HOMILY FOR THE FOURTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103: 1-15; Romans 14: 1-12; Matthew 18: 21-35
The common thread that runs through this morning’s Scripture readings is forgiveness. We need to be forgiven, and just as we are forgiven by God our heavenly father, we too need to forgive. What is it about us that we need forgiveness, and to forgive others? What is it that leads us to hurt and be hurt by others, to offend and be offended by others? Only through the grace of God can we be healed and brought into a new relationship with God and our neighbor. We need to ask God for forgiveness and lay our sins at the foot of Jesus’ cross.
The Bible is full of stories in which great wrongs are done, and forgiven by the victims of the wrong and also by God himself. Think of the story of Jacob and Esau. They are reconciled when Jacob returns after an absence of 20 years, even though Jacob had stolen his dying father’s blessing from Esau. Think of King David, anointed by order of the Lord by Samuel the prophet. David connives to kill the husband of Bathsheba, so as to hide her adultery with David from her husband. God does forgive him, because he is fulfilling God’s purposes for the tribes of Israel. The Bible is also full of stories in which mercy and compassion take the place of revenge and hardness of heart. This is at the core of Jesus’ ministry
We have known the story of Joseph and his brothers probably since we were children and went to Sunday school. Joseph, his father’s eleventh son is his father’s favorite. He is detested by his older brothers, who conspire to kill him-they throw him into a dry well. However they encounter a camel caravan of Ishmaelites carrying goods to Egypt and decide to sell him. Before they can, some Midianites find Joseph, and they sell him to the caravan. Joseph’s brothers dip his coat in goat blood and take it to their father who concludes that some wild beast ate his favorite son.
Years later drought and famine drive Jacob’s children into Egypt in search of food. There they encounter their lost brother now risen to great prominence as prime minister to the pharaoh of Egypt. Joseph is kind to them and their families. Jacob joins his sons in Egypt at the age of 130; he dies in Egypt, at the age of 147, and this is where today’s Old Testament reading begins. The guilt-ridden brothers fear retribution and beg forgiveness from Joseph. He gives it willingly and graciously-he has discerned God’s purpose in what his brothers did to him: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones”.
Today’s Psalm praises the Lord as the source of forgiveness.
“Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits.
He forgives all your sins
and heals all your infirmities”
In our lives God is the ultimate source of forgiveness. Because we are created in his image we are capable of forgiving, just as God does. But do we do it as readily as God does?
“The Lord is full of compassion and mercy
slow to anger and of great kindness”
Compassion and mercy are distinguishing attributes of God. Do we exercise compassion and mercy as often as we could?
“He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
nor rewarded us according to our wickedness”
Certainly God’s compassion and mercy are open to us, but do we exercise these in our dealings with the men and women around us? I am afraid we either don’t or don’t as often as we should.
Humans tend to be intolerant. St. Paul addresses this trait of ours in today’s reading from the letter to the Romans. From the very beginning, there were differences in practices between various groups of believers in Jesus the Christ. Paul remarks: “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables”. Today some meat eaters scorn vegetarians, just as some vegetarians and vegans look down on the devourers of double bacon cheeseburgers. This was a problem in the communities St. Paul worked with as well: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister”. Those were good questions then, and good questions today. Why do we so easily judge and condemn? Why do we look down on members of our own families. We will all be accountable to God, Paul reminds us.
Last Sunday the Gospel reading was partly about dealing with conflicts in the church. In that reading a progression was laid out in which the offended party first sought to clear the air with the offender. If that did not resolve the conflict, in a second stage the offended party accompanied by witnesses sought redress from the offender. If this expanded approach did not work, then the matter was to be put before the church as a whole. If the offender still did not repent from the wrong behavior, then an excommunication or a shunning was permitted, in which the offender was to be treated like a pagan. This Sunday’s Gospel is very different.
“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Peter asks Jesus, “As many as seven times?” No Jesus tells him-“seventy seven times”. A number of versions of the Gospel according to Matthew render Jesus’ words as seventy times seven times, in other words 490 times. In any case, it is a huge number of times, whether it be 77 or 490. Have you ever forgiven someone 490 times? How about 77 times?
Jesus goes on to tell a parable of a man who owes a king ten thousand talents-this is an absurdly large sum. In today’s money it would be billions of dollars. The king demands payment and when the man cannot pay, orders him, his wife, his children and all his property sold. The slave begs for mercy, and it is given to him. Who is this slave? It’s you and me. We have an unpayable debt with God, but he freely forgives it. In the parable, the slave then goes out and demands payment of a relatively small debt (one hundred denarii) from another slave. When that man asks for mercy and time to pay, the slave refuses to forgive the debt and has the debtor thrown in jail. The fellow slaves who witness this lack of mercy bring it to the king’s attention. The slave who owes the ten thousand talents is summoned before the king: “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 would repay his entire debt.
If we take this outcome in the context of Jesus’ injunction to forgive seventy seven (or is it 490 times?), it is not very satisfactory, is it? The lord forgives his slave only once, the slave does not forgive his debtor at all, and no one offers pardon a second time or is given a second chance at forgiveness. Don’t you think God is always ready to give us a second chance, if we repent?
Henri Lacordaire, a nineteenth century French preacher said: “Do you want to be happy for a moment? Seek revenge. Do you want to be happy always? Forgive.” What are the implications of forgiving. What does it entail? Let’s make one thing clear, it does not mean accepting the damage wrought by a wrong or an evil that you have suffered. It does not entail accepting a wrong or an injustice done to you passively or with indifference. Neither does it mean suppressing the anger that you may rightfully feel.
Anger is normal and natural-it is a defense against a threat to your life, to your wellbeing or to your dignity. It is, however, an obstacle to learning to forgive when it degenerates and becomes hatred, resentment or vindictiveness. Anger needs to be let out, shared, expressed so that it does not fester. We know that victims of abuse, oppression or of crime very often internalize the damage done them, and in turn become abusive, oppressive, and even criminal. That is why it becomes necessary to learn to forgive. That does not mean that we condone crimes, or forego reparations. That does not mean that we forget. Nonetheless we need to break the descending spiral of retribution, the deforming chains of victimhood, the hatred and thirst for revenge that can only be wiped away by forgiving. If you do not learn to forgive you risk being hurt forever. You also risk becoming a victimizer, a doer of ill, and losing your soul in a pit of hatred and thirst for revenge.
If we are to live our lives in loving relationships with others, we need to be continually forgiving. Think of all the small and large aggravations of family life, of being a friend, and having friends, of living in a society where rule of law and justice is imperfect which demand that we forgive. You will find that learning how to forgive is going to make your life a lot smoother. You will also come to realize that just as God forgives us and makes us whole, so we too in forgiving participate in the nature of God, and come closer to him. We strengthen our own wholeness.
If you have a Book of Common Prayer at hand, turn to page 816, and pray the prayer For our Enemies
O God the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
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