70 x 7 = ?

Matthew 18:15-35

“If another member of the church sins against you …”. You wonder if someone might have thought before selecting this as the gospel reading for the first Sunday back after the summer. Here we are welcoming one another, looking forward to a new season together meeting new students and welcoming new neighbours. Is now really the time to be talking about sin breaking out in the church? Well, as those who have been here through the summer will know, we have been working our way through the Gospel According to Matthew. As it happens, the second half of Matthew’s gospel reads something like an instruction manual for the church. And today we find ourselves in a crucial section. Come to think of it. Perhaps it is a good thing that this particular passage was not a mid-summer reading, when many of us were out of town. Perhaps it is good that many of us are here, at the beginning of the semester, ready to receive instruction from our instructor, rabbi Jesus.

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” The gospel of Matthew assumes - Jesus assumes - that there will be trouble between us in the church. Just because we have the best of intentions and just because we are seeking to love our neighbour as ourselves will not save us from hurting one another. Fortunately, we have a means of dealing with the sin that harms our relationships. We are to speak about it with one another. This is often easier said than done. When another member of the community causes us hurt we are tempted to say nothing, to hope it will go away and not happen again. We would rather not rock the boat or make an issue out of it. But Jesus is clear: “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Again, this easier said than done. We are often more likely to point out the fault to others out in the parking lot afterwards rather than over coffee with the very person who has done the damage. Telling the truth in love, face to face, does not come easy … at least not easy to many of us.

For better or worse the church often has a bad reputation when it comes to dealing with the sin that causes hurt within the congregation. How many people have left congregations when they have experienced hurt. I recall evangelism workshops sponsored within the United Church thirty years ago that taught us to reach out and speak with those who had left our congregation over the past decade. We went in twos and asked for a visit to hear the story of their leaving. Inevitably the stories told of being hurt by others in the church and of leaving without anyone seeming to take notice, no one picking up the phone to call, no one stopping by to visit. Our visits turned out to be an opportunity for healing, a time for the truth to be told in love, a chance of reconciliation to take place. The visits also taught us that we needed to develop the capacity to speak to one another here and now about the hurt we cause to one another. Often those who leave silently rather than speak up about the hurt have been formed by a church culture that silences truth-telling.

Matthew passes along Jesus’ instruction for dealing with hurtful actions in the church. First, speak in private, one to one. Second, “if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you.” Third, if this does not resolve the matter, bring it to the church. In our congregation it is the kind of matter that one would speak with the elders about. Our relationships are grounded in the peace of Christ. This peace does not silence the trouble that may occur between us. Rather, it requires us and enables us to speak the truth in love, so that we can be reconciled to one another. It is what Jesus means when he says “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Notice that he says this not about a tea party or a prayer group gathering. No. He says he is present when two or three are gathered in hopes of resolving a dispute within the church. He says he is present when hard words are being spoken and received. He says he is present when the church is struggling with discord and disharmony in its midst.

He also says that if the dispute cannot be resolved, if the one who has harmed another does not respond with an apology and a commitment to change, then “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Gentiles and tax-collectors are outsiders. They do not belong. They are not communicants. Ex-communicate them, says Jesus. Yikes. This is dangerous business, especially when we’re in the “All welcome”, inclusive church business. We have heard of churches that ex-communicate. We have read of churches where holier-than-thou pastors and elders lorded it over others, shunning them as sinners. Really, Jesus? Ex-communicate? Then I remember the Roman Catholic church in Chile in the 1970’s, struggling with how to respond to a junta that was torturing its members. Afraid to march in the streets lest more be tortured it followed the guidelines found here in Matthew. When a priest discovered the identities of those who were doing the torturing he spoke in private, then with two or three, then before the whole church and, then if there was no change, would not serve the torturers the Eucharist. They were ex-communicated until the torturing stopped. And then I remember the Open Door Community in Atlanta, a ministry to homeless men and women, open to all who need shelter and food. But not open to any who did not keep the peace of Christ within its walls. Any violence, any abusive language, any use of drugs or alcohol, any drunkenness meant leaving the premises. The Open Door was open to sobriety, open to peacefulness, open to the Kingdom come, open to being a sanctuary, a safe place. And the ones who maintained this discipline were the people who came in off of the street. It was they who spoke with any who did not keep the peace.

