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The Gospel isn’t meant to be gulped down on Sunday morning, but gnawed on through the week so it really becomes a part of us. You’ve got to work at it, like a dog with a good bone! Here’s the Gospel for this coming Sunday — the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost — with food for thought on the call to be forgivers … Gnaw away!

Matthew 18:21-35

Peter came up and asked Jesus, “When a sister of brother wrongs me, how many times must I forgive? Seven times?

“No,” Jesus replied, “not seven times, I tell you seventy times seven. And here’s why.

“the kin-dom of heaven is like a ruler who decided to settle accounts with the royal officials. When the audit was begun, one was brought in who owed tens of millions of dollars. As the debtor had no way of paying, the ruler ordered this official to be sold, along with family and property, in payment of the debt.

“At this, the official bowed down in homage and said, ‘I beg you, your highness, be patient with me and I will pay you back in full.’ Moved with pity, the ruler let the official go and wrote off the debt.

“Then that same official went out and met a colleague who owed the official twenty dollars. The official seized and throttled this debtor with the demand, ‘Pay back what you owe me!’

“The debtor dropped to the ground and began to plead, ‘Just give me time and I will pay you back in full!” But the official would hear none of it, and instead had the colleague put in debtor’s prison until the money was paid.

“When the other officials saw what had happened they were deeply grieved and went to the ruler, reporting the entire incident. The ruler sent for the official and said, ‘You worthless wretch! I cancelled your entire debt when you pleaded with me. Should you not have dealt mercifully with your colleague, as I dealt with you?’ Then in anger, the ruler handed the official over to be tortured until the debt had been paid in full.

“My Abba in heaven will treat you exactly the same way unless you truly forgive your sisters and brothers from your hearts.”

The Backstory – What’s Going On Here?

This passage is the second part of Jesus’ teaching on how his followers are to live in community together. Last week, we heard Jesus tell us that when another member of the community sins against us, the only response is going to them directly and, if that doesn’t work, to gradually involve the rest of the church because one person’s sin affects the whole church.

Here, Peter asks the natural follow-up: “What about forgiveness?” Is there any limit to the number of times we should forgive one another? What if the same person keeps doing the same thing over and over again?

Jesus’ answer is clear. There are no limits to forgiveness. Why? Because there are no limits to God’s forgiveness of us. Remember that the primary characteristic of the Christian community is supposed to be humility. It is always easier to be aware of what someone else needs to be forgiven of than what we need to be forgiven of. Jesus reminds us that we must remain intimately acquainted with our own sinfulness … not as a way of making us feel guilty or worthless, but as a reminder of how loved we are and how grateful we can be.

A few things to chew on:

*To the world, unlimited forgiveness seems naive at best and destructive at worst … the ultimate “soft on crime.” But Jesus is not proposing an ethic for the whole world … just for the church. Because in the church we are bound together by one thing — we have all given our lives to God in Christ. Because of that, as the last line of last Sunday’s Gospel reminds us: ” For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We can forgive one another without limits because we believe Christ is right here in our midst and that we have a common goal that trumps all other agendas — following Christ into the heart of God. It is on that journey that Jesus promises to always be with us every step of the way. It is that journey that makes this kind of forgiveness possible.

*The parable Jesus tells is harsh. The message “forgive much because you are forgiven much” is challenging but has a joyful truth (you are forgiven much) at its core. But the parable — as well as our incessant prayer of “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” tells us that the opposite is also true. If the measure we forgive is small … that’s bad news if we’re expecting forgiveness. The Christian community can change our lives … it will change our lives. But not just if we call ourselves members but if we dive deeply into the disciplines of following Christ. The disciplines of loving each other enough to confront each other and be confronted by each other. Of forgiving deeply and repeatedly. It is the following, the looking for Christ where two or three are gathered and, in the words of this week’s collect, asking that “the Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts” where we become changed and made new.

Try This:

Jesus calls us to forgive without limits because doing that changes our hearts — it remakes us from the inside out as people who are self-giving (embracing the cross in love) instead of self-defending (wielding the sword
in anger and pain).

