A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church
March 9, 2019
The word that is translated as “church” in this passage is the word “ecclesia”, which means “called out of”. It was a term from Greek politics. It was the name of the assembly of citizens who came together to vote for magistrates, to declare war, to do the work of the government. So, early on, what we now call the “church” took its name from the idea that people who came together could effect change. An ecclesia is a group of people who make a difference in their world by working together.
There were plenty of other words that could have been used to describe a religious gathering of Jesus followers, but the early church mothers and fathers picked this one.
Jesus calls on the assembly, the ecclesia, and reminds us the church has never been about the building. It is about the people who are gathered together, who have been called out, who have a job to do.
Matthew, by including this in his narrative of Jesus’ story, is addressing a need of his congregation, and of every congregation, namely—
Why does it matter that we gather together as church and do this hard work of getting along? Why are we here? Why do we gather each week, setting aside time in our busy lives to “be church”?
It’s messy. It can be complicated.
And Jesus doesn’t pretend it should be any other way.
The Greek text really begins like this: “when a brother sins against you..” which means that Jesus doesn’t even mess around with some notion of church perfection.
Jesus does not say, “now that you are in a church, I know you will all get along perfectly and all discord shall cease”. What Jesus says is “when this happens”.
Often, we in American culture get disgusted with church because we think that all of those disputes that complicate our life shouldn’t happen in church. I suspect you have heard something to the effect of “I stopped going to fill-in-the-blank church because people didn’t always get along. And they call themselves Christians!”
You know you’ve heard it.
We know that Christians aren’t immune to difficulty or strife, yet we want Christians to be perfect, and we want church to be perfect. And there is NO scriptural basis for that, whatsoever.
As Christians, even though we can’t be perfect, we are still called to be church together and work through it.
So, the disagreements will happen. And Jesus says we’re supposed to go talk with the person with whom we’re in a disagreement.
It is worth noting that this passage about church discipline is in the midst of a larger passage about forgiveness and restoration. Church discipline is not about punishing people.
It is about restoring them.
“If the brother or sister refuses to listen, 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 tax collector.”
I think we tend to hear that as a sign we should write them off, as people outside of the family.
But Jesus, in this gospel, and in others, has the bad habit of hanging out with the people with whom society tells him he shouldn’t fraternize with because they were outside the family. Tax collectors, gentiles, lepers, even women. You name it. Jesus goes to their homes for dinner and invites them to hang out with him.
When Jesus tells us to consider a person to be a tax collector or gentile, perhaps what he’s saying to us is this:
“Consider this person to be the biggest illustration you can imagine of someone who needs to be brought into my family. Consider this person to be exactly the person you need to keep seeking out. My family won’t be complete without them. Or without you.”
You don’t let them get away with bad behavior. There are still codes of behavior that matter. But we never reach a point where we stop seeking reconciliation.
When two or three of us are gathered together, disagreeing over who knows what, God is there. I hope you hear this as good news.
God is going to be with us while we learn to get along.
And then, Peter, perhaps trying to figure out how long it will take us to get along, asks Jesus, “how many times, Lord, should I forgive someone? As many as 7 times?”
And Jesus, to make sure we get that forgiveness is about redemption and restoration, says, “no Peter, not 7 times. but seventy seven times.” Jesus throws out numbers that are so big that the message is this—forgiveness can’t be quantified.
I confess I want to quantify even this. I recognize 77 times is supposed to be hyperbole, a number so high we wouldn’t keep track.
I still want to keep track.
“She is up to 23 times I’ve forgiven her. He’s made it to 40. Maybe I should think about prizes to offer when they get to the 50th time I’ve had to forgive them”.
I kid. Sort of. I want to be like Jesus.
But come on.
He doesn’t really want someone in the family of God if they require 77 forgivenesses, does he?
Yes, Marci. Yes he does. Which is how you get to be here in the family too.
We are supposed to stay together, to keep working at this, until we get along.
And when that happens, and there are moments it does, glimpses of the kingdom perhaps, listen to Jesus’ words:
“Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my father in heaven.”
That’s the reason we go and talk to each other face to face—because if or when we can come together, we don’t just change things on earth, we change them in heaven. So, we keep working at it, 70 times 7 times, because it is that important to us and to God.
This text reminds me of the connections between salvation, grace, forgiveness, and life in community. Just as Peter is instructed to forgive someone a seemingly infinite number of times, so have we been forgiven by the God who loves us, so we have been called to keep working at being the family of God.
After Peter’s questions about forgiveness, there’s a parable. And it’s kind of awful in it’s starkness.
A ruler rightly plans to sell a slave, and his wife and kids, in order to pay off a debt the slave has. This is a big debt. One talent is the wages of a laborer for maybe 10 years. This man owes 10,000 worth of 10 years salary. . It’s a debt a slave could never pay.
The slave begs for mercy and the owner erases the debt.
So far, so good.
