Matthew 18:21-35; Romans 14:1-12
21 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?” 22 Jesus said to
him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished
to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed
him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 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. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have
patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the
lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 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.’ 29 Then his fellow slave
fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But
he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the
debt. 31 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. 32 Then
his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that
debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your
fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to
be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do
to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over
opinions. 2 Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only
vegetables. 3 Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who
abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed
them. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own
lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make
5 Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be
alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. 6 Those who observe the day,
observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since
they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and
give thanks to God.
7 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8 If we live, we live to
the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we
die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might
be Lord of both the dead and the living.
10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise
your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11 For
it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
12 So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
Sermon Forgiveness and Community
Good morning! The last church I served was located about 25-30 miles
southeast of Pittsburgh, in a little town called Belle Vernon, PA. One of the
reasons I chose to serve as their interim pastor was my own personal connection to
the community. A big chunk of my family was from that town. My grandmother
lived her entire life in and around that town. My dad lived most of his life there. I
even lived there for about eleven years.
Lots of people in the congregation knew my grandmother—a couple people
had even taught school with Grandma. One of my dad’s high school classmates
was on the Session. My dad had even played his bagpipes at the church. It was
really neat to feel so connected. The only problem was that this church was a little
over 40 miles from my apartment. It was a lot of driving. Especially after a three-
hour Session meeting! Fortunately, I was only required to be in the office on
Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and of course, Sundays for worship.
One of the really weird AND rewarding things about that call was officiating
funerals. I officiated a lot of services at Ferguson’s Funeral Home—which is where
many of my family were laid out, including Grandma, including my dad. I was
there for more funerals than I can count. It was a big family.
The funeral home was purchased in 1954 by Shelby Ferguson, Sr. He ran
most of my family’s funerals until the point that he turned operations over to his
son, Shelby, Jr. By the time my dad died, Shelby Sr. was completely retired and
suffering from dementia.
Shelby Sr. died while I was serving the church in Belle Vernon. His viewing
was on a Friday. I really wanted to go and pay my respects, but it was my day off.
And I was tired. And I didn’t want to drive an hour each way, only to spend 15
minutes at the funeral home.
I asked Charissa for advice. She said, “you don’t have to do everything. You
don’t have to say yes to everything.” She also pointed out Shelby Jr. was a
professional acquaintance, not a personal friend. She suggested that I write him a
note, which I did the following week.
This is what Peter is doing in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew. He
wants to know just how much he has to forgive someone who has sinned against
him. He wants a number. A number that’s easy to grasp, like seven. Instead, Jesus
comes back with a much larger number, seventy-seven. In fact, in some
translations, Jesus says seventy times seven. That’s a lot of forgiveness.
Remember, most people in Jesus’ time aren’t used to dealing with really big
numbers. The culture didn’t have the concept of zero, so multiplying large
numbers might have seemed incomprehensible. Forgiving someone seventy-seven
times might have been comprehensible, but 490 times is a bit of a stretch.
Just to drive the point home, Jesus offers a little parable about a king who
wished to settle accounts with his slaves. One slave owed him 10,000 talents, yet
the king forgave the debt. Later, that same slave met another slave, who owed the
first slave 100 denarii. The first slave would not forgive his debtor.
We get a relative sense of the amounts of debt, and that’s important. Anyone
know how much a denarius was worth? What about a talent?
A denarius was the equivalent of a day’s wages in Jesus’ time. A debt of 100
denarii is no small debt, but it is a debt that can be calculated. It’s maybe three- or
A talent is a measure of silver. A Greek talent is approximately 26 kilograms
or 57 pounds. It would also be about one cubic foot of pure silver. As of Thursday,
when I wrote this sermon, silver was going for $27.00 an ounce or $868.05 per
kilogram. So, if a talent is about 26 kilos and the slave owed 10,000 talents, that’s
over $225 million in today’s terms.
In Jesus’ time, a talent was worth about 6,000 denarii—6,000 days’ wages.
Multiply that by 10,000 and you get 60 million days’ wages. Whether you use the
figure from Jesus’ time or whether you translate it into current values, the amount
is astounding. It’s almost incalculable. And the king is willing to cancel the debt.
Of course, this is hyperbole. Jesus is speaking in broad terms so that
everyone gets the point: God is willing and able to forgive us. And as a forgiven
people, we are called to forgive others. We have to do this if we want to live in
harmony and community with one another.
This is also the background for our reading from Paul’s letter to the
congregation at Rome. These early worshiping communities were comprised of
faithful Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah and Gentiles who converted
to this new thing. Remember, they didn’t even call themselves Christians at the
time that Paul wrote this letter.
