Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 13, 2020
Matthew 18:21-35 Commentary
Matthew 18 reminds us of a core Christian conviction: Forgiveness is something we live, something we embody, every moment. But that only stands to reason. After all, the very foundation on which our identity as Christians is built is nothing less than the death and resurrection of Jesus and the flood of gracious forgiveness which that grand sacrifice unleashed.
“Forgiven” is who and what we just are. Forgiveness is not a tool you need just once in a while. Forgiveness is not like that Phillips screwdriver that you keep out in the garage and that you fetch now and then when a kitchen cabinet is loose (and when a regular flat-head screwdriver won’t work). Forgiveness is not a specialty tool to be utilized occasionally.
Forgiveness is more like the clothes on your back. You don’t generally walk around the house naked and you surely never leave the house without some kind of attire covering you. Forgiveness is more like that: it goes with you, accompanies you, and is needed by you everywhere you go.
So what does this imply?
For one thing it implies that each and every one of us needs to be forgiven by God, and by others, every day. We need to be forgiven about as often, if not more often, as we need to eat. True, most days we are not guilty of anything huge. Most days we are not carrying around with us the burden of having committed adultery, of having embezzled money from our company, or of having been convicted of drunk driving. But there are always a slew of smaller sins, lapses, and faults. There are always those dark thoughts we’re glad no one else can see.
Seeing forgiveness as every much a daily matter as eating and drinking puts each of us into perspective. As Lewis B. Smedes once put it in a burst of alliteration: Forgiveness Fits Faulty Folks. The more keenly aware you are of your getting that gift every day, the more inclined you will be to distribute it to those who are in need of a healing, restorative word from you.
Someone once said that the scariest word in the entire New Testament is that tiny little word “as” in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” That vital connection between God’s abiding forgiveness of us and of our in turn forgiving others tells us that we must forgive. It’s the family style for the family of God and it starts with the Father and goes on down from there. This is not some weird demand on God’s part, however. This is not some hoop we must jump through to earn our salvation or to perform like some trained dog just because God enjoys watching us do tricks. No, the reason for the connection between God’s forgiving us and our forgiving others is because of the sheer power of God’s forgiveness. It is so great that it simply must and will change us.
The reason God expects us to forgive as a result of our being forgiven is the same reason you can expect to be wet after diving into a lake: water is wet and when you immerse yourself in it, you get wet. So also with forgiving grace: grace is magnetic and beautiful. When God immerses you in grace and saves your life eternally by it, you will be dripping with grace yourself. You will be full of grace and truth and so spread it to others. God forgives us daily. We forgive others daily. Forgiveness is our lifestyle. It’s our habit.
That very much seems to be Jesus’ point in Matthew 18.
Everyone who preaches is forced to do what the Common Lectionary also does; namely, preach on segments of the Bible. So the temptation is always there to zero in on the text at hand and forget about the all-important CON-text of any given passage. In this case, Matthew 18:21-35 cannot be seen in isolation from the previous Lectionary lection of Matthew 18:15-20. There we were given Jesus’ now-famous multi-step “method” by which to deal with those in the “church” who sin repeatedly and fail to repent. At the end of the day, Jesus says that when all good-faith efforts have failed to get this person’s attention, the offender must be put out of the church and treated like “a pagan or a tax collector.” And that would seem to be that. Unless, that is, you keep reading on to verses 21-35 after which one must conclude that whatever else it may mean to treat someone like a pagan or a tax collector, it apparently does not mean that this person’s exiled status relieves you of at least the desire to forgive him after all. We’re never finished with forgiving offenders. Not ever. What’s more, we should never want to be finished either. We surely never hope that God gets to the point of being finished with forgiving US!
Some years ago the late Lewis B. Smedes published a popular book titled Forgive and Forget. In the book Smedes spent quite a while looking at the positive mental health benefits that accrue to people who do not stew on things but who rather let hurts go through the forgiving of others. At one point he had a line to the effect that when you forgive someone, you set a prisoner free and the prisoner in question turns out to be yourself. At the time Smedes came in for a lot of criticism from some in the Christian community who found this approach to be altogether too psycho-babbly, too therapeutic, too inwardly focused when it came to the whys and wherefores of forgiveness. We forgive because we have been forgiven. We forgive not to help ourselves but because it’s the God-like thing to do and our main focus should be on healing others, not ourselves.
Some of these critics had a point but they may have missed also a larger point: this need not be an either-or. Let’s say God created us for shalom. Let’s say that the bad things we perpetrate against others as well as the bad things inflicted on us by others disrupt that shalom. When things are out of whack between us and another person, we feel unsettled. Things are out of joint. Forgiveness is a divine gift when God gives it to us because it restores our relationship with our Creator. We feel better. But presumably there is a sense in which God feels better too. Our restored relationship brings God joy, too, and if it is true that restoring God’s own joy may not have been the chief reason why God forgave us in the first place, it’s not unimportant either.
So also for us: maybe we do free ourselves for more joyful living, for a more settled feeling of shalom in our souls when we forgive another person. That it should have that effect on us ought not come as a surprise, though. It would make sense if our forgiving others restored also our own sense of balance in God’s creation. Because forgiving would make us more human in the sense of making us better bear God’s image.
Smedes was right: forgiving is good for us. It’s part of the mutual webbing together of all reality and of all our relationships. And that is the very definition of shalom.
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