Sermon delivered on September 14, 2014 at The United Church in Meadowood.
GAME – THUMB WAR
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?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven times.” Mt. 18:21-22
I WOULD LIKE TO TEACH AND PLAY A CHILDREN’S GAME WITH YOU NOW.
I would have loved to have a child join each of you and play this game, but they are in their program.
It’s more fun and more clear with kids … but if you can bring out your inner child … you’ll get this!
If don’t want to play, or you are injured, or a germ-a-phobe – don’t have to play but the fun is in the playing;
I promise you two things – you will have fun, and you will remember the central meaning of Jesus’ teaching today.
HERE’S HOW TO PLAY
Find a partner; if you know each other, change partners; if it’s someone you don’t know, great!
Link hands at the fingers only – not palms, thumbs up; Steven and I will show you how.
One rule – don’t hurt each other
As you start there is a chant that you do: tap your thumb on either side, starting with palm side – “one two three four I declare a thumb war” then you bow your fingers, and then,
Try to pin the other person’s thumb under yours without allowing your thumb to be pinned.
Play. (LOTS OF NOISE AND LAUGHING AND ENERGY) Over in a hurry.
How was that? Want to play again. Best two out of three?.
HOW MANY TIMES MUST I FORGIVE MY BROTHER OR SISTER IN THE CHURCH.
Represents the thoughts of a later generation – as the people after Jesus death and resurrection began to form the church, during the chaotic times following the destruction of the temple, the rise of the synagogue and the controversies between Jews in the synagogue and Jews who were following Jesus. They were trying to figure out the way to be in relation to each other.
Christianity represented an adaptation of the concept of forgiveness – remember that worship up to 70 C.E. was focused on the temple and sacrifice. Forgiveness between individuals was worked out by seeking the God’s forgiveness. Now the followers of Jesus are working out how to forgive each other directly.
Peter has to reflect on the dimensions of the command; and in good Rabbinic tradition, discusses and debates and explores in conversation with his teacher.
Notice where Peter starts this conversation: he asks Jesus for a number. He wants to know just how much will be expected of him, how much is reasonable, how much is required.
And so he suggests what by all accounts is a more-than-sufficient amount of forgiveness. Thinks he is being especially benevolent –or maybe he was thinking back to Genesis, and the egregious sins of Lamech – who threatened 7x the vengeance that God suggested might come to one who harmed the murderer Cain. Peter may have been voicing the suggestion … that ultimate forgiveness would need to be that profound.
Jesus answer confounds Peter and us – by saying not 7x but 70 times, or as some translations say 70×7 times … Do the math – 490 times.
UNDERSTANDING JESUS’ PARABLE REQUIRES WE UNDERSTAND SOME WEIGHTS AND MEASURES
Talent = 130 pound of silver;
Denarius = at the time of Jesus weighed about 1/84th of a pound of silver (and it was a day’s wage);
A year’s basic wages therefore would be about 4 lbs of silver.
130 lbs of silver therefore represents about 33 years’ worth of wages.
The one who owed 10,000 talents, therefore owed 330,000 years of salary – a laughably, audaciously, impossibly large debt;
The one who owed 100 denarii – owed an amount of 100 days’ wages; not insignificant, but doable.
SO THE FIRST INDIVIDUAL IS FORGIVEN AN ASTRONOMICAL DEBT – AND WOULDN’T YOU THINK HE WOULD BE ASTONISHED, AND GIDDY WITH JOY, AND MAYBE A LITTLE GENEROUS – BUT NO, HE TURNS AROUND AND LOAN SHARKS THE SECOND SERVANT – CHOKING THE POOR SOUL TO COUGH UP A MEASLY 100 DAY LOAN.
TO MAKE A LONGER STORY SHORTER – THE OTHER SERVANTS RAT HIM OUT, THE RULER RAGES … AND ANNOUNCES TORTURE AND IMPRISONMENT TO THE FULL EXTENT OF THE DEBT.SO WHAT IS JESUS TRYING TO SAY ABOUT FORGIVENESS?
THE MEANING IS NOT
That we have to forgive 490 times, and on the 491st time, can tell the brother or sister to “go to hell”;
That we have to forgive all bad behaviour, even behaviour that is a 109 million times worse than normal – or that we never say no to wrong doing; What makes varied behaviour possible – the most loving and forgiving thing to do may very well be to stop putting up with the behavior.
That we are commanded to forgive, threatened with torture to forgive, and that we must forgive regardless of our feelings, or the repentance or non-repentance of the other person. All of these are violations of the way in which true forgiveness is enabled … (Repentance is also involved, and, as Richard Foster once said, “No spiritual discipline is of any value if it is coerced.”)
