(In addition to sources cited in text, I should acknowledge John Wesley’s metaphor of sin as a debt owed, and a work by Will Willimon noting the extravagant lifestyle of a debtor. )
The account from Genesis 50 of Joseph forgiving his brothers. ..it’s just one of those “everybody hug” moments. Yes, I am happy for the brothers who have no need to go through the rest of their lives in perpetual fear that one day their sins will bring a horrible price. But, I am happiest for Joseph. He has his family back.
Joseph’s last years will be spent within the comfort and companionship of a reconciled family. Perhaps, only one who has experienced the hurt and division brought about when one side of a family betrays another can appreciate the quality of mercy which Joseph has demonstrated. I am one who personally knows that hurt and that healing which comes with reconciliation after long years of useless separation. Joseph forgives his brothers and spends his last years playing with their children “to the third generation.” “And Joseph died being one hundred ten years old.” I am happy for Joseph. I believe God is happy with Joseph. This is the last event recorded in Genesis. It is the last event recorded in Joseph’s life. Perhaps the scriptures are saying, “When you remember Joseph, who rose from a pit to a palace-who rescued a nation from famine- whose faith God used to preserve a holy people-remember most that Joseph had a forgiving heart.
Genesis chapter 50 is not the first time Joseph has forgiven his brothers however. By this point it has been seventeen years since the first time. And through both words and actions we see how Joseph has proclaimed forgiveness for his brothers many times. Still, they seem to have a need to hear it one more time. And as far as it is within Joseph’s power to forgive once more-he does
Every time I revisit this story, however, I cannot help but note that when Joseph forgives he is in a position of strength. I want to know if God would have expected Joseph to forgive when he was suffering the indignities of a slave, or during all those years when he was held in prison-falsely accused. Joseph forgives from the palace: I want to know could he have done so from the pit?
I believe that Jesus thinks he could: or at least, he should. Forgiveness is important to Jesus. Forgiveness is a part of the nature of God. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” But an unforgiving heart will separate us from the will of God and the peace of God.
The Keys to the Kingdom which Christ has trusted to the Church, to open the gates of heaven, this binding and loosening, it is not secondary to our purpose. It is our reason for being. To emphasize the point, Jesus tells a parable that gives us a glimpse of what the kingdom of heaven may be like if we ever forget that.
We begin by hearing the teaching of Christ that leads into our parable. Forgiveness is part of the nature of God. It is important to Jesus. it is charged to the Church.
Matthew 18: 15-20
‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’o we close the teaching with Emmanuel. God with us. “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”
Then Peter asks a question that leads us into a splendid parable about forgiveness at the end of which nobody is forgiven.
The parable begins: “…the kingdom of heaven may be compared…” This is a kingdom of heaven story. We love these because kingdom of heaven stories are full of stewards being rewarded, brides getting married, lots of adventure and lots of grace.
“…(T)he kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king…” O.K. Its the kingdom of heaven, there’s a king, who is king in the kingdom of heaven? God, right. And God is good all the time, right? If you believe the king represents God and that God is good all the timethen hold on to that thought, you’ll need it at the end of the parable. God is good all the time. So things ought to work out pretty well because God has shown up early in the kingdom heaven story. “…(T)he kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves (That’s us). When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.” Now ten thousand of anything is a lot. I do not know from personal knowledge what a talent is so I had to go to people whose job it is to know these things. At a minimum, the lowest estimate I find is one talent being one years wages for a common laborer of that time. It’s enough to support a minimum wage worker for ten thousand years. This guy owes something like 125 million dollars! Even in the kingdom of heaven this guy is in trouble.
The scripture continues “..and as he could not pay…” Some translations read, “he had not wherewith to pay. Think about this. This servant blew 125 million dollars and did not have a thing to show for it! He blew $125,000,000 or more and has nothing with which to pay. What kind of life must this servant have been living?! It happens you know. We see it on the news. A corporation’s retirement account is broke. The auditors ask “What happened to the money?” “I don’t know. But we sure had some good parties!” What kind of life must this servant have been living?
