October 27, 2013 Twenty-second Sunday After Trinity
A Curse Reversed
Proverbs 25:8-24, Psalm 32, Philippians 1:3-11, St. Matthew 18:21-35
San Angelo has its charms, no doubt, but I always found them elusive. It’s a city that hunkers there on the endless, treeless plain for the purpose, as far as I could tell back when I made an annual visit, of shearing sheep. Of course, a rather disagreeable happening one day under the West Texas broiler may have colored my opinion of the place.
I arrived for my week-long sojourn as I did each summer with no premonition of anything amiss. In that former life, I wrote a sports column for a newspaper and my penance for working in the toy department was this annual incarceration in Houston Oilers training camp. Lots of large men, grunting and sweating and swearing. Swan Lake it wasn’t.
This particular year, like many others, the Oilers were not highly regarded. Before my arrival, I had penned a piece on their dim prospects for the season, and I might have employed a bit of onomatopoeia and a touch of hyperbole, as sports columnists are expected and even required to do.
It came to pass, as I learned on my arrival at camp that first day, that one player in particular took exception to my penetrating insights. He was small for his position, but his position was defensive end, and he stood 6-2 and weighed 260 – without the pads and cleats.
His name was Elvin. He was by this time a bit long in the tooth but he had been selected to eight Pro Bowls, pro football’s all-star game. He compensated for his undersized frame with surpassing speed and strength. You can view his bust today in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
Elvin had been keeping an eye out for me. Before practice began, he addressed me on the sideline in rather bracing terms. One of the coaches told him to get to his station and go to work. As he took his leave of me he promised, “I’ll look you up after practice.”
He was good to his word. I had taken a position at the end of the field where the players walked off on their way to the locker room . . . but no one was walking off. Everybody was waiting for the show. Elvin stomped up to me and began critiquing my literary efforts in some remarkably colorful language – no pastels at all, only the most vivid hues.
I stood with my hands folded behind my back so there could be no claim later that I had provoked him. I wasn’t getting much opportunity to answer the allegations. Elvin kept drawing closer and closer, all hot breath and flying spittle, and I had the feeling he did not mean to propose.
No one was sure what he meant to do. A teammate, fearing no doubt for Elvin’s safety, came up to him from behind and tugged at his jersey, saying repeatedly, “He’s not worth it; he’s not worth it.”
Our gospel lesson for today takes us to a town far from San Angelo called Capernaum. Jesus is teaching His disciples, in St. Matthew’s 18th chapter, on right conduct in the kingdom of heaven, which is and is to come. That lovable lug Peter noodles up a way to score some points with his Lord.
Everyone knows the rabbis teach that a good Jew must forgive a brother three times for the sake of harmony in the community of the faithful. But Peter knows more than that. He knows Jesus upholds a higher standard of righteousness than that of the scribes and Pharisees.
He poses a question so he can run out the answer as big as a parade float and win his Master’s praise. “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”
Seven is the number of completion and perfection. Surely seven should be the benchmark of righteousness. Or maybe not. Jesus replies, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”
Gulp. Here we must do a bit of homework for the Lord has driven St. Peter, and us, all the way back into Genesis. As you’ll recall, Cain slew his brother Abel. God passes sentence on him: “A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth” (4:12).
Cain complains that this judgment is too severe. He will be defenseless . . . “anyone who finds me will kill me” (v.14). The Lord places a mark on him to protect him, declaring, “Therefore, whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold” (v. 15).
Thus protected, Cain not only survives but sires a long line of descendants, culminating in Lamech. We know his prominence by the detail we discover of his wives and children – but he is not renowned by reason of any virtue in him.
Lamech brags to his wives, “I have killed a man for wounding me, even a young man for hurting me” (v. 23). The standard God will give His people is “an eye for an eye.” Lamech boasts that he has inflicted death in payment for an injury. He goes on, “If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (v. 24). He makes himself more notorious than his ancestor, the world’s first murderer.
Jesus reverses the curse of Lamech. He says to Peter, in effect: Do you truly seek perfection? Would you be righteous? Rather than damning others with human vengeance to a degree beyond numbering, forgive a brother who sins against you in that same degree.
Jesus drives the point home with a parable.
In San Angelo, while everyone, notably including me, was wondering what Elvin would do, his teammate, one of the many free agents brought into camp as fodder who would not make the roster, was tugging at his jersey and saying, “He’s not worth it; he’s not worth it.”
As I was thinking, “I take umbrage at that,” we found out what Elvin would do. From point-blank range he spat squarely in my face. As soon as he did, he allowed himself to be pulled back, growling a few more insults on the way. It was all over but the clean-up.
In Capernaum, the Lord begins His parable, “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like . . .” He is not pointing us ahead to eternity future but describing the present state. In that glorious future there will be no forgiveness.
Those who rise from the grave into the realm of the eternally forgiven will have no need of forgiveness . . . for they will know no sin.
In the reign of God Christ has brought to earth in His first coming, He has established the character of human relationships. He prescribes the justice for which the prophets of old cried out. Not all will embrace it, but those who follow Christ will enter into His forgiveness today and His perfect justice tomorrow.
