Psalm 103:8-13 and Matthew 18:21-35
Twenty years ago a friend in Kaohsiung told me about an event that happened in the approach to his wedding. Though he was a quite modern late-20th century Christian man, educated and professional, he was from a rather traditional family in Pingtung County. Whether he and his wife arranged their own “match” or not, he never said, only that when it was settled that they were to be married, his mother took out the family account books going back several years and began to count how many times she and her husband had attended wedding feasts, how much they had given, and how much they could expect to receive in return in cash gifts at their son’s wedding. Then she started budgeting for the marriage.
There’s nothing wrong with that approach. Evidently that’s how it was done in the 1970s in Pingtung, and it was helpful, in a way. But the “calculating” of a wedding according to “we gave this much, so they’ll give back this much” somehow takes away from the joy of the entire arrangement.
When I entered theological studies, I had assumed my own background to have been in language and literature. Soon after I began a classmate in a “systematic theology” course asked a theological question that came from his having calculated something. Before responding, the professor asked, “What did you study before you came here?” The student answered that he’d been trained in engineering. After which the professor turned to all of us and said, “the people who have the hardest time with theology are engineers.” Of course, that made me feel pretty good. I shouldn’t have. My background was not in literature, even in the least, but in grammar and linguistics; just as confining as anyone’s in science, engineering or business. These pursuits are not anti-faith, or anti-theology, they’re just so “systematic” that they get in the way of the things that Christian faith is about.
I: Calculating our way through life
Some people seem to go through all of life with a calculator in their hands, if not in their heads. There’s a character in George Elliot’s novel, “The Mill on the Floss” who, though having been raised in a very Christian home, as an adult woman has decided that the way she would win her salvation was to demonstrate to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates that she had preserved and increased the the money given to her by her parents upon her marriage and in her will distributed to her blood relations (children, nephews, nieces, etc.) in exact proportions as dictated by her social class. For her, if she had incurred a loss of capital or miscalculated the distribution, she would be be bound for hell.
In the New Testament verses we read today, we met Peter, who got used by all four gospel writers as an illustration of “the guy who got it wrong but Jesus loved him anyway.” Matthew 18 has a lot about forgiveness in it, and the verses just ahead of these addressed the topic, too. The writer of Matthew put this story next, and in it shows us the “calculating way of life” as it applies to forgiveness. You count the times you forgive someone for something, and eventually you don’t have to forgive any more. In the character Peter we have the generosity of “forgive 7 times”, which sounds pretty good. But Jesus says, “stop counting”. Forgive 77 times (or 49 times, or 490 times). What we’re being told here is the same as what we were shown in the verses we read from the psalm: God forgives, and keeps on forgiving. We are told to be like God.
II: Forgiving our way through life
To further illustrate the point that was being made about calculating forgiveness, the writer of Matthew put a parable that Jesus told next. In it we meet a debtor who was so far in the hole that the only thing he could ask for was mercy (something we do every week as part of our liturgy). The one who loaned him the money had all the power and every right to demand payment in full. He could even order that the debtor, his wife and his children be considered as property and sold to satisfy at least a small part of the debt. Later in the story we learn that there was also “debtor’s prison”, where someone could be sent until debts were repaid. But when the debtor begged for mercy, the master not only declined to sell or imprison him, but went on to forgive the debt entirely.
The debtor was expected to act like the one who had forgiven him. That, it turns out, was too much to expect. Few of us, even those of us who believe in God, live up to “Godly” standards. If the forgiven man had a calculator in his head, it was broken. He had been forgiven much, but there were still people who “owed” him, He showed no mercy. (Remember the psalm, where we read that God is abundant in mercy? This guy was really NOT Godlike.) He found someone who owed him something, and rather than forgiving like his own master had done, he was cruel. When news reached the master, the original debt-cancellation was cancelled, and punishment happened.
Jesus gives us two reasons to forgive people: 1) to make us better than we are, so that we can be a little bit like God; and 2) to avoid the punishment that we deserve for our own sin. I like the first reason. I WANT to be merciful and a little bit like God. But the trouble often is that I’m like the guy in the story, and I need to be threatened with bad consequences in order that I might do what is right. Maybe, like me, you need this lesson, too.
III: You’re better than that
It is a terrible thing when someone is murdered. That’s true about anybody. It’s even worse, though, when the dead person is a police officer who was killed in the line of duty. In ordinary situations, the friends of a murdered person want the killer caught and punished. When a police officer is murdered, those friends are often other police, who want the killer caught, have the power to go out and catch him (or her) and carry guns!
Some years ago a police chaplain told the story of a meeting with an officer. There had been an incident in which another police officer had been killed, and the killer had escaped. Those who were looking for him were angry and hurt. The officer meeting with the chaplain told of the anger and hatred that he carried as he went out looking for the escaped man. He talked about how he planned to take revenge for his friend’s death by not just capturing the man, but by what he would do to him.
After a day or two living with that kind of thinking, he “came to himself” and said, “I’m not a killer.” I’m a man who has promised to protect and serve the citizens of this city. He realized that the hatred and anger he had been carrying, along with the grief he felt about his friend’s death, was destroying his heart and his soul. The story did not say that he “forgave his friend’s killer”, only that the killer was caught by other police and brought to justice through the legal system. But it does illustrate something, that a calculating offense and response is destructive. Someone said it is like drinking poison in the hope that it kills someone else, and it only serves to kill you.
At the end of the Bible story we are given Jesus’ conclusion, that we should forgive “from the heart”, a place that doesn’t calculate, but loves. After the terrible events of September 11, 2001, during which terrorists crashed planes and killed thousands, people in the West began learning about the ways that terrorist groups in the Middle East recruited suicide bombers. I remember much being made about one group’s promise that any young man who would blow himself up would be immediately received into heaven and given 72 virgins. Anybody who responded to THAT appeal was not working from his head or his heart, but from a piece of his body several centimeters lower.
What the Gospel stories and the psalm we read this afternoon say to us, what they call us to do, is to give up on calculations when it comes to life together. People are going to sin against us, we are to forgive them. If we can’t forgive, we’re warned of bad consequences which we don’t want. The goal before us is to be a little bit like God, who is merciful and loving, slow to become angry, and full of constant love. Whatever religion or non-religion any of us might follow, that is a goal worthy to be striven for. As imperfect as my own religion and those who follow it may be, I’d be happy to share with you some of what it has taught me about forgiveness and godliness.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN