Sunday message: Jesus and forgiveness (First live-streamed worship)

4th Sunday of Lent, March 22, 2020

Matthew 18:21-35

I don’t know about you, but it strikes me that there is a strong similarity between our current situation and what we hear in the passage that we just read. Like the COVID-19 disease, we are caught off guard. How is it possible that Jesus could say that we need to forgive seven times seventy, an almost infinite number? Jesus wanted to stress the importance of forgiveness. Lewis B. Smedes said: “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”  [i] The grudges we hold make us prisoners. Do you have grudges against someone? Do I hold grudges against people? How much is this world filled with people and nations holding grudges against one another? They want to duke it out. They want to make sure that they can get even. How about our attitudes? When we get to our attitudes, it could be someone else’s attitude towards you that you just have no way of handling it. There simply is no way you find in making that person change their attitude.

These questions and illustrations that I’ve brought up as examples show just how irreconcilable we as a human race can be. We almost make it our hobby to find fault with others so that we can’t get along. Oh yes, it’s true, Ben acts in ugly ways towards his dear and loving wife, Sally. How can Sally forgive Ben? He seems to have no intent on changing his behaviour.

See, this is what Peter’s question to Jesus was about. He wanted to know how long a person should forgive until they don’t have to anymore. “Is there such a point?”, Peter wanted to know. Then Jesus replies, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Other versions of the Bible translate the original version as “Seventy times seven”, in other words, 490 times.

Now, this must have made Peter look silly for asking. He shouldn’t be asking how many times does someone have to do something wrong to you until you can stop forgiving.

Then we hear the parable that speaks for itself. A person (a slave according to our translation) is in huge debt with his owner. The owner wants his money back. The slave says he can’t right now, similar to today’s situation, and the owner says the slave should be sold along with his family to pay off the debt. Then the slave pleads, please, I will pay you back, just be patient with me. The owner is filled with pity and writes off all the debt. Wow, that is huge!

But then, this same slave turns around, has an underling who owes him, grabs him by the throat to get everything back that he had owed. The same thing repeats itself, the “underling” asks for patience, he’ll pay back his owner, but the owner has already forgotten the amount of debt that was forgiven him. “I want every dollar and cent back!” The underling isn’t able to repay him and gets thrown into jail.

What is the gist of this story? Someone once said that Jesus paid a debt He didn’t owe because we owed a debt we couldn’t pay. He did it once and for all.

 During Lent, on the fourth Sunday of Lent, as we approach the time when Jesus was crucified before He died, was buried and rose again on the third day, there appears to be one thing that strikes us.

Isn’t there the big theme of forgiveness? How much do we have to forgive?

Do we ever get what that was all about? Our sin has been paid off. It seems like we can also act like the underling because we tend to hold grudges, don’t we?

The bigger question, however, is: Does God hold grudges against us? Does God want us to pay off every single bit of debt we have with Him?

Perhaps we would want to answer with a definite “no.” That’s logical, God doesn’t want us to make things right, it’s already done for us.

Now, I have a very obvious issue to use as a comparison, and it is lying right before us. Are the recent events that have struck the world God’s way to punish us or to get even with us?

Before we rush to say “no, not at all,” I would dare to ask, what actions do we have surrounding the pandemic? Do we feel done in, robbed, or just simply angry? Is there an undefined grudge that lies shallow in our psyche, thinking that this is an act of God to fix the world. “Those sinners” we might want to point out. Or we might say it serves this world right that this is happening. It’s so unfair that I have to lose my livelihood, just because of how quickly things have changed lately.

Whatever our reactions are, I want to lay a challenge in our midst. If there are these grumbly thoughts among us, is our implication not perhaps that this is, in fact, an act of God, punishing this world? If there is any of this in our hearts, we just need to look at our parable for today. The parable teaches us that there is no end to God’s forgiveness. We are completely forgiven, even before we come before God.

How about seeing the pandemic with different eyes? How about turning away from seeing this as a lesson of sorts, or even a punishment, or unfair treatment? There is not a single bit of “tit-for-tat” in what’s happening. Jesus came to this world to wipe that out, once and for all. Maybe God the father in heaven is weeping for our humanity having to experience all the pain and suffering from the coronavirus.

There is no need for one nation to take revenge on another. We are all in this together. We are allowed to hold hands. This that is unfolding around us, might just well be an opportunity for us to reach out to one another in tangible ways.

The things that structures, institutions and systems have held in place, are all grinding to a halt. Perhaps there is one thing that is happening. Perhaps we are being made vulnerable by these circumstances. Vulnerable like Jesus became. Vulnerable right up to the cross in self-sacrifice. Jesus demonstrating God’s forgiving nature, and making us free and loving and kind.

Do we not have a wonderful demonstration of forgiveness in this parable? Are we not called to let go of our pet-peeves about each other? Why would Jesus tell this parable of the unforgiving servant?

Is it a demonstration for us to see and to go and do likewise? God wants to set prisoners free. To not duke it out, even if we feel we have all the right to do it. To see that there is no way that God is getting even with us through the pandemic. God isn’t teaching us a lesson. That’s not why things have gone awry. God’s forgiveness sets us free, opens up our hands to give, softens our hearts to have compassion, freeing us up to self-isolate so that others can live.

That seems to be what it’s all about. God is spreading love into a world that is hurting, opening up new possibilities. It is only a forging God who can turn a mess into a message, a test into a testimony, a trial into a triumph, a victim into a victory. [ii] Jesus is indeed all about God’s complete forgiveness.



Copyright 2020 – Heinrich Grosskopf, Minister of Dayspring Presbyterian Church

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