The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire



Sermon - September 17, 2017
Scripture Reading: Matthew 18:21-35      
Sermon Title: Forgiveness

The Rev. Robert Vodra

     I can hold a grudge.  I don’t know how long, but I still remember a few things that happened as I was growing up, middle school, high school.  People who were just not nice to me.  And really as I go through my whole life, I still remember people that I hope I never see again.  Since some of these go back years, and some were older than I, it is probably true that some of them have died.  But that does not matter to me.  I can still think back at what they did, or didn’t do.  I am really good at holding those grudges.

     And then Jesus comes along and throws this parable at us.  Peter starts by asking Jesus how many times he should forgive, “Seven times?”  Seven is probably not a number set in stone for Peter.  Seven is considered a full amount.  Just like we may say “a week” when we don’t necessarily mean exactly 7 days, 168 hours, Peter’s Seven is saying a bunch of times?  And Jesus replies “No Peter, not 7, but 77 or 70 times 7,” depending on the translation.  Not just a lot of times, Peter, but lots and lots and lots of times, a full amount plus several other full amounts.  

     I think it is worth filling out this parable a bit.  Ten thousand talents… what the slave owed his master, is a lot.  Each talent is about 130 pounds of silver, and a laborer might make a talent over 15 years.  So this slave owed his master the equivalent of about 150,000 years of labor.  If you make $50,000 a year, that would be like owing someone 7.5 billion dollars.  His master had every right to sell the salve, his family, all his possessions, but the slave begs for forgiveness and is granted it.  Important to note that this forgiveness is from past debt, does not say “Your past debt is forgiven, and here is another talent for you.  But on the way home this slave runs into someone who owed him a hundred denarii.  One denarius was the typical wage for one day of work.  So he is owed what could be earned in about 100 days of labor.  No small debt, but compared to what would be earned in 150,000 years, this is nothing.  But this slave does not offer forgiveness, but rather sends that slave to prison.  

     In today’s world, as has probably been the case for all time, the rich profit off the debt of the poor.  I learned it with School House rock.  Do any of you remember that?  Becky Sue wanted to be a Country Western Star, and the video tells her that she can deposit her birthday money into the bank and earn interest on her deposit.  My kids get that, they each have a savings account, with the little booklet.  Every few months we go down to the bank to put in or take out a little money and the bank adds a penny or two to their account.  I did have to explain that at one time banks actually paid interest that was worth more than a penny or two.  Or, the video explains that Becky Sue could borrow the money and then pay it back on time, with interest.  I think both boys are aware that we just refinanced our house.  While the details get really confusing for them, and for me, I think they understand that we pay something to the bank every month, some goes to reduce the amount we owe them, and some goes to the interest the bank is charging us for using their money.  

     And that is really a good, basic, introduction for kids to the money system in the United States.  Of course there is stuff that I don’t understand like futures, how companies decide if they pay a dividend or the value of the stock goes up, but the basic idea of lending money and getting it back with interest, or borrowing money and paying it back with interest makes sense.  But the decks are stacked against those who are poorer.  Credit cards and all loans look at your credit history, and then they basically gamble at how likely you are to pay back what you borrow.  Really good credit history, high credit score, you might get a 3.5% home loan or a 12% interest rate on a credit card.  Poor credit history, low credit score and you may be paying 25% interest on a credit card and probably will not even be approved for a home loan.  Payday lenders know their repayment rate is very low, so those rates are through the roof.  So the poor in addition to needing to borrow more, most often are charged higher fees to borrow that money.  

     And whose side is Jesus always on?  Unfortunately we are not going to change the monetary system in the United States.  I did know one faithful woman who only dealt in cash.  She was the secretary at the Campus Ministry, and would do things like ask me to pay my rent in two checks, one to the oil company and one to the telephone company.  This was her way of totally avoiding participating in the banking system.  Admirable, but very hard to do 30 years ago, and cannot imagine trying it today.  You cannot rent a hotel room, or car, or buy a plane ticket with cash today, so we are forced in many ways to participate in this system.  

     In addition to money, we usually read this to extend to other areas of our lives.  Forgive us our trespasses and we forgive those who trespass against us.  Some churches have chosen to use this because it is uncomfortable to talk about money in church.  But the problem that we have when we extend this to other areas is that in English we often use forgiveness in a legal sense.  So according to Jesus, if someone kills another, we are supposed to forgive them?  I don’t think so.  I like laws, well I don’t like all laws, but I like most of them.  I want to feel safe in my house, so we have laws that protect us from robbery, assault, things like that.  Traffic laws are, for the most part, good.  Can you imagine what it would be like if people drove wherever they wanted on a road, left side, right side, at whatever speed they felt like going?  Laws help to maintain order, and this is not a bad thing.  