So, “his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his and wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees (l looked that up too: that means like a dog! He is on the floor begging like a dog. ) Now that his private, secret sin has come to light, it has consequences. Not only for him, but his loved ones will suffer as a result. He is begging like a dog that he, his wife and children will not suffer the natural consequences of the sin he brought into their life. He says to the king, “Have patience with me and I will pay you everything.” Yeah, right! He blew ten thousand years’ salary and he’ll be responsible now and pay it back. Out of desperation we will make promises. In desperation we will make extreme promises and really believe we will be able to fulfill them. We may even do pretty good at it for a while. (One pastor has said “So much good work gets done out of guilt I’m not sure I’m altogether in favor of repentance.” ) But the truth is the debt is so high that he will never repay it. And the king is no fool. The king knows this.
“And out of pity, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt,” Whoa! This is real kingdom of heaven stuff. God is good all the time. Are you happy for the servant?
“But that same slave went out, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him one-hundred denarii; (shorthand: the servant is behind on the payments for a used car and it’s time to foreclose. A serious bill. One hundred denarii is a lot of money and he has a right to it. It is a legitimate debt. Not near as much as ten thousand years wages but contractually he does have a right to it.) “…(S)eizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘have patience with me and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went away and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.”
That’s not fair is it? Surely somebody is going to help this poor guy out. Maybe the community will pass the hat, hold bake sales, something. Maybe the king will find out. The king is good all the time. The king has the power to get people out of prison.
“When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed,” (And they raised the bond money? No.) “…and they went and reported all to their lord that had taken place. (Now we’ll get things straightened out.) “Then his lord summoned him (the first servant) and said, ‘You wicked salve! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.”
And that ends the parable. With nobody forgiven; nobody rescued; and everybody afraid of the king. So, the kingdom of heaven is like an unforgiven people living in torment in a world where everybody is afraid of God. If you have any doubt that this is the point, Jesus adds the concluding thought, “So my heavenly father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
The kingdom of heaven is like an unforgiven people living in torment in a world where everybody is afraid of God. This is about the church. We are the ekklesia in vs. 15, the ekklesia in vs. 21, we are in the Kingdom of heaven in the parable. How did the church get from “God with us” at the end of verse 15 to an unforgiven people living in torment in a world where everybody is afraid of God at verse 35?
I suspect the answer begins with Peter’s question. “…(H)ow often should I forgive?” Now we can follow the traditional interpretation of Peter’s question and psychologize Peter’s ego. We can analyze Peter’s motivation. We can call up Biblical references to “sevens” and “seventies”. But the scripture is silent about Peter’s motive. The numbers are obscure and mystical. What is clear, is that regardless of Peter’s motives (let’s allow him the holiest and purest of intentions) he has modified the teaching of Christ. Maybe Peter was being generous in suggesting we be willing to go through this process with someone seven times. But the teaching as Jesus gave it to us had no limits. Jesus taught that the only thing that could short circuit the process is if someone “refuses to listen to the church.” As long as a person will listen the church is to work at reconciliation. If we do not take the keys to the kingdom seriously we run the risk of turning the kingdom of heaven into a mess.
Verse 35: “For this reason the kingdom of heaven (the church) may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts,” (he wanted to set things right) but the servants turned the kingdom into an unforgiven people living in perpetual torment and afraid of God.
We come regularly to the table hearing the words “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven”. We may have come seven times, seventy seven times, or seven times seventy times. We come like the first two servants, owing debts that can never be repaid–not even with ten thousand years salary. Maybe our words and actions really did contribute to the tragic course of action another felt compelled to follow. Perhaps we have let loose some words which if we could we would take back, but they are already out there, the damage is done and cannot be undone. Maybe a secret sin has jeopardized our family. Our spouse, our children, our loved ones may soon suffer for our mistakes. “Oh, it seemed like such a good idea at the time but it was all so wrong. If I had it to do over again, I would do it differently.” We call it a mistake, a bad choice, a character flaw. Jesus calls it sin and he takes it seriously. No apology will be good enough. No amount of money will fix it.
