I presided over a wedding yesterday here in the sanctuary. The bride and the groom, both of whom were in their sixties, said “I do and when we were all done, I went up to Starbucks to write my sermon. I had my clergy collar still strapped around my neck. I sat down at a little round table with my notes and my Bible, and before I could get very far a woman crept up to me and said: “Um, excuse me Father….could I?”
She gestured to the empty seat across from me.
“Well, I’m not exactly a Fa______” I started to say but she just looked confused.
“Never mind” I said. “Sit down.”
She looked to be somewhere in her fifites. She had long, dark hair and hip, horn-rimmed glasses and pale skin that had started to blush red.
No sooner had she sat down than she started having second thoughts.
“Maybe this is a mistake. I just saw you over here and I haven’t been to church in years…”
She fussed with the button on her shirt while she rambled, embarrassed.
“It’s just….I’ve been carrying this around for years and I can’t put it down.”
“Put what down?” I asked.
“Where do I start? You don’t even know me, which is probably why I’m sitting here in the first place.” She fussed with her hair.
“Beginning at the beginning usually works,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said absent-minded, she was already rehearsing her story in her head.
And then she told it to me.
About her husband and their marriage.
About his drinking, the years of it.
About his lies, the years of it.
She told me about how he’s sober now.
And then she told me about how now the addiction in their family is her anger and resentment over how she’ll never get back what she gave out, how she’ll never be paid back what she spent.
Then she bit her lip and paused.
And so I asked her: “Are you asking me if you’re supposed to forgive him?’
“No, I know I ought to forgive him” she said. “Our priest told me years ago —he said I should forgive but not forget.”
“He told you to forgive but not forget?” I asked.
“Well, that’s why God gave us the Reformation,” I said under my breath.
“What was that?”
“Nevermind— what’s your question then if it’s not about forgiveness?” I asked.
“I’ve forgiven him— at least, I’ve tried, I’ve told him I have— but…why can’t I just wipe this from my slate and move on?”
And when she said that (“Why can’t I just wipe this from my slate?”) I excused myself and I walked to the restroom and I closed the door and I threw my hands in the air and I shouted:
“Thank you, Jesus, for, as reliably as Papa John’s, you have delivered
unto me this perfect anecdote for tomorrow’s parable!”
But without her realizing it, I did tell her about the slave in today’s text, who even before you get to the parable’s grim finale is in a cage he cannot see.
When Peter asks Jesus if forgiving someone seven times is sufficient, Peter must’ve thought it was a good answer.
Peter’s a hand-raiser and a rear-kisser. Peter wouldn’t have volunteered if he thought it was the wrong answer.
After all, the Jewish Law commanded God’s people to forgive a wrongdoer three times. Seven times no doubt struck Peter as a generous, Jesusy amount of forgiveness. Not only does Peter double the amount of forgiveness prescribed by the Law, he adds one, rounding the total to seven. Because God had spoken creation into being in seven days, the number seven was the Jewish number for completeness and perfection.
Peter might be an idiot, but he’s not stupid. Peter knew seven times— that’s a divine amount of forgiveness. Think about it— seven times:
Imagine someone sins against you. Say, a church member gossips about you behind your back. I’m not suggesting anyone in this church would do that, just take it as a for instance.
Imagine someone gossips about you.
And you confront them about it.
1. And they say: ‘I’m sorry.’ So you say to them: ‘I forgive you.’
2. And then they do it again. And you forgive them.
3. And then they do it again. And you forgive them.
4. And then they do it again. And you forgive them.
5. And then they do it again. And you forgive them.
6. And then they do it again for sixth time. And you forgive them.
I mean…fool me once shame on you.
Fool me 2,3,4,5,6 times…how many times does it take until its shame on me?
It’s got to stop somewhere, right?
“What’s the limit, Jesus? Where’s the boundary?”
And remember, Matthew 18 is all one scene.
It’s Jesus’ yarn about the Good Shepherd, who all but abandons the well-behaved ninety-nine to search out the single sheep too stupid to stay with the flock, that prompts Peter’s question and the parable that answers Peter’s question.
How many times should the lost sheep be sought and brought back, Jesus?
How many fatted calves does the father have to slaughter for his kid?
How many times do we have to forgive, Jesus?
And Peter suggests drawing the line at seven times. Whether we’re talking about gossip or anger or adultery or synagogue shooters, seven is a whole lot of forgiveness. Probably Peter expected a pat on the back and a gold star from Jesus. But he doesn’t get one.
Notice what Jesus doesn’t do with Peter’s question. Notice— Jesus doesn’t respond to Peter’s question with another question. Jesus doesn’t ask Peter “What’d they do?” Jesus doesn’t say “Well, you know, it depends— the forgiveness has to fit the crime. Roseanne Barr and racist tweets, maybe four times forgiveness. But Trysten Terrell at UNC-Charlotte…”
No, Jesus takes it in the other direction: “Not seven times, but, seventy-seven times.”
