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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

March 18, 2018

 Divine Mathematics

Genesis 33:1-11; Matthew 18:18-25

            Somebody hurt you.  Probably somebody you love.  Maybe a few days ago, maybe, for some of you, even years ago.  That hurt went deep enough to lodge itself in your memory.  Sometimes you can be surprised by it; it still has the power to hurt you.  If that is the case for you, there is good news, because all of us sustain hurts along the road of life.  All of us find ourselves hurt, and also are people who hurt others.  I think that is why the middle of the Lord’s Prayer could be the hardest part of the prayer for us to pray, genuinely and honestly.  It is also why “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” is at the very center of the prayer.  Forgiveness, or the lack of it, can literally be the balancing point in our lives. 

            Forgiveness is not easy for a host of reasons.  First, Jesus seems to have known that before you have the power to offer forgiveness to someone else, you must first acknowledge your own need for forgiveness and mercy.  And we do not always like to do that.  When we are wronged, it seems so besides the point, and what we want in the moment of our hurt.  There are probably times when we like to offer forgiveness, usually when we do not have to acknowledge our own need for it.  There is some warped kind of power in such a transaction.  Real forgiveness is tough, because it always begins with the need to ask for it for yourself, and we hate to be so indebted.

            This prayer is prayed differently in different places.  I always laugh to myself at weddings or funerals when people are gathered from all kinds of traditions, and we say the Lord’s Prayer.  You hear people saying, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” as Presbyterians cough, and say, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  I did a funeral a few weeks ago at First Presbyterian Church in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and they pray, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”  The difference comes from the meaning of the word in Aramaic that Jesus originally spoke, which means literally “debts,” what we owe to God or to someone else.

            I love the notion of “sins and those who sin against us,” because metaphorically this clearly is what Jesus was getting at in the prayer.  But I also like the specificity of telling it like Jesus originally told it.  His prayer begins with the acknowledgement that all of us who pray have debts, things that we owe.  So we come into this prayer admitting to God that our books are out of balance, and that when it comes to the matter of forgiveness, we are in the red.  In fact, with God, most of us have run up a debt so large that all we can do is beg for God’s mercy.

            I have never been, thank goodness, so far in my life, in a bankruptcy court, but I am told that in the olden days when a judge entered the court to render a decision on bankruptcy, he would begin by saying, “All debtors rise.”  That is the point of Jesus’ prayer!  We are not some of us, but all of us, debtors.  John puts it like this: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”  I think part of the reason it is so hard to deal with forgiveness in real life settings, is because it is so humiliating to admit the truth.  The truth is we owe God so much that we can never hope to repay.  We are beggars, debtors, pleading for God’s mercy.  I had a friend many years ago who said that “if Jesus is ever going to be your teacher, Jesus first needs to be your Savior.”  That acknowledges, on our part, that we stand in need of a Savior; indeed, that we are desperate for one.

            Here is even the tougher thing about forgiveness as Jesus talks about it.  There is apparently no limit to how much God expects us to offer it to others.  That is the whole point of the parable Jesus tells in this morning’s passage in Matthew.  Peter’s question that gives rise to the parable was really a magnanimous question.  “How often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?”  Then Peter asks, “As many as seven times?”  Some rabbinical teaching widely accepted at the time said that the number “three” was what you owed your brother or sister who had wronged you.  Here is the saying from ancient rabbinical teaching: “Forgive someone three times, then if they wrong you a fourth, cut them out of your life.”  From one vantage point, Peter was doubling sound rabbinical teaching and adding another for good measure.  Seven was also the number of times that Jacob bowed down to Esau when they had their reunion, twenty-plus years after Jacob had tricked Esau, wronged him, and stolen from him the blessing from his father, Isaac.

            Jesus responds to Peter with a mathematical notion.  This is one of the places with these ancient texts of the Bible where there is endless debate about what they say.  Not “seven times,” Matthew here says, “but I tell you seventy-seven.”  Other translations say, “Not seven times, but seven times seventy.”  Take your pick!  Seventy-seven or four hundred ninety, either way, that is a lot to forgive someone who has wronged you or hurt you.  The point that Jesus is trying to make here is that we are to forgive as many times as we find ourselves harboring bitterness or judgement in our hardened hearts.

            Then as if that is not enough challenge, Jesus shares the parable on the heels of this that gets to the gist of how God does math, which is why this morning’s sermon is titled, “Divine Mathematics.”  We call it Jesus’ Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. 

            We are told at the beginning, a servant owed his master ten thousand talents.  Now how a servant could amass a debt this large in Jesus’ day boggles the mind, but that was the whole point of why Jesus shared His parables.  He wanted to jar us into a new recognition.  A talent was a value of money worth fifteen year’s wages for a laborer.  Assuming a laborer might make ten thousand dollars a year, that makes a talent one hundred fifty thousand dollars in today’s arbitrarily decided upon currency.  (Arbitrarily, that is, by me!)  That makes ten thousand talents worth one hundred fifty million dollars!  Of course, a servant could not hope to repay a debt that large.  So the king did the only thing that the law would suggest that he do, and he prepared to take everything the man had from him, and send this man to debtors’ prison.  The slave falls on his knees and begs, “Have patience with me.”  You have to wonder – how much patience it would have taken to be repaid such a debt?  But out of pity for the man’s condition, the king forgave him all of his debt.  I cannot imagine how it would feel to be forgiven a debt that large, but wouldn’t you love to be in a relationship where a bank has the chance to help you experience what that feels like?!