But here is the thing. Such people are not banned forever. They are not shunned and ignored, forgotten, banished. They are, after all, to “be to to you as a Gentile and tax-collector.” Let me see. Who was it that arrived with gifts for the infant Jesus in Matthew’s gospel? Magi, meaning Gentiles. And what gets Jesus into trouble? He is constantly eating with tax-collectors and sinners. In the verses that immediately precede today’s reading Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep. In Matthew’s version it ends like this: “So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones be lost.” And Matthew knows it well. Do you remember what Matthew was doing for a living when Jesus called? He was despised, a tax-collector for the Roman Empire. When Matthew says that we are to treat an unrepentant offender as a Gentile and a tax-collector he does not mean we are to banish such a person from our lives, saying good riddance. He means we are to continue to love them back into the fold, never failing to seek repentance, forgiveness  and reconciliation. Always looking forward to the day of restoration.

Which, wouldn’t you know it, causes Peter to speak up. Ever the realist, Peter wants to know how long this can go one until you throw up your hands in despair and move on. “How often should I forgive?”, he asks, “as many as seven times.” Peter aims high, imagining that three strikes and you are out is probably not going to cut it with Jesus. But forgiving seven times. That is surely going more than the extra mile. Not with Jesus. When it comes to forgiveness Jesus breaks all preconceptions: “Not seven times, but, I tell you seventy-seven times.” In other words, eleven times seven. At least that is how the New Revised Standard Translation translates the Greek. It does, however, provide a small footnote that tells the reader that the Greek can just as easily be translated “seventy times seven.” Let’s see, that equals … four hundred and ninety times. The translators do not provide their justification for opting for the lower number. One can only imagine that they, like Peter, would prefer to keep the number as low as possible.

Apparently Jesus is not in a mood for low numbers when it comes to forgiveness. Witness the parable that follows, a parable in which a servant (likely a tax contractor in the Roman Empire) owes a king ten thousand talents. This is an extraordinarily large number. The footnotes in the NRSV report that a single talent equals more than fifteen years wages of a labourer. Well, I am not a mathematician but my rough calculations, based on a wage of fifty thousand dollars per year, leads to a debt owed totalling seven billion, five hundred million dollars. In other words, a lot! And it is all forgiven. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. Then the servant forces the repayment of one hundred denarii owed to him. A denarius is a typical day’s pay for a labourer. In other words, the servant is owed about three months pay. But there is no forgiveness, no grace, no mercy.

Sometimes the Bible is hard to understand. Sometimes things are unclear and confusing. But sometimes the Bible is crystal clear, even across the ages and across cultures. Sometimes Jesus is a little too clear. As Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.” If there is one thing I have learned as a pastor it is that there are few things more difficult in life than the craft of forgiveness. It is a craft. Forgiveness does not happen without hard work. Forgiveness is love as an act of will, not a warm feeling in the heart. Forgiveness is as much a direction and an intention as it is an act and an end-point. To practice forgiveness is the decision to turn away from the bitter path called revenge and to take the rocky road to reconciliation. Alas, too often it is the engineers who spend much time building forgiveness into buildings and bridges, ensuring that they have the strength to survive hurricanes and earthquakes while too many churches remain brittle and fragile, unforgiving, susceptible to fracture.

Matthew concludes the parable of the unforgiving servant by portraying the once amazingly gracious king as one who is now as unforgiving as the servant. Matthew’s Jesus says to his disciples: "So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or your sister from your heart.”  Some commentators are eager to note that this last line is Matthew’s editorial insertion. They want to protect Jesus. And it is true that Matthew adds his distinctive interpretation to the gospel. Each of the four gospels offers a unique perspective of Jesus. Matthew’s portrait holds two things about Jesus in tension: grace beyond measure, discipleship that costs everything. In Matthew it sounds like this: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Blessed are the poor in spirit be they Gentile or tax-collector, slave or free. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Grace beyond measure. “Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.” In other words, disciples who not only pray but who live the words “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Discipleship that costs everything. It turns out that the gospel of forgiveness is all grace. Free of charge. And yet, once received, this gospel costs the life you had earned and created for the sake of a new, free life in Christ. May it be so.

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