Seventy-seven times— pay attention, now, this is important.
Jesus didn’t pull that number out of his incarnate keister.
By telling Peter seventy-seven times forgiveness for those who sin against you, Jesus hearkens back to the mark of Cain and the sin of all of us in Adam.
In Genesis 4, after Cain murders his brother Abel, in order to prevent a cyle of bloodshed, God— in God’s mercy— places a mark on Cain, and God warns humanity that whoever harms Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance. They will receive seven times vengeance, God warns.
Later in Genesis 4, after civilization is founded east of Eden on the blood of Abel, Lamech, Cain’s grandson, murders a man. And in telling his two wives about the murder, Lamech plagiarizes God’s promise for himself and Lamech declares that if anyone should harm Lamech then vengeance will be visited upon them— guess how many times— seventy times.
If you don’t get this, you won’t get it.
When Jesus tells Peter he owes another seventy-seven times forgiveness, Jesus is not fixing a boundary, albeit a gracious and superabundant boundary. No, Jesus is saying here that in him there is no limit to God’s forgiveness because his is a pardon powerful to unwind all of our sin as far back as Adam’s original sin.
Seventy-seven times— he’s not simply raising the ceiling even higher on Peter; he’s saying that there is no floor to God’s grace. Seventy-seven times. God’s forgiveness for you in Christ is bottomless.
Make no mistake—This is the radicality and the scandal of the Gospel. This is the beating heart of Christianity.
I know I’ve said this before, but I also know that not everyone who shows up on a Sunay morning is a believer so I’m going to say it again.
What makes Christianity distinct among the world’s religions is that, contrary to what you may have heard, Christianity is not a religion of do. Christianity is not even a religion, for that matter, it’s an announcement— it’s news— that everything has been done.
And Jesus gives you a hint of that here in his response. Jesus reframes Peter’s question about the limits of the forgiveness we ought to do by alluding to the forgiveness God will do in him. In other words, Jesus takes Peter’s question about the Law (what we ought to do for God) and he answers in terms of Grace (what God has done for us).
Think about it—
When you make Christianity into a message of do this instead of it has been done, you ignore the trajectory of the parable Jesus tells where it’s your failure to appreciate just how much you’ve been forgiven that produces in you unforgiveness for another.
The road to hell here in this story is paved not with ill intentions but with amnesia. What damns this slave is not his sin but his forgiven sin getting forgotten.
“Lord, how much do I have to forgive?” And Jesus responds: “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king…“
As if to say, the very question “How much forgiveness do I have to give out to those who owe me?” reveals you’ve forgotten how much mercy has been given to you.
Ten thousand talents worth.
The key to this entire text today is in the numbers.
Seventy-seven times of forgiveness.
Ten thousand talents of debt.
As soon as Peter and the disciples heard Jesus say that the Kingdom of God is like a slave— a slave— who owed his king ten thousand talents, they would’ve known instantly that Jesus is taking forgiveness out of the realm of do and recasting it in terms of done.
In case you gave up Lou Dobbs for Lent and are rusty on your biblical exchange rates:
1 Denarius = 1 Day’s Wages
6,000 Denarii = 1 Talent
This slave owes the king 10,000 talents. When you do the math and carry the one- that comes out to roughly 170,000 years worth of debt. The Kingdom of God is like a slave who owed his king a zillion bitcoin, that’s how Peter and the rest would’ve heard the setup.
What’s more, ten-thousand was the highest possible number expressible in Greek; it was a synonmyn for infinity.
“What’s the limit to the forgiveness we ought to give, Jesus?”
“There was a king who had a slave,” Jesus says, “and that slave owed that king infinitely more than what Nick Cage owes the IRS.”
Ten thousand talents.
It’s a ridiculous amount he owes his king, which makes the slave’s promise to the king all the more pathetic: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you back everything.”
I’ll pay you back? To infinity and beyond?
This is what heaven sounds like to God: I’ll make it up to you, God. I’ll do better. I’ll get my act back in the black. Give me another chance, God. Be patient with me. This is what heaven sounds like—a cacophony of our pathetic pleas all of which drown out his promise that a debt we can neither fathom nor repay has been forgiven.
Look, it’s great that God, as the Bible promises, is patient and slow to anger, but God giving you another chance is not what you need. God’s patience is not what you need. You need pardon. Jesus’ point right at the get-go here in his parable is that God’s patience will not really remedy your ultimate situtation.
This is why the Church doesn’t charge you admission because of all the outlets in the world only the Church is bold enough to tell you the truth about yourself. Your problem is infinitely bigger than your best self-improvement project. No good deed you do can undo your unpayable debt. Before God, you are like a slave so far in the red it would take a hundred thousand lives to get it AC/DC.
