8/14/16 – Matthew 18:21-35 – Is Limitless Mercy Really Limitless?
Posted on August 15, 2016 | Posted by Pastor Daniel
Pastor Daniel’s sermon for August 14, 2016.
Text: Matthew 18:21-35
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?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 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. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 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.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. 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. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’
To the best of my knowledge, the following story is true:
Many years ago there was a pastor in a rural midwest congregation. And one day a man, a parishioner, came in to the office. He was all torn up. There had been a fight between the man and his wife the previous night. Actually, there had been a lot of fighting recently, but this was worse. It went on and on with harsh words that led to yelling and eventually the man hit his wife.
And now, he was devastated, crushed, as he confessed this sin to the pastor. I’m not sure what all the pastor said. Whether promises were made by the man to seek counseling or therapy. But at the end of the conversation, the pastor announced forgiveness of sins for the man.
The next day the pastor was in the local coffee shop and heard that the previous night the man had hit his wife again. The pastor jumped in his truck and sped off towards the house. He pulled into the driveway just as the man was walking out. Getting right up in the man’s face, the pastor said with more force than I’ve ever mustered “I bind your sins to you.” “You can’t do that,” the man replied, “you’re a pastor.” “I can and I do. I bind your sins to you.” And then he got back in his truck and drove away.
Forgiveness is a nice concept, isn’t it. We teach it to our children. We tell them to say sorry, and then we tell them to say I forgive you, hug one another, and go back to playing. Forgiveness is nice. Occasionally, we are amazed by larger stories of forgiveness. A mother who forgives the murderer of her child. A nation that forgives the oppression of its former colonizers. These stories inspire us and tug at our heart strings.
But, often, it feels like forgiveness isn’t the right way to go. Sometimes it feels like grace is out of place, like mercy is naïve, like love is out of line.
Because this world is complicated. What is the role of forgiveness in Syria, or on the streets of Baltimore? What is the role of mercy in Palestine? How does grace fit in with an abusive husband? Was that pastor right to bind that man’s sins? Was he right to offer forgiveness in the first place?
We wonder because we worry that mercy becomes a license for sin. Once forgiven, did that abusive husband feel free to abuse again? We want to be merciful, but we don’t want to be doormats, or for anyone else to be either. And, in our complex world, it feels sometimes like mercy for one is injustice for another. To forgive can actually be the lazy way out, if you think about it, a form of sticking our heads in the sand. How are we to figure this all out?
So Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Peter sees the complexity of this world. He sees how sometimes we don’t need mercy so much as we need to be held to account. If your kids don’t clean their room, they don’t get ice cream. That’s just how it goes. Peter gets it. Surely, he figures, there must be a limit to mercy, but what is it?
It’s pretty similar to the question Sharla Saunders asks us in this “Ask a Pastor” series. “Is it possible to extend forgiveness yet protect oneself from being wounded by someone with a history of wounding?” she asks. “How does one know where the balance lies [between grace and healthy boundaries]?” Hmm. Apparently Andy’s been forgetting to unload the dishwasher. “What does God think about our ‘setting boundaries?’” Sharla asks.
Well, Jesus’ response to Peter will come as good news to Andy, but a rather unique challenge to the rest of us. “How often should I forgive, seven times?!” Peter asks incredulously. “Not seven times,” Jesus replies, “but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Grace, forgiveness, mercy are limitless. You can almost hear Peter saying “But, but, …” And you can hear him saying it, because you’re saying it, too. I am. But what if they abuse that mercy? But what if they need to be held to account? But, what about the complexity of this world?
Jesus doesn’t seem to care. He doesn’t address the complexity of this world. He just isn’t interested in all of our “but, but” questions. There are other places in scripture that do take up some of those very specific questions, those boundary questions. Moses’ father-in-law advises him to create a boundary so that he might not burn out. Abraham and God hammer out a compromise on the fate of Sodom. Jesus advises his disciples not to waste too much energy on those who won’t hear the gospel. Shoot, even in the passage just before this one, Jesus uncharacteristically gives straightforward step-by-step advise on how to deal with a sinner in the community.
