as seven?” Jesus responds with another number, “seventy times seven.” In other words, you’ve got to keep forgiving them, Peter, time and time again.
Jesus then told a story to illustrate his point. The story is about a servant who owes a debt to his master. This isn’t just a debt, it’s massive debt, almost unfathomable. He isn’t making payments, so the master calls him in and demands that he pay up. The servant pleads for mercy for him and for his family. The master hears him and takes pity on him, forgiving his debt completely and releases him. Not long after he is released, he sees a fellow servant who owes him money. Nothing like the debt he owed to the master, but still a debt. He demands that he pay all he owes to him. The servant doesn’t have the money, though, and so begs for mercy. His fellow servant shows him no mercy, sending him off to jail until he pays. When word of this gets around to the other servants, they go to the master to tell him what has happened. The master then calls in the servant he had forgiven, rebukes him for not showing others the same mercy he received, and then throws him into jail to stay until he pays back his full debt. All for having no mercy for someone else who needed it just like he did. All for having no heart when it comes to forgiveness. Jesus told Peter and the other disciples that this is what would happen to them if they didn’t forgive each other from their hearts.
As we find ourselves in the shoes of Peter, we are to hear and apply what Jesus was teaching about forgiveness. One truth we can take from this is that we are like Peter in wondering how many times we have to forgive someone. Don’t we all have that question at times? “Ok, Jesus, I get it, but how many times do I have to do it?” Our question tends to come up when we think of the people who never seem to show any recognition of their behavior or no remorse for the pain they have caused us. These are the people who never seem to take any responsibility for their actions. Even if they apologize to us and seek our forgiveness, we know that they will probably end up hurting us again. So we wonder if there’s a limit on forgiving someone. And Jesus says no, not really. I’m sure, though, we are like Peter, at first frustrated with Jesus’ answer, until we later realize how glad we are for abundant forgiveness when it comes to something we need for ourselves.
Another truth we can take from this is that forgiving others is a process, one often requiring multiple attempts and failures. This is what gets at us the most when it comes to forgiving someone, knowing they could end up hurting us again; that it may not be the last time we have to forgive them; that we may just be enabling them or letting them off the hook without having to pay what they owe us. It can also mean that it takes us a while to truly forgive someone, that we may have to say it over and over just to be able to mean it. I like what William Paul Young, author of The Shack, says about forgiveness, “Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is about letting go of another person’s throat……Forgiveness does not excuse anything………You may have to declare your forgiveness a hundred times the first day and the second day, but the third day will be less and each day after, until one day you will realize that you have forgiven completely.” It’s a process.
What we can also take from this teaching of Jesus is that forgiveness of others is to be done in a certain way, or from a certain place–from the heart. The idea here is that forgiving someone is not to be done superficially or out of obligation. It’s to come from the seat of our emotions, the place where we have received and experienced forgiveness in our own lives at some point. When we receive forgiveness from someone it changes not only our circumstances or standing with another person; it changes our hearts. Once that happens, we can transfer that same forgiveness to someone who has wronged us, even if they never seek our forgiveness. Maybe this is why forgiving people is so hard when we keep giving a piece of our heart out to someone. It is hard, no doubt. But forgiving from the heart is a God thing and when we do it, we are walking with God in a powerful way, one that can transform the world.
As I mentioned at the beginning, our hearts are fragile in these uncertain times with a relentless and harmful disease. We look forward to what can heal our hearts and make us healthy again. In the same way, we are aware of how fragile they are when they are harmed by the people around us. But what we’ve heard from Jesus is a solution for what ails them, one that benefits us but also one that can change the world.