            You would think this person would be so relieved, so knocked-out-grateful, so glad, that he would be full of mercy.  But on his way out of being forgiven this ridiculous sum of money, he encounters someone who owes him a hundred denarii.  (A denarii was a laborer’s wage for the day.)  He says immediately, “Pay me what you owe me.”  How much is a hundred denarii?  By my same arbitrary math, somewhere in the range, liberally, of ten thousand dollars.  Do you catch the comic nature of Jesus’ parable?  He is playing here with numbers, and we are supposed to catch the absurdity of a one hundred fifty million dollar debt, alongside a ten thousand dollar debt.  It raises the question, doesn’t it?  What kind of king would forgive a hundred fifty million dollar debt?  Of course, the answer is clear.  The kind of king who would forgive us for killing the most lovely Son that anyone could ever give, the only Son He had to give.

            Once we have been forgiven such an incredible debt, what kind of person would then hold a measly ten thousand dollar debt against someone else of his own kind?  Of course, you have probably figured that out too.  People like you and me who can be so small, so petty, even though we have been forgiven by Jesus, not seventy times seven, but more times in more ways than any of us could ever number.  If you fell into the trap of being outraged at the absence of mercy in the unforgiving or unmerciful servant, then you are like me.  You caught a glimpse of yourself in a distant mirror that Jesus is offering. 

            It is hard to be merciful!  But the Bible is so clear: God is merciful.  Indeed, mercy is God’s way with us.  Over one hundred fifty times in the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament, we are told that “God is merciful.”  One hundred fifty times!  And all Jesus asks of us is that we, who have received mercy from this merciful God, would extend that mercy to others, even on the occasions when we have been wronged.

            Jesus tells us at the end of this parable, what He says at the end of the Lord’s Prayer as well, “God will not forgive you, if you cannot forgive your brother or sister from your heart,” which is Jesus’ way of saying, “Be merciful and forgiving, if only for your own sake and your own soul.”  Forgiveness is the best thing the Christian religion has going for it.  I will never forget the cover story two summers ago on Time Magazine, when Dyllan Roof had come into a Bible study at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and opened fire on a group at the end of that Bible study, killing nine members of what they call “Mother Emmanuel Church” – the mother church of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  Do you remember the response of so many family members from that church?  They said, “By God’s grace, and for God’s sake, we forgive Dyllan Roof.”  It was an astounding moment when this whole country got to see Christian faith at its best, and at its most deeply authentic expression.  But that does not make forgiveness easy. 

            Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The enemy of the Gospel is always cheap grace; what the gospel is always about is costly grace.”  C.S. Lewis said, “Forgiveness is a lovely idea, until you have to forgive someone, and then you learn how tough it really is.”  Lewis said, “To be a Christian is to excuse the inexcusable in someone else, because God has excused the inexcusable in you.”  I love Mark Twain’s autobiography, where he concludes with a tirade against a certain publisher who many years ago had swindled him out of some money.  Twain wrote: “He has been dead a quarter of a century now, and I feel only compassion for him, and if I could send him a fan, I would.”

            It is hard to forgive, and it is even more difficult to be honest and truthful about our need for forgiveness, both to receive it and having received it, to offer it to others.  It requires of us a humiliating honesty with ourselves, and it requires us to admit, “I am in debt to God so deeply that I can never repay all that I owe.”  Yet all Jesus asks is that we, who have been forgiven much, become ourselves forgiving of others.

            I have a dear friend who tells a coming of age story in his own life.  He was the youngest in his family.  He had only sisters, and a Dad who was interested in different things than his Uncle Earl.  His Uncle Earl loved to fish, and my friend realized he had come of age when Uncle Earl said to him, “I want to take you fishing with me.”  My friend said he could not even sleep the night before, he was so excited at the prospect of spending the day on the lake, fishing with his Uncle Earl.  Morning came, and with eagerness, he met his Uncle Earl at the car door, as soon as he pulled up to the house, and in no time the two of them were out on a lake in a canoe, fishing.  Before long, sure enough, Uncle Earl hooked a fish, and he said to my friend, “Please get the net so we can get the fish into the boat.”  My friend, excited, stood up so quickly that suddenly the canoe started to tip one way, and he jerked to the other side to save it, and of course, the canoe capsized.  The tackle box and all of Uncle Earl’s fishing equipment sunk immediately to the bottom of the lake.  He thought to himself, “Oh, what have I done?  I am never, ever going to get to go fishing again in my life!”  He felt terrible.  Uncle Earl, when they finally righted themselves and got back into the canoe, said, “You know, when you go fishing, you have to expect that you might get wet!”  My friend said, “I felt awful, and my Uncle Earl was so gracious.  I went out that morning to learn about fishing, and instead, I learned about grace, amazing grace.”


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