A Sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 18 – Year A – 14 September 2014

John Edward Miller, Rector


Peter 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?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 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. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 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.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 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. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘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 pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”    – Matthew 18:21-35

The Collect

O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

All of the texts assigned for this Sunday are about forgiveness. In the reading from Genesis we observe Joseph forgiving his treacherous brothers even though they had wished him dead. He showed them mercy because he was mindful of the future. Joseph forgave them so that Israel could not only survive, but grow, and become what God intended his people to be. The Psalm today is a thanksgiving for the healing power of God’s mercy; the psalmist sees the LORD’s loving-kindness as the foundation for a healthy life. In Romans Paul urges members of the church to stop judging one another because all stand before the judgment seat of God, and are finally accountable to God alone. And according to Matthew, Jesus answers Peter’s question about the limits of forgiveness by saying that when it comes to showing mercy, there is no limit; it is always called for.

Strangely enough, though, Jesus then tells the disciples a parable that seems to contradict the principle he has just taught – the one about unlimited forgiveness. His story features a slave who is deeply in debt to his master.  As he is about to be thrown into debtors’ prison, the slave pleads for mercy, and that is exactly what he got. Then, after breathing a sigh of relief, the newly released debtor spies a fellow slave who owes him some money. You’d think that he’d pay it forward and let the poor guy off the hook, reflecting his sense of gratitude. But that is hardly the case; the ungrateful slave shows no mercy, and accosts the man in debt to him. When the master got wind of this ugly behavior, he became livid, and had that first slave arrested. This time, he chastises and condemns him, and had him thrown into the slammer until his debt was paid. The newer translations interpret that to mean he would be tortured, as if the loss of his freedom in jail were not harsh enough punishment.

So, it looks as though Jesus has attached a condition to receiving forgiveness: if the forgiven one doesn’t extend the same favor to others, the mercy once received is revoked. That’s what it sounds like when Jesus concludes the parable with this pronouncement: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” It’s one strike and you’re out. I’d call that a stern warning.

C. S. Lewis thought so too. In an address on forgiveness, he commented that there is a good reason why the Creed has us state, and restate, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” It does not go without saying that that a Christian always puts that belief into action. Lewis said, “the people who compiled the Creed apparently thought that this was a part of our belief which we needed to be reminded of every time we went to church. . . . To believe in the forgiveness of sins is not nearly so easy as I thought. Real belief in it is the sort of thing that very easily slips away if we don’t keep on polishing it up.”[1] Beyond repetition in liturgy, a part of the polishing process that Lewis commended is a cold-sober view of the consequences for failing to forgive. He explained:

We believe that God forgives our sins; but also that He will not do so unless we forgive other people their sins against us. There is no doubt about the second part of this statement. It is in the Lord’s Prayer; it was emphatically stated by our Lord. If you don’t forgive you will not be forgiven. No part of His teaching is clearer, and there are no exceptions to it. . . . We are to forgive them all, however spiteful, however mean, however often they are repeated. If we don’t, we shall be forgiven none of our own.[2]

In saying this, C. S. Lewis was true to the literal sense of Jesus’ parable. However, there is more than one way to understand its meaning. Parables are stories told to illustrate truths, and there is roominess in the way those truths are expressed. The details of story are often shaped to provide emphasis; literal correspondence between the “facts” contained therein and reality is not thought to be important. The message conveyed is the crucial point. So if the parable is taken literally, then the king (who corresponds to God) is remarkably ungracious. And that is clearly contrary to the God we worship as the Lord “whose property it is always to have mercy.”[3]

Let’s just say that mercy is a core value of our tradition, and forgiving is crucially important to our wellbeing. Scripture and its interpreters are unanimous about that. God is gracious; he reveals his giving nature in a multitude of ways, from the inherent goodness of the creation to the assurance that he will finally judge us with love, rather than retribution. For us this is best made known in the life and teachings of Jesus, whose dying words from the cross were, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” That last prayer of his for mercy on those who betrayed him, denied him, and put him to death was extraordinary. Jesus’ will to forgive was powered by the love of God, which goes beyond any standard of fairness or just deserts that we can construct. “To err is human; to forgive, divine,” said Alexander Pope, and he was right: forgiveness of that sort is of God. Yet by the grace of God, that is the high bar that Jesus set for us. We may all fall short of that mark, but we are expected to try.

The Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father, . . . forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” In prayer we are to ask for mercy, because we all need to be forgiven. And we are also taught to be mindful of the need to offer the grace of forgiveness to our fellow, fallible, creatures as well. The question is whether God’s forgiveness is conditional – that it depends on our matching God’s forgiveness.

C. S. Lewis was certain that it is. God’s mercy toward us hinges on the word, “if.” If we forgive, then we are forgiven; if we don’t, then we suffer the loss of God’s grace. That kind of formula has its precedents. Deuteronomic law works that way as well. But there is good news for all of us who stand before the judgment seat of God. The gospel is that we are forgiven despite our failures of nerve, our cherished resentments, our petty peeves, and our deep-seated desire for vengeance. Grace surpasses law; it exceeds our limits; it completes us and fills in our flaws.

