Category: Sunday Morning Sermon
Speaker: Rev. Dr. Steven E. Albertin
“HOW MANY TIMES IS ENOUGH?”
Pentecost 15 A Lectionary 24
September 17, 2017
Christ Lutheran Church
Rev. Dr. Steven E. Albertin
One of the sure signs that a marriage is in trouble is when one spouse asks the other, “How many times is enough? How many times do I have to say ‘I love you?’ How many times do I have to carry out the garbage? How many times do I have to pick up your stuff?” Such questions betray the fact that the relationship has become a matter of obligation. Once you have fulfilled the requirement, you have done enough. In a healthy marriage, there is no asking “How many times is enough?” Loving and caring know no limit.
In today’s Gospel, we also see a relationship in trouble. Here the relationship in question is not a marriage but Peter’s relationship to Jesus. Peter raises this same troubling question. “How many times is enough? Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how many times should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Peter wanted limits on his obligation to forgive.
Peter probably thought he was deserving of a pat on the back for being so willing to forgive. After all, the Jewish rabbis of that time had decided that it was sufficient to forgive someone three times. Then you could draw the line. Then you would not have to forgive any more. Peter was willing to forgive even more, even seven times!
However, Jesus punctures Peter’s bubble. He says, “I do not say to you seven times but seventy times seven.” Does that mean 490 times? Does that mean that Peter simply must enlarge his number? Jesus is not just raising the requirement. The numbers seven and seventy are symbolic. They are the numbers of perfection, fullness, infinity. What Jesus really means is that Peter is asking the wrong question. For the disciples in Jesus’ Kingdom there is no limit to forgiveness. In Jesus’ Kingdom, there will be no need to ask, “How many times is enough?” Among Jesus’ disciples, forgiveness never ends.
This Jesus is tough to swallow, isn’t he? These are hard words to accept. Whoever thought that following Jesus would mean living like this? That is not the world in which we live. We live in a world where there are limits to forgiveness. Three strikes and you are out. 90 days to pay your bill or else. Hit me and I will hit you. In this world, payback, getting back and getting even, is a way of life.
Peter had asked Jesus “How many times is enough?” How may times do I have to forgive and still be your disciple? Jesus’ answer says, “Wrong question, Peter. My disciples do not even ask such questions. In my Kingdom, forgiveness is unlimited. It never stops.” Then Jesus tells a story that seems to contradict everything he has said about the unlimited forgiveness of his kingdom.
Jesus compares God’s Kingdom to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. A servant owed him ten thousand talents. That is a lot of money. When you do the math, it is over one billion dollars. We are talking big bucks here.
Of course, the man could not pay. Who could repay such a debt? Therefore, the king ordered the man, his wife and his children to be sold as slaves. Does that seem harsh? Before we are too tough on he king, I remind you that the king was already incredibly generous by giving the servant a one billion dollar loan. The question is what has he done with all that money? To have spent and lost more than a billion is no small feat! This servant has been incredibly reckless with the king’s generosity. He blew a pile of money. He now has NOTHING to show for it. Nothing! It is time to draw the line. Forgiveness and generosity have limits.
The servant falls on his knees and begs the king. “Have patience with me and I will repay all,” he says. Whom is he kidding? Ignore that he has blown a billion?
Then, the surprise! In a burst of pity, the king cancels the whole debt. What kind of a soft-hearted king is this? Maybe he is also soft-headed? Start forgiving debts like this and everybody is going to expect a bail out. You are not going to be king for very long governing like that.
Sure enough, the king’s generosity has limits. On his way out of jail, the servant, who has just been forgiven a billion dollars, runs into a fellow servant who owes him . . . $10. Grabbing him by the neck nearly choking him, he demands, “Pay me what you owe!”
The servant pleads in return, “Have patience with me and I will pay you.” Haven’t we heard this speech before? The first servant had used the very same words with the king before and it worked. The king forgave him. You would think the king’s generosity might softened him, but he remains unchanged. He refuses to extend the generosity given to him to another. All he can say is, “Thrown him in jail.”
