Matthew 18:21-35, Forgiving One Another

[September 14, 2014] Last night I received news that one of the beloved in the congregation fell and broke her hip. I visited her last night and she has been on my mind and heart all night.

This morning we pick up Jesus’ teaching where we left off last week. He began teaching his disciples about his disciples needing to become like little children, but then spent most of the time teaching them that they need to care for one another as little children. Under the divine government there are severe consequences for anyone who causes a disciple to stumble, especially the more vulnerable ones. Jesus warns his disciples not to despise any of the “little ones” (for their angels, who are constant witnesses, will gather those who cause them to fall and “throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth”—a metaphor for divine judgment). If a little one strays, leave the ninety-nine and find them. As for those who despise them and cause them to stumble, speak to them; if they refuse to listen, get collaboration; if they still refuse to listen, treat them as an idol-worshiper or tax-collector, i.e., stop treating them as a fellow disciple but instead love them as someone who still does not know God’s mercy and grace. For the disciples have the power to cause much harm by shutting people out from the kingdom, or great good by opening wide its doors. Nevertheless, the efficacy of their prayers—and of his continuing presence among them (an allusion to the final verse of the gospel) depends on their love and inclusion of the “little child,” the most vulnerable of those—not whom they, but—whom Christ calls.

This summarizes everything Christ said in verses 1-20. The disciples must become as little children, Jesus said, but then went on to say that they must each care for all those whom Christ calls—those “who have faith in me”—as vulnerable “little children,” without excluding anyone. Jesus has in view all those to whom he has ministered, all those who came to him and all whom he had sought out. This is the crowd of the poor, including women and children, those suffering with all kinds of diseases and illnesses and painful complaints of one kind or another, the demon-harassed and inhabited, and the epileptic and paralyzed. It includes those seeping blood or body-fluids (considered ritually unclean and therefore untouchable). It includes the handicapped and blind and deaf and mute. It includes the ugly and unclean, and those with virulent skin-diseases. It includes gentiles (non-Jews, those ignorant of God, even idol-worshipers), non-observing Jews, and even despised tax-collectors and sex-workers. It even includes the dying and the dead.

In our own day it includes every racial and ethnic minority, the welfare-dependent, illegal immigrants, convicts and ex-convicts; it includes lesbians and gays and bisexuals, the transgendered and gender-nonconforming individuals, the open as well as the closeted and secret cross-dresser; it includes women who have had abortions, those living in “non-traditional” households, those in abusive relationships; it includes the anorexic, the obese and the “ugly”; it includes young people who are exploring, and the elderly and shut-in; it includes addicts and sex-workers and the homeless; it includes the mentally and emotionally challenged, the obsessed, the lonely, the sad, the “cutters” and the suicidal, the recluses and those cut off from society; it includes those isolated and worn-out caring for others; it includes the unseen and forgotten. As long as this list is, it is partial, nor does it imply any similarity among these or any order or priority, only that all are on the margins of society. All these are people whom Jesus calls, who become “little ones” whom we can cause to stumble. We must not despise any of them but care especially for them.

This is not to say that Jesus does not call the rich, the politician, all those locked into financial indebtedness or responsibilities and familial obligations, the highly gifted or educated, and the genius. And he also calls the ordinary and the mediocre. We all need to become as little children, and treat each other well.

Was Peter absorbing all this? “Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?” Jesus answered, “Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times,” or, as other translations say, “seventy times seven.” It does not matter; Jesus’ language is hyperbolic. He means there is no limit.

If a fellow Christian wrongs me, and this would be the case if he or she causes me to fall (the context here), though the application is without limit, I am to forgive them. To “forgive” means to release them, as if they owed me something. I am not to exact anything from them. I am to give up on fairness or justice (compensation or recompense). This means, of course, that I release them; it does not mean that they still do not have an obligation towards me before God or within society. It is just that it no longer concerns me. Whatever obligation they have towards me they must deal with between themselves and God. Society (for example, the justice system) also may demand something. But I let it go; as far as I am concerned, I place them in the hands of God. I may wisely choose to avoid them in the future; but I am also free to love them, whatever form this may take. The operation of the Spirit of God can work a miracle in our relationship, or not. But, the point is, I open myself to it.

This means there can be healing for the hand or foot that I cut off, or the eye that I tore out. There can be restoration for the one whom I had to regard as a gentile or tax collector. The insulter or bigot is not lost but if they make an effort to come around, we receive him or her back into the fullness of fellowship.