Or, it would take just one life.
Seventy-seven times, ten thousand talents— one life.
Remember the amount.
It’s a kingdom’s worth of cash the slave is in hock to the king. So when the king forgives the slave’s debt, the king dies.
In forgiving his servant, the king forsakes his kingdom— he forsakes everything— because there’s no way the king can dispose the servant’s debt without the king also sacrificing his entire ledger.
The king’s whole system of settling accounts, of keeping score, of red and black, of credits and debits, of giving and receiving exactly what is earned and deserved the king DIES to that life so that his servant can have new one.
After the king gets rid of his ledger, who’s still got one?
Who’s still keeping score?
No sooner is the slave forgiven and freed than he encounters a fellow servant who owes him, about three months wages. Not chump change but small potatoes compared to his infinite IOU.
He grabs the servant, demands what’s owed to him, and he sends the man to prison, turning a deaf ear— notice— to the very same plea he’d pled to the king: “be patient with me and I will pay back everything…”
How many times do we gotta forgive somebody, Jesus?
When the king finds out he has failed to extend the same mercy he had received, the king gives to the slave exactly what the slave wants.
You want to keep living your life keeping score? Even though I died to score-keeping? Fine, Have it your way. But that way of life— I gotta warn you— it’s torture.
You see, even before the slave ends up in prison, that slave was already stuck inside a cage he couldn’t see.
“Why can’t I just wipe the slate clean and move on?” the woman at Starbucks asked me.
I sipped my coffee.
“Look,” I said, “provided you’re willing to be exploited for the purposes of a sermon illustration some day, I’ll give you the goods, straight up, and you won’t even have to pay for the refill on my coffee.”
She smiled and nodded.
“It’s not about wiping your ledger clean. It’s about getting rid of the life of ledger-keeping altogether— it’s about dying to it. The ledger is the whole reason you’ve forgiven him but still don’t feel free.”
And I paused, wondering if I should tack on the truth:
“And my guess is as long as you’re holding onto your ledger it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve told your husband you forgive him— my guess is he doesn’t feel very free either.”
She bit her lip.
“When the Bible says “Christ is the end of the Law,” I said, “it’s just a pious way of saying that Jesus is the end of all score-keeping. He’s gotten rid of all it— the sins and the spreadsheets both.”
And I could tell what she was about to counterpunch me with so, being an Enneagram 8, I interuppted her and talked over her:
“We say “forgive but don’t forget,” sure.
But Jesus says: Don’t forget— you’ve been forgiven with a forgiveness that has forgotten all your sins in the black hole of his death. Ditto for whomever has trespassed against you and whatever was that trespass against you. Remember that you’ve been forgiven with a forgiveness that has forgotten everything— remember that and, eventually, you can forgive and forget.”
She took off her glasses and wiped the corners of her eyes.
“I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head, “that doesn’t sound fair.”
“Of course it’s not fair,” I said, “if God were fair we’d all be screwed.”
And then her phone rang and she had to leave as quickly as she’d came.
The woman at Starbucks and the slave in the story, they’re not the only ones clinging to their ledger.
Some of you excel at Excel, carrying around a ledger filled with lists of names:
Names of people who’ve hurt you.
Names of people who’ve taken something from you.
Names of people who’ve wronged you.
People that no matter what they do, there’s nothing they can do to change their name from the red to the black in your book.
Some of you cling to ledgers filled with balance sheets, keeping score of exactly how much you’ve done for the people in your life compared to how little they’ve done for you.
Jesus says with his story that in order for you to enjoy your forgiveness his death makes possible you’ve got to die too— to that whole way of living that produces questions like “How many times do I have…?”
No— just as there is no empty grave without a cross, there is no salvation for you without your death.
You’ve got to die to your life of book-keeping.
Limitless forgiveness— of course it sounds impossible.
I get it.
Forgiveness without limits comes so unnaturally to us it first had to come to us as Jesus.
And— no less than then— Jesus comes to us still today.
Jesus comes to us in his word. He comes to us in wine and bread
And Jesus comes to us preaching the promise of this parable:
The promise that those who know how much they have been forgiven— ten thousand talents— in the fullness of time, through word and wine and bread, much will they be able to forgive.
So come to the table where Christ comes to you.
Taste and see that God is not fair; God is gracious.
Come to the table where Christ comes to you.
Taste and see and enjoy your forgiveness, for the promise that everything has been done for you— that promise alone has the power to enable you to do for another.
THE POWER TO DO IS NOT IN YOU!
THE POWER TO DO IS IN THIS PROMISE OF DONE.
So come to the table; so that, you might become what you eat.