     But forgiveness, in my mind, is really about relationships rather than laws.  Laws exist so that relationships can form.  In a world with no laws, relationships would only exist for temporary protection.  In a world with laws, with order, we can form relationships with others.  And it is in these relationships that forgiveness can occur.  

     Has anyone ever been in an abusive relationship?  Maybe the better question is “has anyone not ever been in abusive relationship?.” And by abusive relationship, I don’t mean necessarily physical, but that could be.  But any relationship where one person has power or authority over another and takes advantage of that?  Your boss calls you in to work on Saturday because someone has to be there, it is not going to be them.  Your best friend calls you whenever they have a problem, never has time to take your call when you have a problem.  Your neighbor borrows your hammer, your wheelbarrow, your lawnmower, your weedwhacker, but never have anything you ask to borrow from them.  It is, in my opinion, fine to break off these harmful relationships.  Forgiveness does not mean being abused or allowing that abuse to continue.  

     Another important piece of forgiveness I have been thinking about is time.  I have this problem, or at least I consider it a problem, where I replay things in my mind.  Conversations, actions, and ask myself what I should have done as opposed to what I did do.  When this person said this, I should have replied in this way.  When I saw this person doing this, I should have responded in this way.  And this often happens at night.  I will wake up with something on my mind, and around and around it goes.  Should have, should have, should have…  Sometimes these are big things, but most often they are petty things.  They will never happen again, the other person probably has forgotten all about it, but still I play it through in my mind.  

     The way I try to get out of this is to remember that it is in the past.  There is no way to change what has happened.  All we can do is move forward from this time.  We can only forgive things that have happened, and there is no way to change what has happened.  Forgiveness is a decision about the past that ultimately determines the future. When you forgive, you release the past and enter into an open future. When you cannot forgive, you remain captive to that past until the end of time. Forgiveness, in this sense, is freedom, freedom from the past, freedom for the future, the kind of freedom God wants for each of us.

     But the more I read this passage, I keep going back to Peter’s question, and I think he has it all wrong.  You see, forgiveness, when it is sincere, is love and grace.  Should you love your spouse or children or parents 7 times?   No, not 7, not 77, not 70 times 7.  We live our lives to love others, to be in relationship with others, for forgive others and to be forgiven.  Just as there is no way to count love, there is no way to count forgiveness.

     We learn forgiveness by being forgiven.  Have any of your dealt with little kids lately?  Not like Ricky or Collin, but preschool age, maybe Kindergarten.  When one child takes another’s toy, what do you do?  Give that back and say you are sorry.  When one child hits another, I want you to apologize to her, we don’t hit each other.  And in almost all of those cases, forgiveness is granted, and peace prevails, at least for a few more minutes until something else happens.  We learn that as young children.

     And then we come to church and we hear that we have been forgiven of all our sins.  Anything that you have done that separates you from the love of God has been forgiven.  The master forgiving 150,000 years of salary for the slave.  The master forgiving more than we can ever imagine, more then we will ever have.  All your sins have been forgiven, every single one of them.  

     But I still hold onto grudges I have not forgiven.  And some of these are hard.  Let’s face it, some people are hard to get along with, and it is hard to forgive them.  They have done things that have hurt us.  The first step does not have a choice.  In order to be released from our past, we must forgive.  The second step does require a choice, and that is if we want to maintain a relationship with that person.  Sometimes the most loving and forgiving thing we can do is not maintain those relationships.   

     But our God has shown us that if we have the capacity to love, we have the capacity to forgive.  God has shown us forgiveness by forgiving all of our sins, and now we teach that to others through our forgiveness.  

     I wanted to take a minute during this time in our service.  I suspect that each of us have someone in our lives that we need to forgive.  Not forget, not rebuild a relationship with, but to forgive on a personal level.  I would invite you to close your eyes, or just be in a spirit of prayer.  Name that person, silently, and make a decision that today is the day that you are going to forgive them.   After a few minutes I will end with prayer.

     God, through your great love you have shown us that forgiveness is not only possible, it is necessary.  As you heard names raised to you, please empower each person who thought of someone they need to forgive the power to do so.  Let this step of forgiveness free them to more fully experience your love and your grace.  And may each of us continue to realize that we are called each day to forgive others as you have shown through your forgiveness.