Jesus tells a parable, the point of which is easy to grasp. The point of which is also quite profound. When Jesus calls me, I receive from him the Father’s forgiveness. When he calls me, I am brought by this very call into the fellowship of the Trinity. I stand in “grace.” This means that by my relationship to Jesus, a relationship which he creates (though I am a full participant), I am given to share with Jesus his own relationship (as the Son) with the Father. I become a child of the Father with the privileges and obligations of a son (an heir), though I will not yet have entered into my majority and therefore the enjoyment of these “adult” things. What I have immediately, however, is the love and care of the Father as the Father’s own child. The Father loves me as he loves the Son, for the sake of the Son.

What happened to the weight of my sin? Being stupid the way we are, we tend to think of sin in commercial terms, as a debt that I owe and which is somehow paid for or written off (canceled). This is how the parable, in fact, describes it. But sin is not exactly the accumulation of all my particular misdeeds. It is a description of my relationship to God, and how messed up it has become. I am alienated from God, and somehow I have done this to myself, by my own willing it to be this way. I made a choice. The choice was between reality—in creation, with God—or the constructed delusion of the social matrix, the “world”; and I choose the world. In my mind I entered an alternative realm in which I became blind to what is really before me, and even within me. I became “flesh” instead of a spirited body with a marvelous soul. And no matter how I try to imagine the right thing, it never really happens. I am stuck with my choice. The matrix of the world is something that defines me, and which I in turn also define. Moreover, this “world,” made up of the contribution of all people, functions as some sort of a whole, and that whole becomes a gestalt with powers of its own, powers the influence of which I cannot escape, or can only escape with great difficulty. Some of these powers function in the society which seeks to define me, but some of these powers become part of me; they act in my “flesh.” And some of these powers are unruly and chaotic (actually they all are) and plague and harass me, possibly making me mentally ill and even self-destructive. This is sin. And out of sin comes evil.

With respect to God, because we have chosen this, we feel deeply guilty. We are in fact objectively guilty. There are consequences of our choice. We cannot enjoy God, or even what it means to be created, and to be in creation as the image of God. If we cannot enjoy the Source of life and light and love, if our back is willfully turned toward God, we condemn ourselves to isolation and fear, darkness and death. We come under the impersonal “judgment” of reality, of God. As in the parable, we are under the threat of being “sold, together with [our] spouse and children and all [our] possessions, to meet the debt,” of being cast into the oblivion of abandonment, without relationship to God (which is, in fact, what we have chosen).

How do we even know we are in this predicament? Even though we are condemned, do we know it because someone tells us we are condemned? Hardly, for we are blind to our situation, living in a mental bubble of our own creation that hides reality from us. It is the Gospel—it is the presence of Jesus himself through the Gospel—that deeply moves us and opens our eyes. Our heart speaks to us, echoing the presentation of Jesus, and we come to realize (sometimes quite suddenly) the unreality in which we have been living. We know it, as if the light of the sun suddenly brightens the forest floor—there was an opening in the tree cover. Suddenly everything comes alive, and we realize what darkness we have been in, that we are deep in, the mud and the mire that sucks at our feet. That Gospel does not only come to us through the gospel text, or through its proclamation or explanation; sometimes it comes to us in a person who embodies it. We get a taste of Jesus from an individual through whom Jesus shines. Perhaps that is where we first encounter Jesus.

Oh yes, it is by the “blood of Jesus” that we are forgiven, by his death of the cross. But what do we mean by this? I am convinced that it was not by some cosmic transaction of substitution, but rather by his deep and complete identification with us in our sin and abandonment by God, it was by his loving us in that place, and loving God, even unto death. It is by the Father loving his Son even there. The cross reveals the love of God, not just to us but, I think, to God. He became what we are, and took that identification down to the very depths of our humanity, not sinning, but suffering the abandonment of our sin, and suffering at the sinful hands of others as the victim of sin. It is the communion of God with our humanity at that depth, the faithfulness of the Son to the Father and the Father to the Son there, that redeems us. Just that. It was the completion of his baptism in the Jordan and his fasting in the desert—with all that love that he revealed by his ministry—that redeems us.