These are the ones who in the staging ground of this life, knowing themselves to be sinners, grasp their need for mercy and accept the mercy God offers. Are you among them? In this parable, Jesus provides a measuring device handier than those scales in the produce department: Do you forgive others?
A servant comes before the king owing 10,000 talents. I’ll spare you the computation but one scholar put the pencil to this sum and decided that in our currency it amounts to $6 billion. Just think of it this way: the word “gargantuan” with a dollar sign in front of it.
According to the custom of the ancient world, the king orders the man, along with his wife and children, sold into bondage to recover part of what the servant owes. The man falls to his knees and pleads for mercy. He needs more time to make good on his debt.
The king, “moved with compassion,” ventures a far way beyond mercy. For this man, mercy would be escaping the penalty of slavery. The king showers him with grace, not simply granting an extension but forgiving his
massive debt without further obligation.
Do you see it now? This is God’s grace. St. Paul writes in Romans 6, “For the wages of sin is death . . .” (v. 23a). Sinners can assign no price in talents or dollars to the debt we owe God; we owe our very lives. Yet the apostle continues, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 23b).
Christ Jesus our Lord made payment for your sin and mine on a hill called Calvary. St. Paul tells us in Colossians 2 that God has done away with that endless bill that is our list of sins, “having nailed it to the cross” (v. 14d).
If only we could stop here . . . We are ardent admirers of forgiveness when we’re on the receiving end but rather less enthusiastic when it is ours to dispense. Jesus will not omit judgment, not because He relishes administering it but because this obedient Son may not glide over it.
His Father has sent Him into the creation to reveal the character of God. And because it is God’s
character to be merciful, and because all who enter His eternal glory must adopt His character, He will admit only those who show mercy.
The kingdom of God has come. We have no warrant for rejecting His commandments and no excuse for withholding mercy. He who arrives at the feast without mercy has not put on the wedding garment and he will find no place there. Jesus adds part two to His parable.
The forgiven servant goes out to find a fellow servant who owes him 100 denarii and assaults him and demands payment. The man begs for more time, just as his assailant had done. This sum represents 100 days wages for a laborer, a considerable amount but a tiny fraction of the staggering total the king had wiped off the first servant’s slate.
Even an inexpensive slave would fetch five times that amount, and it was illegal to sell a man for more than the amount of his debt.
The forgiven man throws his fellow servant into prison, a way of putting pressure on his family to make payment.
Other servants, aghast at his conduct, report him to the king, who in turn casts him into prison. This man has traded God’s forgiveness for His judgment.
One who refuses to forgive betrays his contempt for forgiveness, and he will not receive from God that on which he places no value. He remains liable for his own debt. The king “delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.”
He can never repay his debt. His torture will have no end. And so here is the fate of one who will not allow another entry into the mercy port that saved him from the storm.
Beloved, before we offer it this morning, listen to our prayer our Lord commanded: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We do not ask for God’s mercy on us commensurate with what we bestow on others. If that were the standard we would all land at the feet of the torturers.
We pray that God will forgive us and, receiving His mercy, we would pour out mercy on others. If we refuse, our Lord teaches by this parable, we have not truly accepted His mercy for we do not know the meaning of mercy.
Jesus concludes, “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
God’s kingdom has come in the Person of Jesus Christ. His standard for our relationships with our neighbor and with our brother prevails today. This is the justice for which the prophets pleaded, not some socially engineered Utopia but a state in which each treats every other with dignity and respect and mercy. We say we want justice. Will we pursue it?
Some years ago I knew a man in church who had devised a way of dealing with this passage. His brother – his biological brother – had offended him grievously. “I know God says to forgive seventy times seven,” this fellow said, “but I know that if God knew what my brother did to me He wouldn’t expect me to forgive him.”
If God knew . . .
Our flesh screams that we must demand our rights. Thank God our Lord didn’t demand His. If we can abandon our rights we can let our forgiveness be our witness. Some who have no taste for doctrine will understand a forgiving nature.
As Anglicans, we have a towering figure to emulate who is still of flesh and blood like us. Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury who steered the Church of England away from Rome and into the Reformed camp, earned a reputation as a model of mercy. It was said of him, “If you would do my Lord Canterbury an injury you would make of him a friend for life.”
I regret to say I have not become Elvin’s friend for life. Long after our incident, I read in an interview that he regretted his rash act on that day in San Angelo. He has never, however, approached me to ask my forgiveness. Am I obliged to give it?
Now that I think of it, I did not ask my heavenly Father for His forgiveness before He sent His Son to make the payment that was the wages of my sin. I did not ask Jesus for His forgiveness before He hung on a cross to cancel my debt with His Father.
The author of Hebrews asks, “how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation . . .” (2:3).
I suppose I must forgive Elvin seventy times seven. His offense against me was not 1/70th of mine against my Lord . . . nor 1/700th . . . nor 1/7000th. . . If I died for Elvin he would gain nothing. Because my Lord Jesus died for me I have gained everything. I am forgiven.
I forgive you, Elvin.