But when that same slave encounters a man who owes him a few hundred bucks, a minor debt, he grabs him by the throat, demands the money, and hauls him off to jail.
As he has received mercy, he responds instead with physical violence and a cruel kind of justice. It is true the man owes him the money. But it doesn’t seem just in light of what has just been forgiven him.
How often do we do that? We accept grace that forgives our sin and we judge and condemn everyone else’s sin, as if we somehow are perfect.
The slave owner, who had relieved the huge debt, hears about his cruelty, and loses his ever loving mind. He unforgives the debt, and hands him over to be tortured. So much for 77 times that we’re supposed to forgive each other?
With parables, it’s always tempting to cast ourselves as the ‘good guy’ in the story. And we’re usually wrong when we do that. It’s tempting to also cast people we don’t really like as the bad guys in parables. Oh, that unforgiving servant is just like______on the news. When we do that, we are often missing the way it applies in our own life.
And I am not sure who the good guy is in this parable. Is it the slave owner who forgives the big debt but then unforgives it and sends him off for torture? It’s clearly not the guy who received mercy and refused to offer any in return.
It is hard to see where God is in this parable too. The depth and height and breadth of God’s love seems big enough to forgive 10,000 talents. It’s harder to know what to do with a Lord who hands someone over to be tortured.
This parable reminds me that God’s ways are not our ways. And whenever we think we really know who God is, when God likes all the same people we do, we’ve made god in our image, and not the other way around.
And maybe forgiveness, or the lack thereof, is the one thing that really really gets God good and fired up.
Everything we said about forgiveness earlier—about how it matters for community, how it looses things on earth that get loosed on heaven—it’s the whole enchilada. If we can’t figure out how to forgive each other, how can we possibly be able to receive God’s grace and forgiveness?
Or maybe it’s the other way around. If we can’t recognize the gift of forgiveness we have already received, we’ll never figure out how to forgive someone else.
Perhaps the Lord in the parable isn’t the one taking back forgiveness of the ungrateful slave. Perhaps the slave does that all to himself.
We can’t truly know what it is to be forgiven people until we become forgiving people.
Corrie Ten Boom was a writer and speaker who talked to people about her faith and about forgiveness. She and her sister had been arrested for concealing Jews in their home in Holland during WW2. They were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp for their crime.
In 1947, she was speaking to a crowd of Germans about God’s forgiveness, and how that forgiveness was even for them. After the talk, a man walked toward her. He had been a guard at Ravensbruck. Many years ago, she wrote this story:
Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message, fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!”
And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course–how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?
But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. It was the first time since my release that I had been face to face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there.” No, he did not remember me.
“But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein”–again the hand came out–“will you forgive me?”
And I stood there–I whose sins had every day to be forgiven–and could not. Betsie had died in that place–could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
For I had to do it–I knew that. I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality.
Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.
And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion–I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.
She prayed for Jesus to help her, and she offered her hand to the former Nazi prison guard in forgiveness, transformed by the act.
Her story reminds us of the cost of forgiveness. We have to let go of the reasons for our anger and hurt. And those reasons may be perfectly legitimate and understandable. Nobody would have judged her for not wanting to take the hand of the Nazi who subjected her to such cruelty.
Maybe to recognize the grace we have received, we have to participate in it. So she forgives him his hundred denarii debt so she can live into her 10,000 talent debt that has been relieved. The nazi still has his own journey toward grace and forgiveness. And it isn’t clear, quite frankly, from her story, if he’s changed.
In truth, though, changing him isn’t her job. God doesn’t call us to fix other people. God calls us to tend to our own spirits, and to not carry around hatred and resentment, to work it out with each other, so that we can be the church.
We enter Lent thinking about forgiveness. This week, I invite you to first think about whether or not you’re able to accept God’s forgiveness. It begins here. Whatever you’ve done, take it to God. Nothing is beyond God’s ability to redeem. There may be amends you need to make, but nothing we do is beyond God and God’s desire to be in relationship with us.
Next, consider whose forgiveness do you need? Who needs a phone call or visit from you so your relationship may be restored? What do you need to do to work at a relationship that matters to you?
And then, who do you need to forgive? What is required for a relationship to be healed? We can’t force people to do their part, of course, but we don’t have to hang on to the resentment and anger.
Some people don’t want restoration, of course. And some don’t want to do the work to get there. Jesus said, “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.”
Rev. Jennifer Barchi wrote a post for the Presbyterian Outlook recently that is relevant for how we treat people who won’t do the work of being in relationship with us. She writes:
I think of Jesus and how he interacted with the tax collectors and Pharisees and prostitutes of his day.… They were the ones whose minds and lives Jesus wanted to change — and he did it by sticking close to them, by eating with them and sharing in life with them. They didn’t have to cease and desist their behaviors before he would spend this time with them. He met them where they were, he was present with them, and he heard them.
How might relationships come to be restored if we stuck close together, sharing in life with each other, participating in the grace that has saved us? May the love and forgiveness we loose on earth be loosed in heaven too.