His fellow servants saw what had happened and how ungrateful and hardhearted remained the servant who had been graciously forgiven. They were not happy with him. They report him to the king. The King, who had been in a generous mood only moments before, now blows his top. “You evil servant! I forgave you a gigantic debt and you jailed your fellow servant for a mere $10!” And the king hands the servant over to the torturers until he pays back every cent of the billion he owes, which, we are sure, will never happen.
And just so we don’t miss the point, Jesus reminds Peter . . . and us, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
This story does not compute! Has not Jesus just reminded Peter that in God’s Kingdom forgiveness is unlimited? But then Jesus tells a story about a Kingdom that is really no different from the kingdoms of this world. Oh, there may be some occasional outburst of generosity, but in the end everyone gets what he deserves. Debts must be paid. Obligations must be met. There is little difference between the ungrateful and the unforgiving servant and the king. He showed some generosity in the beginning, but when the chips are down, he is just as demanding and hard-nosed as anyone else.
Is there a limit to God’s forgiveness after all? That seems to be the case, because in the end according to this parable we ARE all judged on the basis of our works. Actually, if we are honest with ourselves, this parable confirms what we were hoping would be true all along. In the end, you really do get what you deserve. When the sun sets in the west, when curtain finally falls and when all is said and done, justice triumphs. Karma indeed reigns. You get what you deserve. The bad guys get their comeuppance. The good guys win. The unforgiving servant finally gets what he deserves. We are relieved. There is a moral universe after all. No one gets off the hook.
We like to see people get what they deserve. We like stories in which the good guys triumph and the bad guys get what is coming to them. This ungrateful little wretch got what was coming to him! He deserved to be tortured and locked up for life!
Oh, oh. . . . Then we realize what has happened. Jesus has done it again. Just when we thought this parable was about all those other moral failures out there who fail to forgive as they have been forgiven, it has sneaked up behind us and bit us in the rear.
We realize that we have been caught. By the end of this deceptively simple little story, Jesus has revealed the truth about us. The unforgiving and ungrateful servant . . . is us!
Our delight in what happened to that unforgiving servant at the end of this story shows how much we too remain enmeshed in a world that resists the idea of unlimited forgiveness. When Peter asked “How many times is enough?” he was speaking for us.
Remember, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer and the 9-11 terrorists? How about child abusers, drug abusers and thieves. Such thugs will get no mercy from us. We delight when the mighty fall. We enjoy our “schadenfreude” when the Patriots lose or celebrities crumble. We love it when our enemies get what they deserve. Then we realize that when Jesus says, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart,” he is talking about us.
On that Friday afternoon long ago, we were there along with the rest of our vengeful world. We had stripped him, spit on him, whipped him and ridiculed him. After a trial that was done by the books, we crucified him. How dare he forgive those who did not deserve it! As he hung there, bleeding, he looked down at us trapped in our eternal cycle of getting back and getting even, that we label “justice,” he did the improbable. He did what both the servant and the king were unwilling to do. He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
At that moment, Jesus defied not only the world and its demand for justice, but God and God’s demand for justice. They collided that day on the cross. Jesus was crushed for his defiance. When he breathed is last, accounts were settled. Debts were paid. Jesus went to his grave for daring to believe and act that it could be otherwise. It looked like he was wrong, dead wrong. He paid for it. However, God was determined to do what neither the king nor the servant could do. God declared that because of Jesus all debts were forgiven. All accounts were settled. All obligations were ended . . . even ours! God raised Jesus from the dead to prove it.
As a result, the world is changed. The eternal cycle of retribution is derailed. Forgiven and freed, we live in a new world and a new kingdom, where we never need to ask “How many times is enough?” Here seventy times seven is not an obligation to be met but a description of the new kind of life we get to live.
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer and ask God to “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” we pray that God would continue to create this new world among us, where we will never need to ask again, “How many times is enough?” That world is here . . . now. Thanks be to God!