Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you? Matthew 18: 33
Sometimes I think Jesus is a tad crazy. Forgive the same person, 77 times? Beyond that many scholars say the Greek here is really seventy times seven or 490 times. Forgive the same person 490 times? That’s a lifetime of forgiveness. What happened to “three strikes, you’re out” which is what other rabbis counseled in Jesus’ day? To forgive 490 times or 77 times would make one a fool. Better to just end the relationship and all the frustration and pain would be over. Better to cut your loses and find another friend, another spouse, another church, another community.
In last week’s Gospel, Jesus laid out an extensive process for reconciliation and forgiveness – privately go to the one who hurt you to try to work it out, if that doesn’t work take one or two others with you to help you both listen, if that fails, take it to the church, wrap it up in prayer, trust that God is with you through the whole thing. And now he says we are to do this over and over again, at least 77 or as many as 490 times. Life would become a perpetual truth and reconciliation commission with no end in sight. The seemingly absurdness of this is perhaps why Jesus follows up his instruction with a story.
It begins when a king settles his accounts with his servants and discovers there’s one who owed him ten thousand talents. That’s a huge amount for a talent was worth more than 15 years wages of a labor. This poor sod is in debt for a “bazillion dollars.” There was no way he could pay up so the king ordered the man along with his family and all his possessions to be sold and payment made. The servant falls on his knees and asks for an extension on his loan, “Have patience and I will pay you everything!” The king, out of pity, forgives the debt and sets the servant free. No threats, no recriminations, nothing – just extravagant forgiveness, pure and free.
The servant is no sooner out of the room when he comes upon a fellow servant who owes him a hundred denarii or to make the math plain over a half a million times less than the first debt. He seizes him by the throat and demands, “Pay up. Now!” The second servant pleads, “Have patience with me and I will pay you.” But instead of receiving mercy, he’s thrown into debtors’ prison.
Other servants, realizing what happened, tell the king about the servant’s selfish reaction. Angered by this display of greed and utter lack of mercy, the King casts the wicked and thankless servant into a torture chamber. Good, we think! Justice was done. Only to have Jesus turn the parable on his disciples and on us – “So my heavenly Father will also do to everyone one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Could it be we’re told to forgive over and over again, as many as 490 times, so that at some point we might discover the heart of forgiveness is mercy? Mercy. The word in Latin is misericordia which is derived from miseriae, “misery,” and cordis, “heart.’ Mercy means compassion, empathy, a heart for someone’s troubles. Pope Francis said that the message of Jesus is mercy and that for him it’s the Lord’s strongest message. In fact, Pope Francis says the name of God is mercy.
I remember the first time my husband John came to worship at St. Bartholomew’s in Trenton. We’d been dating for about month when I asked him to come to church. I knew I was falling in love with him and if the relationship was going to last, church would need to be part of it. I was so nervous about everything. Would the congregation welcome him? Would he appreciate my sermon? The choir? The liturgy? The whole thing. Afterwards I asked him what he thought and he said, “Well, right in the beginning after the confession when you said, ‘As a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins,’ I was completely blown away and thought of nothing else since.’” Then he asked, “You can do that?” I replied, “I don’t do that, by his cross, Jesus does that.” As the rest of the congregation sang the first hymn, John was overwhelmed by mercy. Mercy.
That’s what is given in the forgiveness of sins of our own and the sins of others – mercy. The servant who owed a bzillion dollars, whose debt was wiped out, never realized that. Perhaps he thought he’d effectively conned the king, that his brilliant beseeching was the reason he was forgiven. The servant’s failure wasn’t simply that he wouldn’t forgive his comrade, but that he’d just experienced an utterly unexpected, completely beyond-his-wildest-dreams, life-changing moment of grace and seems absolutely untouched by it. He lives devoid of any sense of gratitude. His whole life changed…and he didn’t even notice.
That’s our danger too. Week in and week out, we confess our sins and receive forgiveness yet so often fail to acknowledge this amazing mercy. Mary, the wife of one of my colleagues, Franklin Fry, once told her husband that Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus ought to be sung following the confession and forgiveness, so great is the grace. Yet there remains something in us that resists mercy, that wants to go it alone, not be dependent upon another, not even God, though deep down we know this will not get us anywhere. I think this is especially true for teenagers who are trying to figure out who they are. It’s a time of questioning and struggle but also of tremendous growth and thankfully abundant mercy. Know that even when you’re caught in a conflict or experiencing great difficulty, God is there with you. In your baptism, you were marked with the cross of Christ forever and God will never let you go. Remembering that becomes a blessed gift of mercy.
This past week I discovered a wonderful poem by Denise Levertov, entitled, To Live in the Mercy of God. With rich images of the stems of tall, old trees rising before ribs of shelter opening, of the awe of mercy becoming a form of comfort, of floating upheld as salt water would hold us, once we dared, she invites us to live in the mercy of God. Then she concludes:
To feel vibrate the enraptured
waterfall flinging itself
unabating down and down
to clenched fists of rock.
Swiftness of plunge,
hour after year after century,
O or Ah
spray. The smoke of it.
of steelwhite foam, glissade
of fugitive jade barely perceptible. Such passion—
rage or joy?
Thus, not mild, not temperate,
God’s love for the world. Vast
flood of mercy
flung on resistance.
That resistance, let it go, let it go. Sink into God’s mercy and grace, then turn in mercy and grace toward others. You will change the world which is desperately in need of truth and reconciliation, of mercy. Amen.
Pastor Cynthia Krommes
Denise Levertov, The Stream & the Sapphire, 1979, 31-32.