Kenora Proper – Ordinary 24A Pentecost + 15 Trinity + 14
13 September 2020
God of deep compassion, you welcome the weak and free us from the bondage of sin. Break the cycle of judgement and violence through Jesus our forgiveness, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Have you ever noticed that we, as humans, are obsessed with boundaries, especially around the ideas of sin, forgiveness of sin, aka absolution? And when people offend or sin against us, we wonder how often are we obligated to forgive them.
So, really, we’re trying to establish a double standard. We want to be forgiven infinitely by God for the errors, sins, and omissions that we commit against God, against creation, and against each other, but at the same time, we want to know, down to the decimal place, how many times we are required to forgive each other.
And so, we see the disciples, those closest to Jesus, actually come to him to find out how often we need to forgive each other. “21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Mt 18:21-22)
So, I find it interesting that in the face of God’s infinite love, mercy, and forgiveness that we want to place limits, we want to know the boundaries of where we’re able to stop forgiving each other.
And in response to Peter’s inquiry, today, Jesus tells us the parable of the slave who receives mercy but then is incapable of extending that same sense of mercy to those around him.
“The servant fell on his knees before [the king]. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.” (Mt 18:26-28)
The debt is cancelled, expunged outright, wiped from the slates, but we’re not even sure the slave heard that, in the idea that his debt was being called due, and its definitely not reflected in his actions toward his fellow slaves.
Now another interesting simile is how Jesus uses the imagery of financial debt to describe God’s forgiveness, in general. “23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.” (Mt. 18:23-25)
Peter isn’t asking Jesus about financial debt forgiveness. Rather he’s asking about forgiving personal grievances between one party and another.
So, I wonder if it’s because we can more easily understand financial debt and the burden it places on each of our lives? We’re familiar with ‘the eternal round’ of taxes, rent, and credit card debt, just to say the least, and yet our world continues to encourage each of us into such patterns of financial bondage.
When we talk about sin, errors, and omissions, whether against God or against each other, then it’s far more difficult for us to quantify the debt, isn’t it?
And there’s a reason why we begin our time together with the Brief Order of Confession and Forgiveness, so that we are able to remember that it’s because of Jesus’ sacrifice, because of his passion, death, and resurrection that we’re even able to lift our heads out of the patterns and ruts of our lives to see the salvation, the way of salvation that is already ours.
Because together we’re able to seek God’s forgiveness for what we’ve done and what we’ve left undone, so that we may re-enter the world filled with this state of divine forgiveness and grace, and extend that love to all whom we encounter.
And it asks us to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, to forgive not as we are forgiven by each other, but as we are forgiven before the throne of God.
During the Early Modern Era, and the Late Middle Ages, so, about 500 or more years ago, the thought of the day was, on our deathbeds, to confess the sins that are on our hearts, minds, and souls in order to more easily gain heaven. But people would also watch the way you died as a way to gauge your eventual destination of heaven or hell.
So, people would watch the way you died, to see whether it was peaceful or not.
The thought was that if your death was peaceful, then heaven was assured as your destination, but if your death was in pain, or discomfort, or even fever, then heaven wasn’t considered, by those who watched, to be your eventual destination.
At the same time, largely from the 14th to the 19th century, the thought of the day was to make a plaster mask of the newly deceased’s face, and sometimes hands, especially if you were someone famous or notable. Some of the more famous death masks created are Dante Alighieri, Martin Luther, Napoleon, and even Abraham Lincoln, just to name a few.
Now, I admit making a death mask of someone is an unusual practice (although the Victorian habit of posing and photographing the deceased is much more unusual), and Dan Brown’s novel Inferno talks about Dante’s mask, at the same time, it continually refences his most famous literary work of the same name (Inferno), as well as the Botticelli painting also based on Dante’s book that shows, in Botticelli’s imagination, the various punishments that await within the circles of hell.
And from all of this famous attention focused on our eventual end destination, even before the lives of Botticelli and Dante, we automatically assume that heaven is a pipe dream, and the other is all but assured.
But we’re able to return to Jesus’ parable. We’re able to see that the king, the master offers forgiveness in the face of massive, and irredeemable debt. He takes pity on the slave and spares not only his life, the lives of his family, and he forgives the massive financial debt.
“23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. … 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.” (Mt18:23-24, 27)
So, the question remains, how will we, how do we deal with each other?
Jesus, and God, encourages us to forgive not just once, not just seven times, not just 77 times, but always because when we fail to forgive, we pass judgement on the other person. And when we pass judgement then we will be judged by the same standard when we stand before the king, when we stand before the throne of God.
God and Jesus offer only forgiveness, and love, in all circumstances. But we, like a child being asked to decide their own punishment, we take it to the extreme. We ground ourselves, we deny ourselves our favourite pastime, we take away our internet access, and we do this with serious contrition, and repentance, like the slave begging for mercy and patience.
And when we’re forgiven, then how do we carry that grace, that love, that mercy and that forgiveness into the world? How do we treat or deal with each other? Or do we, like the servant, forget that serous contrition and repentance?
“28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. … 32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” (Mt. 18:28-34)
God’s mercy and forgiveness is assured to and for each one of us, just by asking. Yet, and at the same time, we need to ask, and together we do this, weekly, in the Brief Order of Confession and Forgiveness, in the Confession and Absolution.
The slave didn’t consider his debt to the master, the king, until it was called upon to be paid in full. Those in the Middle Ages, and Early Modern Era considered all debt to be soul killing, not revelling in the love of God, which is why, Luther, as one of the primary forces of the Reformation was so closely watched, as he died of a heart attack, away from his loved ones. After all, if he died in agony, then all of the work of the reformation would have been considered ‘bunk’ and people would have reverted to older patterns of worship.
But God’s love, God’s forgiveness, and God’s grace are real. They’re real in the person and teachings of Jesus who dies for each one of us, because the debt we carry is too large to even think about. At the same time, we are encouraged to extend this same pattern of forgiveness, love, and grace to all whom we meet in the world.
We don’t know what burdens others are carrying. We don’t know what their life’s journey has been like, up to now. Perhaps they need that word of God’s love even more that we can imagine because of their burdens.
But remember Jesus calls to each one of us: “28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”” (Mt 11:28-30)
God’s forgiveness of us is infinite, so our forgiveness of each other needs to strive to be as compassionate as that of God’s to each one of us, every day.