This was a really difficult situation. They weren’t sure how Gentile converts
could be invited into the congregations. Would Gentiles have to convert to Judaism
first? If so, all the men would have to be circumcised. Also, every Gentile convert
would have to adopt a kosher diet.
How many of you would be willing to give up pork and shellfish?
How many of you would be willing to give up pepperoni pizza and
cheeseburgers? Or a good meatball hoagie?
To put it another way: If I preached a sermon where I told you that you had
to keep kosher, how many of you would start looking for another church? How
many of you would ask me, “Pastor, do I really have to do that?” Or maybe you’d
be like Peter, and you’d ask me just how much penance you’d need to do for God
to forgive your petty sins.
Now I don’t mean to trivialize the struggles of these early Christian
communities. While their differences might seem small to us now, the members of
those communities had trouble seeing past their differences. If the leaders and the
members of these early congregations didn’t also have the Holy Spirit with them,
their differences might have torn them apart.
As I read Paul’s words to the Romans, I think of the divisions in our own
society. We are divided by race and ethnicity. We are divided by wealth and
income. We are divided by geography and standards of living. And very clearly,
we are divided by our politics. It’s an election year, and if you don’t think we’re
that divided, I urge you to spend five or ten minutes on social media. There’s an
awful lot of ugliness on display.
I think it’s fair to hold candidates accountable for what they say and do. I
think that anyone who runs for office needs to have thick skin and be able to roll
with the punches—even if sometimes the attacks are unfair. The candidates are
grownups and they have an idea of what they’re getting into.
However, over the last several years, I’ve seen more and more attacks on
people who vote for the wrong guy or the wrong party. This is particularly evident
on social media, where we attack people for holding the wrong beliefs. We label
people on the other side: liberals call conservatives fascists and Nazis.
Conservatives use words like “libtards.” That’s liberal retard if you’re not familiar
with the insult. I’ve also seen postings that say “Democrats hate America.”
It’s easy to say that this stuff is just part of the campaign season, that it will
go away. But we live in a world where the campaigns never end. What’s more, it’s
hard to reconcile with other people once the insults have moved from the
candidates to the voters.
The truth is, we hold on to our anger. We hold on to the hurt we feel when
we’ve been insulted. We always remember the grievances. For us Christians, this is
a theological problem. When we hold on to the hurt and the grievances over
politics, we are forgetting our identity in Christ. We are forgetting the savior who
calls us to mend the breaches and reconcile relationships. When we elevate our
racial, ethnic, or political identities, we devalue our identity as Christians. We are
and must be Christians first.
This is what Paul is talking about in the letter to the Romans. Paul is urging
the congregation at Rome to hold on to their core identity:
7 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8 If we live, we
live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live
or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived
again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
He is urging the members of that community cling to their identity in Christ, rather
than their individual identities as Jews and Gentiles.
Still, once we’ve been hurt or insulted, forgiveness and reconciliation are
difficult. Part of the problem lies in the way we hear the word, forgive. When we
hear this word in English, we think of forgiveness as an intellectual act; we simply
forget the hurt, as if we’d never been wronged. But that’s not exactly how the
disciples, or the members of Matthew’s community, would have heard the word
aphiemi, the Greek word that’s most commonly translated as “forgive.”
When Jesus says “forgive,” people would have heard Jesus say, “let go,”
“send away,” “cancel,” “pardon,” “leave,” “give up,” “divorce,” and “abandon;”
and they would also have heard, “forgive (debts)” and “forgive (sins).” 1 According
to New Testament scholar Maria Mayo:
Forgiveness… had an active or outward character and was not only a matter
of changing one’s mind or feelings (an inward action) …. In most cases, the
verb depicts a concrete action, usually taken toward another person. In other
words, [forgiveness] is something one does (words spoken, action taken,
physical things altered) rather than something one feels. 2
To love God is to show our love through our actions; to love our neighbor is to
demonstrate that love through our concrete actions. Forgiveness, like love, is about
what we do. Forgiveness is necessary for reconciliation and it’s necessary for
communities to flourish. This is true for churches, communities, and for our nation;
to love God is to work for reconciliation of all people.
As Christians, we have to model the way forward. We have to practice love
for members of this congregation and for the larger community. We were created
in God’s divine and perfect love, so we must practice that love for everyone else,
as Jesus calls us to do.
I would also remind you that, as Presbyterians, we believe that God alone is
Lord of conscience. That means that God is acting in our lives and informing our