So, “the servant’s master felt so sorry for him that he let him go and cancelled the debt.” In other words, the one called by Christ is forgiven. We live before the Father without any debt. To qualify this statement: we are still under the Father’s government and discipline (precisely because we are forgiven and in this new relationship with the Father), and in this life and at the judgment-seat of Christ we live with the consequences of our deeds, but in terms of our relationship with the Father, we are free and at peace, admitted into the Father’s grace or favor, and the Father rewards us for our faithfulness even though whatever faithfulness we have is the effect of grace and the Holy Spirit’s operation within us. This is where we are, forgiven.

But then we are blind to this, as if it has not happened, as if we are not ourselves sinners who have been forgiven. Imagining that being forgiven means that we are better than others, we set ourselves up as judges. We hold people to their sins against us. When they wound us or in any way violate the relationship between us, we have no love for them but demand justice and “payment.” We seize our fellow by the throat and begin to throttle him, saying, “Pay what you owe me.” Maybe we hold a grudge until the other has done “enough” to make amends. We hold people’s sins against us against them. Whatever form this takes, when we cannot forgive another, when we cannot let them go, we have set ourselves up as judges. When we do this, we hurt one another. When we do this, we throw the other into prison until they can pay the debt. Every time they look at us, every time they walk into us, they are reminded of the wall between us and the debt that at least we think they owe us. It is like a prison, and it ruins our relationship. There is now no agreement as in verse 19; my prayers are hindered. There is no being brought together in the name of Jesus, so he can be in our midst.

Well, this affects the entire church. My sibling has sinned against me, but now I have sinned against him or her, and this issue between us affects everyone. “His fellow-servants saw what had happened, and they went to their master and reported the whole affair to him.” Even if we do not consciously pray such prayers, “reporting” on our fellow believers, the Holy Spirit within us “personally makes our petitions for us in groans that cannot be put into words; and he who can see into all hearts knows what the Spirit means because the prayers that the Spirit makes for God’s holy people are always in accordance with the mind of God” (Romans 8:26-27). Indeed, “their angels in heaven are continually in the presence of my Father in heaven.”

Then the master sent for the man and said to him, “You wicked servant, I cancelled all that debt of yours when you appealed to me. Were you not bound, then, to have pity on your fellow-servant just as I had pity on you?” This is the whole point. The only way we can withhold forgiveness is if we have no idea of the extent to which we ourselves have been forgiven. We have no sense of the enormity of our own sin. We have no sense of what it cost for us to be forgiven. We have no appreciation for the Father, no appreciation of Jesus, and no appreciation of the Holy Spirit.

What can be the divine reaction to our blindness, to our resurrecting the barrier that God has taken down? Because Jesus has “paid the cost” of all our sins, are we still scot-free? Are there no real consequences because forgiveness is unconditional? No! “In his anger the master handed him over to the torturers till he should pay all his debt. And THAT is how my heavenly Father will deal with YOU unless you each forgive your sibling from your heart.”

Does that mean we lose our salvation? We have it one day, lose it the next and get it back again the next? Once we are redeemed, we are always redeemed, and when we believe, in response to Jesus’ call, we enter into the forgiveness of sins, which we confess by baptism, and it is permanent. Nothing can undo it. However, if we disrespect what God has done, and we all do, there are still consequences.

“If you forgive others their failings, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours; but if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failings either.” Jesus said this to those who were his disciples, those who already knew the grace of forgiveness. We do not earn our salvation by forgiving others. Nor, if we do not forgive others, does God stop being our Father. However, we do come under his judgment. “Because the judgments you give are the judgments you will get, and the standard you use will be the standard used for you.” How we treat each other is how the Father will treat us. Salvation only begins with redemption. We still have a long way to go before we receive the salvation of our souls. We still have to pass through the judgment at the judgment-seat of Christ where we will receive discipline for the things we have done in this life. Apparently it will all be remedial, but nevertheless, there will be hell to pay.

We may rejoice that we are “saved” (redeemed). But if we do not grow in love, if we continue to hold onto our grudges, if we despise even the “least” of Christ’s siblings, or if we, as the “least” of Christ’s siblings cannot forgive our offenders when they repent, even if they go ahead and do it a hundred more times, then we delay our enjoyment of eternal life. We may find ourselves confined to the “outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth” for a long time (“until you have paid the last penny.” If however we have failed in countless ways, if we forgive others, those failings will be forgiven. For “love covers a multitude of sins.”

