…With so much confrontation in my daily life it was clear that I’d need to take a different approach than I had been, and it just so happens that Jesus offers one in last week’s text. Starting at the 15th verse of the 18th chapter of Matthew Jesus explains to Peter:
15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Matthew seems to be employing the thought that there is a traditional plan for dealing with conflict, particularly within the church; and whatever the church decides is a binding decision, and Jesus’ presence in the true church reinforces the decisions the church makes.
Given the many things that tempt the church toward division today, this word is timely. While Jesus is regularly preaching and performing wonders in this gospel, in this section of Matthew, he provides instruction on how to be a community of believers. He shows concern for children and weak members, and for those who might wander off. In this reading, he is giving what almost appears to be legal advice to the church that will follow in his name. Such advice is prudent, though it does not ensure resolution of difficulties. If it did, we would have a full-proof fool-proof formula for dealing with church conflict and controversy.
Now we might say that this instruction is about general disagreement, but that’s not entirely true. This instruction is specifically about sin. Who’s sinned against whom? We know that in a dispute, there’s usually your version and their version, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle. In the midst of the spat, our defensiveness and subjectivity keep us from seeing how much we might hurt others. Our self-interests only allow us to see how greatly we have been offended. We often feel wronged, but fail to admit that we have wronged another.
It is tempting to go about self-righteously judging, condemning, and binding the sins of our opponents. But, this is not what it means to be the church Jesus calls for. Where is the humility in this? Where is the concern for the weaker brother or sister? Ultimately, the only rule that appears fool-proof here is the final promise: If we gather as the church, Jesus is with us. Shall we not, then, dispute with one another in kindness? If Jesus is with us, on our side, in our caucus, do we not then need to approach the other side as he did when he spoke from the cross, “Father, forgive them,” even when his offenders did not repent.
Last Sunday, Matthew’s Gospel offered us instructions for addressing conflict. But those instructions were incomplete as is. Our gospel this week however gives us a complete plan for Conflict Resolution, with a lesson in forgiveness.
21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” The immediate narrative context of Peter’s question is last week’s discussion around confronting disagreements in community. The exhortation to unending forgiveness is a counter-balance to the confrontations dictated in the previous verses. Confrontation without forgiveness does not reflect the good news, and neither can forgiveness that eschews the confrontations that made forgiveness necessary in the first place speak truthfully about reconciliation and healing.
Jesus teaches us humility, and asking for forgiveness is an act of humility. And yet perhaps as challenging as asking for forgiveness, is the granting of forgiveness. After all, forgiveness heals relationships by requiring us to let go, to turn the page, to refuse the right to hold on to bitterness and anger. Forgiveness, in short, sets things right again. Forgiveness is a powerfully healing force but also an incredibly difficult gift to receive or share.
Peter here asks about the limits of the granting of forgiveness even as Jesus brings our attention back to the grace under which God has healed us. Peter wonders aloud how far our forgiveness should expand. And in classic fashion, Jesus turns Peter’s question around to the deep grace God has shared.
Peter thus asks how wide our forgiveness should be; how many times must I be slighted before I say enough, how long, O Lord, before our reservoir of grace can be exhausted. This is a natural question, of course. We know too well both the small and large ways that others can tread upon us. We know too well that others can take advantage of our generosity. We know too well the sting of consistent affront. At what point do we say, “Enough?”
Peter begins by establishing what he and we might consider a rather high bar of forgiveness, a significant concession to those who might hurt us. Should I forgive someone as many as seven times? That seems generous if not excessive. We claim to be a society of 2nd chances not 7 chances. But Jesus, as he often does, poses a radical suggestion: not seven but 77 times are we to forgive. Of course, what Jesus is suggesting is not a larger ledger upon which we can keep track of offenses. He’s not merely requiring an additional number of gracious acts. Instead, he is suggesting there is no need for a ledger whatsoever. This isn’t about keeping score ya’ll. Forgiveness is a deep reservoir of grace that ought never to run dry.
And then there was the debtor: knowing his whole life was about to be crushed, he begs for more time, more patience but receives something unexpected instead: a wholesale remission of his debts. The now liberated servant leaves with a whole new life available to him. However, in short order, he shifts from servant to lord, debtor to creditor. Encountering one of his fellow slaves, he demands that a relatively smaller debt be fulfilled immediately. Unable to pay, the slave is thrown in jail. Once the king hears of his erstwhile slave’s callous reaction, the king demands that the (former) slave be tortured “until he would pay his entire debt” (verse 34).
Jesus concludes by noting the seriousness of our forgiveness of others. Just as the faithful hold the ability to bind and loose, our unwillingness to forgive will redound on us. Forgiveness is neither optional nor contingent. Why? Because God’s forgiveness knows no end and so also should our relationships be governed by a grace that has no bounds.
Like last week’s invocation to confront a disruptive person in the community, Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness could well be abused. Forgiveness does not mean the embrace of violence perpetrated against us. It does not mean giving free reign to those who would do us harm. It does not mean a ready acquiescence to those who are stronger than us. No, no, forgiveness is a gift of grace, a reflection of God’s love, not the curse of abuse or a reflection of our worst tendencies as humans.
In a day of great debates about our life together, the disputes are complex and not easily solved. If it were such a simple matter as identifying the sin of one person or group, we could deal with this and bring it to an end. But, there is plenty of sin to go around; the good news is there is plenty of grace to cover it. In class or at work or in worship, Jesus is with us, and he comes with judgment of our sin and love with his covering of grace.
As a young boy, I was non-confrontational, passive aggressive some might say. I didn’t like conflict so I avoided it at all cost. But then I grew up. No longer can I assume my childhood posture of passivity, because conflict is around every corner in my adult life. In fact I’ve made a complete 180 in my approach. Now I quickly identify the issue, address it rationally and peaceably, then I forgive it. I’ve recognized that the older I get, the shorter life gets; I’ve lost 4 classmates just in the last year to either accident or cancer and I’m only 31, so you’ll have to excuse me if I choose not to waste any of my precious finite days on earth being mad at somebody. Just forgive for goodness sake. So forgive us our debts so we might forgive our debtors lord. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, lord. Forgive us our sin as we forgive those who sin against us. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.