We come to the table for the seventy-eighth time. “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”
Or, maybe we come like the servants who went and told their lord all that had happened but did nothing to help. We saw the injustice, we objected to it, told, others about our indignation, and prayed about it: But did nothing and went home. Some years ago a man worked a liquor store in downtown Atlanta. The corner of Decatur and Pryor streets. The manager of the finance company next door, a Christian, said, “if anything was for sale anywhere in the world, then it could be bought and sold on the corner of Decatur and Pryor.” It was during a late night dinner break in the luncheonette across the street when the drunken panhandler walked in. He ordered a hamburger and when the cook served it up the wino dropped a collection of loose change on the counter. He was a maybe a nickel short. The cook was irate. He took the sandwich, tossed it in the trash, and ordered the panhandler back on the street. The next morning the street sweepers found him dead on Decatur Street with a crack in his skull. The image of that old man slouching out the door hungry into a dark city street on his last night is burned still into my mind. I shared the luncheonette incident with the Christian businessman that morning. He asked me–and I ask you–who is most in need of forgiveness for that night: the wino for trying to get something for nothing, the cook who tired of being taken advantage of insisted on the debt he was due; or the young man at the counter who watched the whole thing with a full stomach and a pocket full of change?
Like the servants who saw and did nothing, we come to the table for the seventy-ninth time. “Have mercy upon us,” we plead.
“In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”
Having such a debt canceled, all because we pleaded, should not we also have mercy on our fellow slaves? I am persuaded that many rise from the communion table still separated from the will of God and the peace of God. I am persuaded this happens, at least in part, because we still hold people accountable for debts they can never pay. And as a result, it is we who are separated from God at the table.
We have been hurt and an apology will not be good enough. We have been wronged and no amount of money will fix it. Nothing they can do or say will ever set it right. And Jesus says the burden is on us, Church, to reach out the forgiving hand. A forgiven people must live as a forgiving people.
I believe it was Tony Campolo who told of a time when he helped bring a lost lamb back to the church. Her sins were notorious in the community–they were especially well known among some of the men in the church. After several weeks of seeing her regularly on the back row of the sanctuary he didn’t think too much of it when she missed a Sunday…then two. After the third he called on her at home. She said she felt so guilty and dirty every time she was in church. He reminded her of how they had worked through all that. He asked her to remember “in the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven”. She replied, “I know Jesus has forgiven me, but the looks on their faces tell me the people have not.”
“Whosoever’s sins you forgive, they are forgiven. Whosoever sins you retain, they are retained.” “And so my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Now, I had to go outside any church I have ever pastored to get that illustration. The truth is that the church loves to reconcile. Reconciling people with each other and with God is what we do best. It is our reason for being.
You and I, church, have been empowered to loose people of their bonds on earth and in heaven. That is a key point in this splendid parable which Jesus shares with us on the importance of forgiveness. He even gives us one of those ‘how to do it formulas’ so rare in the New Testament. He did not leave us detailed instructions on how to conduct a church board meeting, or even a baptism. But he did show us how to forgive.
“But what if we forgive someone for something we shouldn’t have?” Jesus does not seem to think that’s going to be our problem. We are not likely to out forgive Jesus. He knows what we are like. If two of us can work something out, then Jesus is right there with us. He is even ahead of us.
It was on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, while they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
So, we come to the table for eightieth time…If anyone is still counting…
Are you listening church? In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven
On a Friday afternoon, from the cross, he looked on the masses of people; unforgiven people, living in perpetual torment–afraid of God–and he blessed them: “Father, forgive them.” And we leave the table for the eighty-first time (if anyone is still counting): In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven. Go in peace.