Forgiveness Begins with the Great Gift of God

The Rev. Anne Grizzle. This sermon is based on Matthew 18:21-35


I was driving on Interstate 81 Thursday and began to get really mad at the 18 wheeler ahead of me loaded with logs and staying right there in the left lane beside another 18 wheeler in the right lane for miles and miles while all of us who could actually go faster were chomping at the bit to pass.  And I was upset as well at the car that was tailgating behind me too close – my Dad taught me the two second rule to leave enough space behind the car in front of you for safe driving.  So much for gracious thoughts and forgiving, much less 77 times.

Until I remembered a Sunday morning last spring.  I was driving from DC to Amherst where I would be preaching.  I left plenty of time to get there early and enjoy the drive.  You may know that way between Fredericksburg and Charlottesville that winds you on two lane roads past corn fields and Virginia hamlets.  I noticed some Adirondack chairs displayed up ahead on the left outside a garden store.  I needed an Adirondack chair for a spot in our garden. So I thought why not make a quick stop so I pulled in.  It turns out the store was actually closed – this is Virginia and it was a Sunday morning. But I got out, stretched my legs and took a look before getting back in my car.  I was thinking about where they might go, in a good spot for meditation.  I pulled out turning left back down the road and suddenly over a small hill ahead, there was a car in my lane barreling right toward me with another behind it.  Adrenalin surged and I quickly swerved right, driving up on the rough grassy hill beside the road.   I looked around and realized that this store was in one of the few parts of these country roads that was a four lane divided highway, not a two lane country road!  I had driven right into oncoming traffic. Catching my breath and imagining how I might have killed myself and someone else in an instant, I then slowly drove off the median (thank heavens I have an SUV) and onto the road going the right direction.  Almost immediately, a police car showed up behind me (what was he doing in that quiet spot on a Sunday morning?). Anyway, I pulled over and rolled down my window.  He said, “I saw the whole thing.  Thought I was about to call the medevac helicopter or funeral home…..Are you Ok?”  I said yes, I’m fine sir, and explained my mistake.  “Do you know where you are going?”  he asked.  I assured him that I did, although he probably found that hard to believe. And then he let me go on my way, having mercy on me after God had showed the greater mercy.  For the rest of my drive and whenever I remember that moment I realize I could have been the driver who hit and killed a family with children going to church or I could have permanently injured a teenager like the one I had recently cared for in the University of Virginia emergency room as a chaplain.  That day and every time I remember that day, I am aware of the huge mercy of God…that saved me, that forgives me.

What mistake or wrong or besetting sin in your life grabs you in your gut with horror and humility and makes you aware of the huge mercy of God?  It may be something that weighs heavily – you did something wrong after having one (or three) too many, stealing something, saying or doing something hurtful to a friend.   Or it may be small but ongoing – losing your temper and hurting people you love, white lies to make you look better.  We will never get the gospel for today in our gut unless we realize the great debt we owe our God and the great forgiveness we have been offered. 

Our gospel for today begins with Peter asking Jesus how many times he has to forgive another member of the church when they sin. We have all wondered this in our own heads. How many times do we have to forgive the family member who always shows up late (and without their casserole),  the neighbor who keeps making too much noise late at night after you have asked them to be more respectful,  the church member who is annoying over and over. Peter, who we read in Matthew 16 confesses Jesus as the Messiah,  who we read in Matthew 17 witnessed the transfiguration, probably thinking himself a spiritual leader, suggests seven times might be generous forgiveness. He is referencing the Genesis passage where God says anyone killing Cain will be avenged seven times, an example of God’s mercy on a murderer.  But Jesus say, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” And then Jesus does what he so often does to help us understand the ways of the kingdom, he tells a parable.  We know today’s as the parable of the unforgiving servant.  A slave of a king owes 10,000 talents. The servant falls on his knees before the king who demands he pay or be sold together with his wife and children.  He says, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”   The lord releases him and forgives the debt.  But the slave goes out and seizes a fellow slave who owes him 100 denarii, and when asked to have patience instead throws him into prison.

10,000 talents sounds like a lot compared to 100 denarii, but just how much are we talking about?  A talent is the greatest denomination used in accounting for money or weight in Greek.  A talent is equal to 6000 denarii, and one denarii was a laborer’s wage for a day.  100 denarii would be three months wages; 10,000 talents more than we can hardly imagine.   Two points follow from this calculating.  First, 10,000 talents is so enormous an amount the slave would never have been able to repay it.  Like my making up for killing someone or paralyzing them by running into them head on.  No way to make up for that.  God’s mercy for us is enormous, beyond even what is required for my friend Jose who is serving a prison sentence for a double murder, or anything no matter how huge, that you may think is too much for God to forgive.    Second, the slave pretends that if God has patience he will be able to pay it back.  This is like when we think, being relatively kind Southerners and decent Christian people, we can earn our way into heaven or the good graces of God by our works.  We cannot work hard enough and long enough, even if we think we are saints, to make up for the enormity of the mercy God shows us for our failings.   

Generally comparison is not very helpful in life.  If we compare ourselves to someone who has more or is more capable than we are, we become jealous.  If we compare ourselves to someone who has less or is less capable, we become prideful.  Not good for our souls.  However, in this particular parable, and in the area of forgiveness, Jesus invites us to compare.  If we simply look at what someone has done that offends us, whether it is a huge offense of for example a spouse betraying the marital commitment or employer firing you without what seems to be just cause or whether it is a smaller offense of regularly being late or saying something unkind about us – looking at the offense only makes us madder and more righteous in our assessment that they are wrong.  Like me continuing to look at that 18 wheeler hogging the road and the tailgater behind me.

However, when I remember the mercy of God to me, that day on the road to Amherst when I was spared a collision and forgiven by a policeman – whatever offenses others do to me seem small.  No big deal.  My king has forgiven me 10,000 talents.  Who am I to force another to repay me my 100 denarii?         

What is a large offense or ongoing irritations that you have a hard time forgiving? Recalling our own big mistakes when we were driving or living the wrong way and the greatness of God’s forgiveness can change our perspective and our hearts.  

Our gospel today and the gospel of our Jesus has forgiveness right at its center.  Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, as we all will together today before the Eucharist, we ask forgiveness and agree to forgive.  When you come to the Lord’s Table today, if you still feel unforgiven for something big or little in your life, bring that to the table of the king who forgives 10,000 talents worth.  And if you have something you are having trouble forgiving, let the taste of the bread and wine turn your heart to the enormity of the love of our Jesus who died for us, so that you just might walk away able to forgive in a whole new way.