It is true that Matthew’s Jesus sounds legalistic, but that shouldn’t surprise us. That was Matthew’s basic way of looking at things. He views Jesus as if he were the new Moses, the new lawgiver. Nevertheless, his Jesus doesn’t just deliver; he fulfills the law, driving past the letter of the law to its very spirit. Grace takes all of us to a level that we could not attain on our merit alone. Matthew knew that well. After all, he was a forgiven sinner, a man called from the ranks of despised tax collectors who ripped off their fellow countrymen to be Jesus’ disciple. So, if we’re tempted to frame Matthew simplistically, branding him a rigid legalist, we must resist and look for another way of interpreting his stories about Jesus.

As a monk Curtis Almquist has helped many of us grapple with tough questions of faith. Brother Curtis regards mercy as the heart of the gospel message. In Jesus we see that being merciful is how God deals with our imperfection. It is also what Jesus challenges us to extend to others – not only because it is meet and right so to do, but also because it is for our common good. In a sermon on the importance of mercy Brother Curtis said:

Forgiving is in your best interest. To not forgive someone is to incarcerate them in your memory: your offender being the prisoner; you being the prison guard. The tragedy is that both of you are in the prison. Forgiving is setting someone free for your sake. By forgiving someone, you unbind yourself from the residual power this person – from whom you have experienced an injury, offense, or disappointment – continues to have on you. To not forgive will leave your wound vulnerable to infection, which eventually can metastasize into resentment. Nelson Mandela, on being freed from twenty-six years of imprisonment in South Africa, felt bitter toward his captors; however he was determined to claim his inner freedom, to forgive and not to resent. “Resentment,” he said, “is like drinking poison and waiting for it to kill your enemy.”[4]

Twenty years ago St. Mary’s sent a mission team to the Diocese of Christ the King in South Africa. Led by the Reverend Brian McGurk, who was then our Assistant Rector, the team consisted of 8 adults and 16 high school youth. Entering the townships to work with lower school children hampered by extreme poverty, providing education to prevent the spread of AIDS among students of their age, and living among Afrikaner families to share their experience, our mission group prayed, and studied Scripture, and devoted themselves to being ambassadors of compassion to fellow South African Anglicans.

In the process of carrying out their work, our team members learned that the mission was as much for them as it was to their new friends. Everyone who went on that journey was changed by the grace of God. A key transforming moment came when Brian realized that the fabled Truth and Reconciliation Commission was meeting near their quarters in Johannesburg. He called for a change in plan, and led the team to the hearings. When they arrived, our missioners were surprised to see Archbishop Desmond Tutu serving that day as the commission chair. Later they would meet the Archbishop, who welcomed the delegation from Virginia. But for several hours our fellow members of St. Mary’s listened to tales of great sadness and saw grief sweep through the meeting hall. But they also witnessed the power of forgiveness, inspired by belief in the God of grace; begin to heal the wounds of inflicted upon, and endured by, the people of South Africa.

When the government of South Africa was changed by vote rather than by violence, there was a question that haunted the toppled Afrikaners. What would be their fate at the hands of the majority population that they had enslaved and brutalized for many years? The amazing grace of the new leaders, including Mandela and Tutu, showed the world a different way of responding to injustice than to inflict revenge in return. They offered forgiveness of crimes against the people to all who would come before the commission and confess.

That offer of mercy in return for truth was startling, and perhaps shocking, to some. But for the common good of the new nation, grace was the path they chose. It was a painful encounter with the truth. Our mission members saw the pain that gripped Tutu and the families who listened to accounts of heinous acts, and then forgave the ones who committed them.

I believe that Jesus’ parable about the fate of the unforgiving slave is a warning that Tutu, Mandela, and others heeded. And so should we. However, I don’t think that Jesus was saying that God’s grace is conditional. A gift is a gift, and this gift is eternal. So Jesus must have been warning us about something else. The admonition, “if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart,” may simply mean, “don’t miss the opportunity to be merciful; for if you do not forgive, you will suffer unnecessarily.”

In other words, the warning was that failure to forgive is a health hazard. The slave’s torture was real, but it was self-imposed, an unwitting outcome of his own ingratitude. Unwillingness to show mercy mocks the mercy we have been shown. It also makes our heart a jail we’ve created for someone who has hurt us. But keeping the offender there is not good for the heart. To forgive is to unlock the prison door, throw away the key, and walk away. It is not excusing what the person has done. It is to let the hurt go before it does more harm – to us and to those we love.

To forgive is divine. That is God’s nature, and that is our best hope. Grace is God’s gift; all we have it do is claim it. The gift of mercy cannot, and should not, erase our memory of painful wrongs that we have endured. That would make light of sin and gloss over serious wounds. Forgiving, as we are forgiven, is not an anesthetic. But it can disarm the source of pain that that is breaking our heart, and it can send it packing. Forgiveness has a cost – one that God alone can pay. His gift of mercy covers all debts. God’s grace is sufficient for a wholesome life – if we accept it, and share it. Amen.


[1] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory: and Other Addresses (New York: HarperOne, 1980), pp. 177-78.

[2] Idem.

[3] This description of God is from the “prayer of humble access,” Holy Eucharist, Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 337.

[4] Brother Curtis Almquist, SSJE, “Reconciliation Presumes Forgiveness,” a sermon delivered at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist monastery, Cambridge, MA, on April 18, 2013.