Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

by Bear Wade

Matthew 18:21-35
(Proper 19-Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost)
analysis by Cathy Lessmann

21Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, 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. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27Out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But 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.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him. ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

DIAGNOSIS: Giving Up on Forgiveness

Step 1-Initial Diagnosis: Keeping Track
Peter illustrates the chronic, beastly problem we all suffer; we may be willing to accept God’s forgiveness for ourselves, but we don’t act likewise toward our neighbors. When we are wronged, we seek recompense. They owe us! Even if we realize we should forgive, we are annoyed with having to forgive repeatedly — even for the same offense. So we establish a tracking system. How many times do I have to forgive someone? Seven times? There’s got to be a limit.

Step 2-Advanced Diagnosis: Off-track
The limitations we exercise in our practice of forgiveness also prescribe a heart that is limited. “If you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart,” then you have a problem. Our hearts prefer the Law of recompense and retribution over mercy management. Our keeping track signals that our hearts are off-track from Jesus’ management style.

Step 3-Final Diagnosis: Lost Track Of
Operating within legal parameters of forgiveness (left-handed forgiveness) is, of course, an option. But it is not an option that leaves us forgiven. When we choose the legal route, we leave God with no alternative. God respects our choice, and when it’s time to “settle accounts,” we are asked to “pay what we owe,” using the modus operandi of the law of retribution and recompense. But we cannot pay what we owe, and are left bankrupt. So God “closes our accounts” according to the Law. Just as the wicked servant in the parable was “delivered to the jailers” (v. 34), so do we find ourselves locked away in death.

PROGNOSIS: The Forgiveness that Doesn’t Give Up on Us

Step 4-Initial Prognosis: Tracked Down-by God
However, as the Lord in the parable has pity on the servant, releases him and forgives his debt, so God, too, doesn’t give up on us, has pity on us, and seeks us out. He rescues us from the judgment of the Law. The cost of his debt-forgiveness leads the Christ to shoulder both our debt and its consequences. Nonetheless, Jesus sets no limits to the amount of indebtedness he will take on. He accepts it all, including the inevitable consequences of death and separation from God. God’s raising Jesus from the dead signals not only that the debt is canceled, but that we share with Christ in his return to life and to the Father’s good pleasure.

Step 5-Advanced Prognosis: In Jesus’ Tracks
We are amazed, right down to our hearts, that God so manages to manage us with mercy. But along with that amazement comes a change in us. We begin to trust in Jesus’ kind of forgiveness (“kind forgiveness”). We are freed from the Law’s modus operandi to embrace Jesus’ way as our own. We cling to Jesus, and our clinging leads us to embrace a new vista of operating with God and with our neighbors.

Step 6-Final Prognosis: Losing Track
The impact of a changed heart is stunning. Not only are we able to cease keeping track of the number of times we forgive our brother or sister — we don’t even realize we are doing it! It has become a way of life for us. Forgiveness is disbursed with no set limits, no strings attached! No longer do we feel that we are “owed,” no longer do we bother with collecting our just retribution. We have confidence that our heavenly Father is tending to all of that for us. We can practice “mercy management” not only with those who share our mercy-management-faith (fellow Christians), but with those who are unaware of the fruits of that life-giving mercy (those without faith). Then maybe the wonder is the joy of seeing our astonishing actions leading others to seek out God’s new way of doing the business of forgiveness.


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