9.17.23, Matthew 18:21-35 The Rev. Katie Holicky, Assistant Rector
When I was in seminary we used a set of community guidelines from Visions Inc. These specific guidelines are called “Guidelines for Effective Cross- Cultural Dialogue”. Some of these ways of being together were things like: “try on” (ideas and perspectives and see how it fits); it’s okay to disagree; It is not ok to blame, shame, or attack self or others; speak from the I perspective; being aware of intent and impact (meaning I might say something that impacts someone in a way I did not intend to); using both/ and thinking and language (more than one thing can be true at a time); notice both process and content; and confidentiality.
How many of us have been in communities that have guidelines, set rules or standards, or ways of being? Where? What were some of them? Now, this is a bit of a trick question because while we might be able to name some pointed places in our lives where we do this, we also know that as a Christian community we have some pretty clear ways of being in community together. What are some of those?
It’s Peter’s question to Jesus today that reminds us why community guidelines or known ways of being in community together are so important. His question implies a truth I think we all know. Conflict is part of community. It is part of family. It is part of every relationship. Conflict is healthy and can actually help us to grow. I think part of that growth comes from the ways that conflict can make us uncomfortable and that is often where we grow the most… As long as we have ways of being that foster that. Forgiveness is one of those ways.
First, let’s grab a bit of context for this parable that is only found in the Gospel of Matthew (34, JANT). Jesus is teaching while on his way to Jerusalem. Here in this discourse, of which there are a few, Jesus is giving instruction so that folks might know how to best follow him. This part is called the “Ecclesial discourse”. Meaning, what the church is supposed to be like in community. The disciples are being taught how to embody the ways of communal life needed knowing that they, “will need to sustain their distinctive witness in a world beest by debt, domination, and violence” (304, TBC).
One commentary notes that, “These are the primary ways by which the community lives in and manifests God’s power in the world. Jesus calls for limitless forgiveness and warns that those who refuse to live in forgiveness will find themselves back in a world of impossible debt and ultimate judgment” (304, TBC). This community Jesus built through the disciples, and that we carry on today, calls for us to live woven together in “humility, forgiveness, and service” as followers of The Way (WBC, 474).
At first glance this parable might seem to be about wealth. However, it is about sin and our relationship to forgiveness. And we can be clear about that since we see Matthew linking debt to sin just as we see in the Lord’s prayer, in Aramaic-speaking Judaism, and in the Torah and rabbinic texts (34, JANT). This story is in part hard because when we see that this is about sin and not just wealth we can see a “harsh eschatological judgment” (34, JANT) and an expectation that seems to me almost impossible to strive for. Forgiveness can be one of the hardest things. For me, it’s right there with love your enemy. What a beautiful phrase that can be intensely difficult to live.
And it’s not just that Jesus tells us to forgive, it’s that he tells us to forgive, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (NRSV Bible). While this is a reference from Genesis 4:24 in the arch of the story of Cain, it is also meant to remind us that we are to forgive as many times as one needs forgiveness. Rabbinic sources indicate that one is only required to seek forgiveness three times (34, JANT), so this new instruction might be a rather big expansion for the disciples as they try to understand their charge in forming a new community in new ways of being.
Knowing that forgiveness is central to who we are called to be in community, I was also really intrigued by what science has to say about forgiveness. Here are some forgiveness facts from the Mayo Clinic:
“…it involves an intentional decision to let go of resentment and anger. The act that hurt or offended you might always be with you. But working on forgiveness can lessen that act’s grip on you. It can help free you from the control of the person who harmed you….forgiveness might even lead to feelings of understanding,… compassion for the one who hurt you….(though)… It also doesn’t necessarily mean making up with the person who caused the harm.” (Mayo Clinic)
And there are health benefits of forgiveness: Healthier relationships, Improved mental health, Less anxiety, stress and hostility, Fewer symptoms of depression, Lower blood pressure, A stronger immune system, Improved heart health, Improved self-esteem (Mayo Clinic).
Forgiveness is a means of God’s liberating mercy. Today in scripture we see liberation for the Isrealites as they are brought out of Egypt and we see that liberation can come from being forgiven and forgiving. Michael Joseph Brown who is Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Payne Theological Seminary, the oldest African American seminary in the United States has a lot to say on this topic as a means of liberation. Brown notes the ancient context of the interpersonal dynamics in this scripture. One aspect of ancient life we are seeing played out here is that the outcome of indebtedness could mean that one lost “property, family, and much more…indebtedness limited an individual’s ability to actualize (their) existence”(TTONL, 109). And so, forgiving one’s debt “restor(ed) an individual’s ability to maintain standing in the social order, and potentially to improve it” (TTONL, 109)
And here is my favorite of his points, “One of the often-overlooked aspects of this parable is its implication that forgiveness is an act that affects more than just two individuals” (TTONL, 109). I mean think about that for a second. When I think about how true this is I can recall moments of conflict where the ripple of forgiveness is far reaching. Feuding family members who reconcile and the entire family can gather together again. Friends who had a falling out and someone extending the first “I’m sorry” that heals old wounds and changes an uncomfortable cookout to one filled with laughter. A community conflict that helped identify some needed boundaries that actually brought people closer together.
For Brown this parable, “…. highlights that life should be understood as interconnected”, and so practices “that maintain the dominance of some over others, or that liberate some to the detriment of others, are to be renounced as immoral and inconsistent with divine character” (TTONL, 109). Michael Joseph Brown concluded his article on this passage by saying, “It is not enough that God has forgiven us; we must live and act out of that forgiveness in ways that make it meaningful” (TTONL, 109).
Jesus has made it clear that we are to live together in humility, forgiveness, and service in community. That all of these ways of being help us to be God’s presence for one another and in the world. We are all connected and when we do these things, especially forgive, the ripple extends far beyond those immediately involved. And this… this helps to make a deeper meaning of the forgiveness extended to us by God.
And so… I wonder. I wonder how we might hold on to forgiveness as a community heading into transition? I wonder how God is trying to liberate you through this grace, and how you might liberate yourself and others? May we walk with the grace of forgiveness deeply connected as the community of Jesus. May it be so.
Resources: mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/forgiveness., Jewish Annotated New Testament, Theological Bible Commentary, True to Our Native Land, Women’s Bible Commentar