We hurt one another in ways large and small many times a day. Sometimes unintentionally, sometimes willfully. This week, when you see an injury being caused, just pause for 5 seconds and silently pray:

Forgive them.

Forgive me.

Help us forgive each other.

It’s a prayer that the Holy Spirit might direct and rule our hearts. See if even this small repetition of forgiveness changes your heart.

Write this:

Becca Stevens writes in Find Your Way Home:

The scales of justice weigh more heavily on the poor and those who struggle in systems. It has never been fair, and the only way out is to forgive it all. We are called to forgive all those who have harmed us. We are called to forgive all the harm we have done to ourselves. We are called to forgive all the people we have harmed. Forgiveness allows us to move forward in peace.

This week, journal about forgiveness. Write down all the things you need to forgive yourself for. All the people who have harmed and who you have harmed. Write about what forgiveness would look and feel like. About what it might mean to move forward in peace.

Forgiver or Sucker?

“Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.” – the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“There’s a sucker born every minute.” — David Hannum (attributed to P.T. Barnum)

To forgive or not to forgive, that is the question … at least that is the question Peter asks Jesus in this week’s Gospel.

To forgive or not to forgive … and how many times.

Jesus has an answer. Apparently, we are to suffer the slings and arrows of each other’s sins not once, twice but indefinitely (in Biblical numerology, 70 x 7 times = infinity).

Dr. King rightly states that the forgiveness of which Jesus speaks is not an occasional act or even a series of acts but a constant attitude.

But David Hannum (who actually said those words in critique of Barnum) pipes right in. At what point does forgiving over and over and over again make us suckers. Even worse, at what point does it make us enablers —
actually hurting the person we are forgiving?

The answer is: Never. But there’s a catch. It’s not just about forgiveness. We can’t read this passage by itself. We have to read it together with the passage we heard last week.

Last week, we heard Jesus lay down an ethic for what we do when we sin against one another in the community. It is an ethic of “having the conversation” — and also one of holding each other accountable. If the person continues to sin, they effectively remove themselves from the community.

This recognizes a key truth. It is not loving to continue to let someone injure another — or the whole community. We do not love by tolerating harmful behavior.

We are not called to be suckers. We are not called to be enablers.

So what do we make of forgiving without end?

We are called to adopt the constant attitude of forgiveness because forgiveness and accountability are not mutually exclusive.

Of course we forgive. That is us saying we are not going to let the actions of the offender prevent us from loving them. We will continue to love them forever. But if that person continues to sin, part of loving them is not allowing them to be part of the community anymore … until such time as they are willing to change their behavior.

Combined it is the ethic of the parable of the Prodigal Son. The parent in that story never stops loving the child, never stops longing for reconciliation, never for an instant loses the constant attitude of forgiveness. But it takes the child recognizing their sin and returning to his father and repenting and pledging to live in right relationship before the ring is put on his finger and the fatted calf is killed in celebration.

Those among us in recovery from addiction know that relapse is a part of recovery — and that as addicts we can be ingenious about saying “never again.” And we are all addicts — we are addicts to sin and selfishness. All of us. And so we both need to be forgiven again and again and again because we are all in recovery … and we need the love of relationships of support and accountability that the church is called to survive.

There may be a sucker born every minute, but Christians aren’t called to be suckers. Neither are we called to be enablers. But we are called to be forgivers … and that constant attitude of life is one that takes deep engagement with one another, deep commitment to one another, deep love for one another.

We cannot possibly do it alone, which is why we need to remember one more line from last week’s Gospel reading:

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Check out the rest of Sunday’s readings

The Lectionary Page has all of the readings for this Sunday and every Sunday – just click here.

Collect for Sunday: Pray this throughout the week as you gnaw on this Gospel.

O God, because without you we are not able to please you mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Want to read more?
The Text This Week” is an excellent online resource for anyone who wants to dive more deeply into the scriptures for the week.

Gnaw On This is a weekly publication by Mike Kinman, the Rector of All Saints Church.

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