'Doesn’t our anger always feel good in the moment? Doesn’t it blot out any rational thought, any pause or patience for sober reflection? It always justifies itself. Our anger is always understandable and measured, while someone else’s anger is unreasonable and malevolent. My misdeeds are mistakes, not representative of who I truly am, due to human weakness, while the trespasses of others stem from their evil nature and horrible sin.'
Sermon – Matthew 18:21-35
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.
23“For 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.’ 27And out 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.”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
What a terrible guy! That’s how we feel when we look at the slave who owed his master ten thousand talents is forgiven his debt. Then he goes out, free, impossibly free, and no time passes before he encounters a fellow slave, an equal, who owes him a comparatively lesser sum, a hundred denarii. This terrible man attacks him, refuses to have any patience, and has him thrown into debtor’s prison. This guy makes Ebenezer Scrooge look generous. All of us want to see him be punished. Who would want to live with this guy! No one can live with this guy!
Perhaps he’s such a terrible character that we can’t see ourselves in him. Perhaps we don’t believe that we would be so forgetful, insensitive, so ungrateful, so unmerciful. So, if I might be so bold, let me try to update Jesus’ parable for these times.
There was a person who was going through some very hard times but had a friend. Whenever the person needed something, the friend was there; by text, by phone call, by letter, by gift of money. The friend listened and was not judgmental. But when life improved and the person was not as needy of the friend, the friend began to post politics on social media. The person tried to be patient but was growing more and more upset by the day. One day the friend posted something which the person found extremely ridiculous if not downright ignorant. The person lost it and responded angrily, attacking the friend openly, implying that she was a hypocrite, bringing into doubt the friend’s integrity and intelligence, completely forgetting all that the friend had done.
Perhaps we can see this as being more realistic in our time; or at least I can. I said that this was an update on Jesus’ parable, but it actually isn’t. It’s a true story. I know the characters. One is me, the other is my friend – and I am the terrible guy in this story. This didn’t happen a long time ago, before I read this parable in the Gospel, but within the past few months. Thankfully I had the presence of mind to apologize and let go of my anger. But I was ashamed. I should have known better. The fact that I did not, I think, shows how easily this happens, or at least how easily it happens to me.
Doesn’t our anger always feel good in the moment? Doesn’t it blot out any rational thought, any pause or patience for sober reflection? It always justifies itself. Our anger is always understandable and measured, while someone else’s anger is unreasonable and malevolent. My misdeeds are mistakes, not representative of who I truly am, due to human weakness, while the trespasses of others stem from their evil nature and horrible sin. If these ideas are allowed to be planted in our hearts and are left unchecked, then they take root and grow, until our relationships become mere records of offense, endless balance sheets in which others are always in debt to us and at any time we may decide that we are done waiting and it’s time to collect.
Jesus wants to save us from that fate. Jesus wants to save us from the cycle of recrimination and hatred which infects the human race. We must listen to him and strive to deal with the desire for revenge and payback which would dominate us.
So we should become shiny happy people, right? Everything’s all right – there is nothing bad in heaven or earth but thinking makes it so? Not true! Truth about others is necessary for us to forgive others. In order to forgive someone, I have to first realize and accept that I have been wronged. All of us have had the experience, I think, that someone has said, ‘Is it okay?’ and we’ve said, ‘yes,’ when the answer is clearly, ‘no.’ But we may be too afraid of saying ‘yes.’ Anger can dominate us by making us be afraid of truth.
Then, once we have accepted the truth, we remember our forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
To trust in this forgiveness opens us to others. The most obvious case is if a person who has offended us comes to us and asks forgiveness. We offer it without question, without reservation, with joy that a relationship will be reconciled, that God who has forgiven us enables us to forgive our neighbor.
But there are other ways we offer forgiveness. A person may be offending us unconsciously, or being hurtful in a way that is annoying but not overwhelming. In that case, we may simply decide to bear that person’s sin. We do not call attention to it or see ourselves as superior to that person. We simply forgive without the need to be asked.
But we do run into problems, don’t we, when one of two things happen. The first is when friends do not repent of their wrongs even when they are told the truth about them. The second is when we feel we have a grievance against people who are in power over us.
In these cases, we must be honest about what is happening. But we also must be honest about what the danger is to us. The danger is not that people will get away with what they are doing. Those who believe in a just God need not worry that the guilty will go unpunished. The danger is that anger will draw us into its orbit and that we will forget that our call is to be open to others and to pray for others as long as there is a chance for repentance. It may be that we must remove ourselves from the presence of an abusive person. But let us always pray for the possibility for a change. Let us be the ones who are waiting for change, who are open to change, until the day when no change is possible.
For we have seen what a human being who is bent on vengeance becomes. We saw it nineteen years ago when planes were flown into buildings. We saw it in Squirrel Hill almost two years ago now as a man walked into a synagogue and opened fire. We saw it in Christchurch New Zealand as Muslims were slaughtered at worship and in Egypt as bombs exploded in Christian churches. We saw it in Minneapolis on Memorial Day weekend as one man kneeled on another man’s neck until the breath was choked from him. We have seen cities burn and property looted. We see angry Facebook and Twitter posts and friends who were once close become bitterly estranged. This is the punishment that we bring upon ourselves, and it is the punishment Jesus saves us from with his forgiving love. Let us live in Jesus’ love with praise and thanksgiving, and heed his warning, call, and challenge: Forgive your brothers and sisters from the heart.
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz, III
St Stephen Lutheran Church
September 13, 2020