When Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother who sins against him, he thinks that seven is an incredibly extravagant mercy. Imagine his consternation when Jesus says, seventy-seven times (or seventy times seven, as some translations of the Bible have it.) This does not mean that Peter is to count to seventy-seven, and then to not forgive the seventy-eighth, or even the four hundred ninety-first, time. Jesus is proclaiming the heart of God his Father, his mercy beyond extravagance.
Sermon Pentecost 16 (Proper 19A)
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz, III
St Stephen Lutheran Church
September 17, 2023
Texts: Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:8-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
In my opinion, 'Ghostbusters’ is one of the funniest movies of all time.
Unfortunately, much of it I can't quote from the pulpit. But in the climactic scene of the film, our four fearless fighters confront Gozer the Gozerian, a demon from another dimension, and the specter asks Ray Stantz, 'Are you a god?'
'No,' Ray answers.
'Then DIE!' shouts Gozer, and zaps them with lightning. It doesn't kill them, and so Winston Zeddimore says to Ray, 'When someone asks you if you're a god, you say, 'YES!'
Now it will come as no surprise to you that I think Ray was right. If someone ever asks you if you're a god, you say 'No.' We are not gods, nor are we God.
This is not simply because we don't have the power of God. It is because we do not have the authority to judge as God does. Only God, who created the world and all creatures, has the power to pass judgment on his creatures, and only God can be trusted with judgment.
Now, of course, there are judges in the world that pass sentences on convicted criminals and decide between different interpretations of the law. We are called to make judgments about different courses of action. We may be called upon to bear witness in court. This is not the kind of judgment we're talking about. Instead, it means that we are not to condemn our neighbors before God when they do wrong. We are not to take revenge upon those who hurt us. We are not to decide when it is time to stop forgiving them, stop trying to reconcile with them.
When Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother who sins against him, he thinks that seven is an incredibly extravagant mercy. Imagine his consternation when Jesus says, seventy-seven times (or seventy times seven, as some translations of the Bible have it.) This does not mean that Peter is to count to seventy-seven, and then to not forgive the seventy-eighth, or four hundred ninety-first, time. Jesus is proclaiming the heart of God his Father, his mercy beyond extravagance.
The psalms proclaim his mercy, as we just read in Psalm 103:
The LORD is full of compassion and mercy,
slow to anger and of great kindness.
He will not always accuse us,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so is his mercy great upon those who fear him.
As far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our sins from us.
As a father cares for his children,
so does the LORD care for those who fear him.
In the service of Individual Confession and Forgiveness, these are the words that are spoken together by the pastor and the penitent after the declaration of absolution. The grace shown by God is celebrated together by the one who confesses sin and the one who proclaims God's forgiveness.
In the first reading, we heard the end of the story of Joseph and his brothers. But perhaps you remember the beginning of the story, when Joseph was thrown into a dry well by his jealous brothers and then sold into slavery. But God was not finished with him. Through the twists and turns of the story, Joseph becomes second-in-command to Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, and is responsible for the distribution of food. When his brothers come to buy food from him in a time of famine, he strings them along until he finally reveals himself and asks them to bring their father and all of their families to live with him in Egypt.
But now their father has died, and the brothers fear that he will take vengeance upon them. Has he truly forgiven them? Or has he simply waited for the death of their father so that he can deal with them as they deserve?
Joseph reassures them, saying, 'Am I in the place of God?' He means that he is not in God's place to judge them. But in another way, he is in the place of God, in that he recognizes God's mercy and proclaims it to his brothers. He can see how a merciful God has been at work the whole of Joseph's life, from the coat of many colors to the dark pit to the house of Potiphar to the depths of prison to the Pharaoh's court. All this time God has been bringing good from evil, community out of separation.
This is the way in which we should be like God, or be in the place of God, in proclaiming his mercy. No doubt Joseph had been deeply hurt by his brothers. But he chooses to live, not out of that place of hurt, but out of the knowledge of the merciful love of God. No doubt we may be hurt by others, but when they turn and ask forgiveness, we can also live out of God's merciful love and not out of our all-too-human impulses to turn away or take revenge.
However, we do want to understand that this passage on forgiveness from Matthew 18 follows directly upon the instructions about how to reprove an unrepentant sinner. We are not to confuse our Lord’s call to forgive the one who comes seeking forgiveness with simply letting people do what they please. A powerful person may use Jesus’ call to forgive as a weapon. There are times when forgiveness must be offered from afar. There are times when, still resisting the demonic impulse to take vengeance, the Christian must stand apart from the one who would abuse or threaten them, not only for their own sake, but for the sake of the other, so that the other has no good reason to think that their behavior is justified. The goal is reconciliation, the goal is community, but when the offender is unrepentant, the forgiveness must wait. In these cases we are to pray for mercy, God’s mercy, God’s extravagant mercy, on both the one who hurts and the one who is hurt, and that truth may restore community.
Living this life is not easy. If it were easy, Jesus would not have had to talk about it at all. But we can trust that Jesus, who forgave our sins from the cross, will help us to entrust all judgment to God to whom alone belongs both the authority and the wisdom to judge, and to live from God’s merciful goodness in all of our relationships. Amen