Let me repeat something. I am filled with an immense sense of existential shame, awed by the profound depth of my sin. Perhaps it is compounded by natural conditions within an unnatural world, nevertheless that emotion is intense; indeed, it seems to have no bounds. So when I receive that I am loved by God, by Christ, I am overwhelmed. I receive it, but I cannot take it in, it is too much. I believe it, yet I cannot believe it. My only response can be love. I am so devastated by the love of Christ that I can never recover. It cripples me; I can no longer be any good for anything else. I am fearful of that love because I owe it so much; I owe my existence, and it is the only meaning I can make of life.

Do I always feel this way? No, I don’t have the energy for it. It is only when I look in this direction. Yet then I become aware of it, and it can reduce me to tears and weeping easily.

And it only gets worse as I age. My self-knowledge grows, and while I have more compassion for myself, my sense of debt only grows. So the more I know myself, the easier it is to forgive others. Do they hurt me less? No, they hurt me more. Yet the sin I imagine in them, for them to do what they do to me, pales when I think of what I know of myself. Am I worse than them? Probably not. But I do not see the depth of their sin. I only see what they have done to me, and what they do to others. These are only symptoms of whatever is inside them. Those symptoms can never compare to the yawning abyss of my own guilt. If God loves someone such as me—and honestly, the good that is here that God loves has been long buried and covered over if it is anything more than a potential—it is easy for me to believe that God can love the one who hurts me. The goodness that I see in others is always easier to see than the goodness in me.

What about “total depravity”? Isn’t it true that there is nothing good in us? How dare we say so! That is not what the Bible teaches, nor is it what “total depravity” means. Paul does say, “I know of nothing good living in me” (Romans 7:18), but he qualifies this by saying, “that is, in my flesh,” and the flesh in this Pauline sense does not mean our physical being but rather a mistaken perception of ourselves. It is more than a perception, it is a “self” that we have constructed on the basis of our misperception. It is not God’s creation. However, I am God’s creation and as such I am good, and this goodness is what I so often see in others, though we all can only see the faintest glimmer of what is really there. Our sin is not that. It is this total depravity of the self that we have constructed on top of that, that we have co-constructed in collaboration with the world. It is not, however, all we are. There is a creativity in us that is inherently good, and our natural loves are too, and so much more. We are each beautiful, though the way we measure beauty is mixed up with false values. Nevertheless, there is a natural beauty in every person, a beauty that if we can see it we would know it and appreciate it. Grace does not create goodness out of nothing in us but brings out and enhances what is already there.

Still, my appreciation of my own sin being forgiven gives me different eyes, eyes of compassion and understanding, when I look at others. My appreciation of my own goodness, which God has created and loves, also makes me appreciate the goodness and beauty of others. This is not how I always feel, but there is this which I am sometimes aware of. (There is also a place for being appalled and for anger. I am good at being appalled, but not at being angry. The upright person can be angry in a way that is helpful to others, that can help others see what they need to see and change as they need to.)

“Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love, and bear infirmity and tribulation. Blessed are those who endure in peace for by You, Most High, shall they be crowned.”—in “The Canticle of the Creatures,” Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, volume 1, page 144.

Matthew, the writer of the gospel, probably had in mind the conflict, at the time of his writing, between the Jews who insisted that new gentile believers in Jesus become Jews (be circumcised) before they can be fully accepted by God and by their fellow Jews, and the Jewish believers who welcomed gentile believers in Jesus into full fellowship and the gentile believers themselves.

When Peter asked, “How often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me?” his “brother” can refer either to his fellow Jew or his fellow disciple (or quite literally to Andrew). It is the gentile believers who were the “little children” (see Matthew 10:42; 11:25) at the time that Matthew wrote who, by being excluded, were being made to fall. Peter’s brother would then probably be the “zealous” Jews (whether disciples of Jesus or not), for it is they whom the new gentile believers and their Jewish allies would most need to forgive. Indeed, in many places throughout the empire those who advocated circumcision for gentile believers in Jesus had become quite violent in their zeal to protect the boundaries of the covenant (i.e., the purity of Judaism) by excluding gentiles. Their exemplars in violence were Phinehas in the Torah, Elijah the prophet, Judith the slayer of Holofernes, and the Maccabeans. This is probably the most direct application of the parable in Matthew’s own context. It is, of course, applicable in our own day to a very wide field.

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