THE MEANING IS (and here I am grateful for the insight of David Lose)
That Jesus is challenging the whole concept of numbers by making it seem ridiculous, even impossible – “You want to play the numbers game?” Jesus more or less asks, “Okay, how about this one?”
It’s not that Jesus wants Peter to increase his forgiveness quota; he wants him to stop counting altogether.
Forgiveness is not a matter of law, or accounting, or keeping score, but rather a matter of relationship.
For Jesus, love is everything, and forgiveness is one form of that love – a love that is trying to find a way to overcome wrong and find a way to get back to right relation.
To make love into a numbers game, of keeping a ledger, insisting I have to get mine“ … is self-defeating;
When Peter asked Jesus his question – it was like asking “how often must I love my brother or sister?” It doesn’t make sense to put a number on that question – love can’t be quantified or counted. … In the same way, it doesn’t make sense to put a number on forgiveness either;
Sure wrong has been done, but the commitment to relationship seeks a path to making it right.
THIS MEANING IS EVIDENT IN OUR LIVES
We care about numbers – need numbers to happen lots; I definitely hope that engineers are good with numbers and calculate load factors accurately so the bridge or building won’t fall down!
But we also know that counting every number can be dreadful – anybody do any air travel lately? We HATE being nickled and dimed – charged for luggage, charged for leg room, charged for drinks and charged for a rubber meal. Next it will be charged for going to the bathroom, pressurizing the hull and providing oxygen; the joy of flight is gone!
We know what it is like to be hit with a bill we can’t pay – the picture on the cover of today’s service may be an experience we have had – getting an outrageous phone bill, or a monster speeding ticket we didn’t see coming; and will have a hard time paying. We get angry and want to quit that company!
And we know what it is to be forgiven – to get the refund or the correction of that bill – set free of our rage – think well of that vendor – and we continue to patronize that store;
Keeping score can end relationships; forgiveness can maintain relationships; and a willingness not to make relationship an economic transaction, of just desserts, allows us the chance to confront wrong doing while holding out an olive branch for the future.
Our lives are full of people, and therefore full of collisions great and small, there are bruises and bullies and brutality, as well as kindness and community and cooperation;
Forgiveness is love trying to find a way to overcome wrong and restore right relationship.
It sets us free from the past; even if it has to be one sided … a letting go of our fixation on what we deserved, to move on to a future freed of that burden.
IF WE UNDERSTAND JESUS’ MEANING AS SEEKING RELATIONSHIP, RATHER THAN “WINNING” WE SEE THIS TEACHING OF JESUS EVERYWHERE IN SCRIPTURE
Parable of the Good Samaritan – is the story of a stranger who doesn’t keep score – or care on which side the mugging victim is – but recognizes the humanity of another, deserving of relationship;
Parable of the Prodigal Son – is the story of a father, who doesn’t condone the young son’s life style – but yearns above all for relationship and runs to meet him when he comes home;
In Psalm 23 – God sets a table for us in the presence of our enemies – whose plate is right across the way from ours, so that love might find a way to talk, to work things out, to overcome hatred, and become family again;
1 Corinthians 13:5 – actually says this in some translations, “Love keeps no score of wrong” (Good News Translation)
What about today’s reading in Exodus – where Moses and Miriam and the whole crowd of Israelites, celebrating their escape through the sea, and the death of Egyptians? Talmud says that God interrupted the singing and put an end to the dancing by saying to Moses – “the Egyptians are my children, too.”
You might say, what about the ending of the Parable where the King declares torture and perpetual imprisonment shall come to the ungrateful servant?
Does this overturn the interpretation I’ve been suggesting?
On the contrary – I think IT IS REALLY A CONTINUATION OF JESUS’ TEACHING –
the king is actually only describing the condition his servant already lives in. That is, he is already a slave to the world of counting and calculating and reckoning everything according to the law and will therefore remain a slave to that way of being until the end of time…or when he can forgive others, whichever comes first.
It is like the message of Clint Eastwood’s movie Unforgiven; Where there is no forgiveness – there is only fear and judgment and violence and sorrow, even among those who originally were seeking the vengeance.
And finally if there is any doubt about Jesus’ intent, we need only look at the cross again, and remember that is where Jesus proved his point – that God is not keeping score, God refuses to be violent to win, and above all, God takes the responsibility to seek to find a way to keep relationship with humanity despite the wrongs.SO LET’S WRAP IT UP WHERE WE STARTED – WITH THE THUMB GAME – REMEMBER I PROMISED IT WOULD ILLUSTRATE TODAY’S TEACHING?
What’s the connection of all this with the thumb game we played?
It is this – later on today – you won’t remember who won or lost. For the fun is not on keeping score – you will remember today as the day you got to hold hands and laugh and stay in relationship.
Jesus is telling Peter and the early church and us – That’s the way to be.
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