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Sermon; Proper 19A; Matthew 18:21-35

Today's passage from both the Hebrew scripture and the gospel have to do with forgiveness. In the first lesson we hear of the final reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers. You may recall that, years earlier, the older brothers had tossed their spoiled, uppity younger brother into a dry well, debated about killing him, then sold him into slavery and passed him off as dead to their father.

“What if he still bears a grudge against us?” they ask. Um . . . ya' think??

So the brothers concoct another lie, telling Joseph that their father begged for forgiveness on their behalf. It's hard to tell from this passage if the brothers were reconciled because of the false edict from Jacob, or if Joseph really would have forgiven them no matter what. But the result of this story is that forgiveness wins the day.

Today's gospel also addresses forgiveness. Peter asks, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how many times should I forgive? As many as seven?”

Many translations have Peter asking how many times he needs to forgive his brother, not another member of the church, leading some people to postulate that Peter and Andrew had been arguing, or that this was intended to focus more on family issues. But the point is the same, how many times are we supposed to forgive a person who has hurt us? According to Jesus, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

One of the things we need to know about Matthew is that he is making the case for Jesus as the fulfillment of God in the Hebrew scriptures. He is arguing that this Jesus-movement thing is not a new religion, but a fulfillment of the Hebrew faith. We see this in the beginning of his gospel where he opens with the genealogy, or genesis, of Jesus. His first two chapters of the life of Jesus are, essentially, the story of Israel. Generations and dreams and the killing of infants and escapes into and out of Egypt all tie Jesus to the history of Israel. He also does this subtly in other places, like today's passage.

Do I forgive seven times? No, seventy-seven times. This also goes back to Genesis. There was a seven-fold vengeance placed on anyone who killed Cain for his killing of Abel. And Lamech proclaimed a seventy-seven-fold vengeance on anyone who attempted retribution against him for his murder of a young man. Matthew has Jesus going back to the Hebrew scripture and saying the level of forgiveness will be equal to or greater than the vengeance that was proclaimed.

Okay – enough Bible study and back to this issue of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is often misunderstood and it can never be forced. The line, “You're a Christian so you have to forgive me,” comes to mind. There seems to be a belief that forgiveness is simply granted because Jesus said so. But this does nothing to rectify the problem and places the onus all on the victim.

If I leave here and slam into Bill's car, and then say, “Sorry, please forgive me,” without doing anything about it, I'm not so sure bill has to forgive me. In the Rite of Reconciliation, the sinner can be asked to perform acts of penance or to make restitution as part of the act of forgiveness.

The disciplinary rubrics state that if a priest knows of a person who is living a notoriously evil life, they are to withhold Communion until repentance and amendment of life has been made.

Repentance, amendment of life, and forgiveness all go hand in hand. But does forgiveness REQUIRE someone to repent and change? That is a tricky question. Do I, as a priest, offer absolution on the condition of repentance, or do I offer it on the promise of repentance? That's a deep discussion.

But when talking about forgiveness, here's why I think Jesus throws out seventy-seven and why he tells the parable of the unforgiving servant.

Forgiveness, at its core, is about ourselves. Forgiveness doesn't mean we have to become best friends with those who have hurt us. Forgiveness doesn't mean we have to remain in a business partnership with someone who cheated us. It doesn't mean a woman needs to marry her abuser or rapist.

What it does mean is that we have to get to a point where we are not controlled by the hateful or hurtful actions of the person who caused us pain. Forgiveness means that we have reached the point where we can move on with our lives.

The best thing I've ever seen on forgiveness was a movie called, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” In short, a woman learns her lawyer-husband has been having an affair. She learns he had children with the other woman, then he throws her out of the house, all the while planning to marry his mistress. The next day he gets shot, leaving him crippled. The mistress leaves this now broken man, and the scorned wife becomes his legal caretaker. By the end of the movie it looks like they have patched things up and are ready to move forward together. Instead, she takes off her wedding ring, basically says, “I forgive you,” and walks out.

Forgiveness is about being able to live your life in such a way that you don't allow those who harmed you to continually harm you. It also means that we don't focus all our energy looking for revenge or payback. And if that takes seventy-seven times, so be it.

Otherwise, if we don't forgive others, we will end up living in a prison of our own making – just like the unforgiving servant in Jesus' parable.

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. The question we need to be constantly asking is this: Are we seeking forgiveness, or are we seeking revenge? How we answer that question will determine how we live our lives.


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