But here Jesus is adamant. In the Bible, seventy-seven times is like saying a gazillion times. There are no limits to mercy. There are no limits to grace. There are no limits to forgiveness. Now, perhaps, if creating a boundary is a way of being gracious to another, then fine. If holding someone to account is a way of loving that person, then fine. Although, if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, I’d bet our boundaries have to do with our own desire to be rid of someone as much as our concern for their well-being. Which might be why Jesus insists that inherently, there is no limit to grace, no limit to mercy. And any attempt to limit what God has made limitless. Any attempt to turn forgiveness into a punch card – you only get this much and then you’re cut off. Any attempt to limit grace is, well, unacceptable.
Which can be a pretty hard pill to swallow. And so Jesus tells a parable. There is a man who is owed some money. A hundred denarii, which would be about five thousand dollars today. No small sum. And the man wants his money back. So he places the borrower in debtor’s prison until he can repay.
So far, this seems totally fair. But notice the orientation between the lender and the borrower. The lender stands over the borrower, he stands in a place of judgement.
There is an implied social order when it comes to forgiveness. When I forgive you, I am in a position of power, a position over you. I have something to grant or to withhold. And so quickly that goes to our heads. We imagine ourselves like judges clothed in black scratching our chin and sitting above a begging, pleading perpetrator, ready to grant mercy out of our own goodness or cast down judgement out of our own righteousness. The decision is ours, and we have every right to go either way with it.
When we imagine ourselves this way, it’s easy to understand Peter’s question. What limits should I put on forgiveness? As I look down on this one begging for mercy, how much should I offer? This isn’t about knowing the right way to be merciful. It isn’t about wondering if standard issue forgiveness will only enable the other. This isn’t about tough love. It’s about wondering when we can withhold what we see as rightfully ours. It’s about exercising our place over another.
But Jesus invites us to imagine ourselves differently. See, here’s the twist: the lender in this parable is a borrower himself. And his debt is much larger. Ten thousand talents. Now I tried to do the math, and hopefully didn’t lose track of a zero or two, but that’s about $3 trillion. Or, to put it more bluntly, that debt cannot be repaid. The man’s only hope is that a king who is audacious enough to give so greatly will also be bold enough to forgive so greatly. And the king is.
So now things look different. The man is not a judge sitting high above a begging subject. He is mercy-seeker among mercy-seekers. The one who hears another beg for modest mercy is one who has received great mercy. As Luther said, we’re all beggars.
So when Peter asks a “should” question – How often should I forgive? – Jesus answers with his own “should” question, this a rhetorical one from the mouth of the merciful king. “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” As beneficiaries of limitless mercy, should we not also be merciful?
This world is so complicated and cruel. It’s easy to get taken advantage of. And it’s even easier to become suspicious of being taken advantage of. It’s no wonder we hold mercy close to our chest, reluctant to hand it out. And that’s not to mention all the complicating factors that might make the more straight-forward sort of mercy actually the less loving thing to do.
Jesus doesn’t dissect the complications for us. But he does give us a starting point. As we wade through the murky waters of how to handle this dangerous thing called limitless grace, let’s start by remembering that we are not the holders of mercy. No, first and foremost we are the recipients of mercy. Recipients of so great a mercy. We all are.
I don’t know if that answers the question. Probably not. Sharla wants to know how we can protect ourselves while still being gracious. Sharla wants to know if boundaries are something God endorses. Sharla wants to know a lot! Who came up with this Ask a Pastor thing anyway?
But Sharla asks good questions. God doesn’t want us to be victims. God doesn’t want us to burn out. God doesn’t want injustice to run rampant because we all just forgive oppressors without ever addressing their harm.
But as we think about setting boundaries in this world. As we consider creating a barrier between us and another who has harmed us and might do it again. As we try to figure out if tough love really is love in a given situation, let us remember that our God grants mercy without limits. Our God’s grace is unbounded. Our God’s forgiveness knows no ends. And we have received that grace. We have received that mercy. We have been forgiven and will be again. Thank God for that!
Let’s start there. Let’s always start there. Amen.