First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
September 17, 2017
“Holy Math”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith

Matthew 18:21-33                                                

21Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’


I have a confession to make. I’ve been with you now, almost a year, and it’s probably time that you learn something about me that I may not have disclosed fully. I am flawed. There is something that I’m just not good at, something that I know many of you excel at and for which I am in awe. I am not a math wiz. Not only am I not a math wiz, I, quite frankly stink at it. If I ever start talking numbers like I know what I’m doing and do not have a calculator in front of me, be very leery… and then double check my math because I’m really bad at it.

So when I ran across this little comic in reference to today’s gospel I just couldn’t help but use it this morning.

Interestingly, it’s a lot easier to admit that we are not good at math than it is to admit we are not good at forgiveness – both giving and receiving it. Yet, if I had the ability to go back and log the topic of my pastoral conversations, I would be willing to bet dollars to donuts that forgiveness would be the number one issue that people talk about. I get phone calls, emails, drop-by-visits, scheduled visits, chats in the hallway, on the street, in the grocery store and at the airport about forgiveness. When it comes to topics discussed during times of counseling, forgiveness tops addiction, infidelity, need for financial assistance, or concerns about children or aging parents.

Forgiveness is perhaps one of the most challenging theological concepts there is for us to wrap our heads around. It’s perhaps the one that reaches into our highly evolved human brain so deeply that we can’t always sort it out. Because when we are hurt, emotionally or physically, we are drawn to one of two things: revenge or distance. If we go the revenge route it’s because we want to make the other person feel what we feel. We want the ones who caused us so much heart ache and pain to go through what we have. We don’t want to let them off the hook. We want them punished so they won’t do “that” again and forgiveness just doesn’t seem to be part of that scenario.

If we go the distance route it’s because we want to avoid the pain of the broken relationship or the possibility of being hurt further. We get as far away from whatever has hurt us as we can. If we put enough distance between us, it puts a false barrier around our broken heart.

This forgiveness thing is a human dilemma. But it’s also a theological dilemma for we have come to find out that when it comes to forgiveness, God’s a pro at it. Forgiveness is part of the heart of God. It’s at the heart of Jesus. Remember what he said from the cross? He prayed for God’s forgiveness for those who were crucifying them.

Now, there’s a few things we have to get out on the table about forgiveness.

First of all, we have to realize that the question asked in the gospel is specific to the church. If you go back to verse 21, the question that Peter asks is: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Remember, this is a question about someone in the church. Maybe that person sitting just down the row from you or the one that used to sit there but because of whatever, doesn’t come to church anymore. This is a question about forgiving everyday people. It isn’t about Hitler or Isis or the person that you only know about because you saw their name in the paper under the court records.

Ultimately, Peter is concerned about life in the community of faith of the followers of Jesus. Not that this disregards the call to forgiveness of the most difficult to forgive, but it reminds us that, for those who follow in the way of Jesus, forgiveness within that body, is central. Remember the song, “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love?” Part of being the church is living into who we say we are so deeply that we don’t need to say who we are. “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

The fact that Peter asks how often, indicates that there must have been a reason. Was there someone who was pushing the limit? “You know, I’ve forgiven James six times now for sitting in my pew on Sunday morning. How many times must I forgive him, do I need to go the seventh?” When Jesus ramps it up to seven times seventy he’s taking it to a whole different level.

A little note about the number seven. We see it in the Bible in significant places – Six days of creation and Sabbath on the seventh. The seven seals, doors, and horsemen in the Book of Revelation. When the number “seven” shows up in the Bible, it’s a way to say that something is spiritually complete or whole. So when Jesus tells Peter to forgive a member of the church 7 times seventy, it’s a way of saying you forgive until the church is spiritually whole.

Second – forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Let me say that again. Forgiveness does NOT mean forgetting. In fact, forgiveness is most powerful when we remember that we are forgiven. It is in the remembering that there was once brokenness that has been restored that we can look back and say, “wow, I don’t want to go through that again” when we recognize the value of reconciliation. It’s why the hymn “Amazing Grace” is so powerful.

Forgiveness is not about wiping the slate clean and erasing the terrible behavior of the past. This is crucial in instances of abuse and neglect. It is the person that is forgiven – never the act. Never, ever is forgiveness to be understood as a way to rationalize abusive behavior. Rather, forgiveness is part of a process of reconciliation that involves recognizing sinful behavior and correcting it.

In the Jewish tradition, which Jesus and Peter were well acquainted, forgiveness is just one step of a process of repentance or Teshuvah – which literally means to return to one’s true essence – very simply put, it’s a four step process.

  1. When someone sins or causes harm to another, they must acknowledge their wrongdoing to the one whom they have harmed. They must confess.
  2. They have to fix the harm that has been done by restoring what was taken. If it was property it is given back. If it was reputation, it is restored. If it is the ability to function, what they can no longer do is done on their behalf.
  3. More than restoring what has been lost to the one who has been harmed, there is also charity to the wider community because when someone in the community has been harmed, the whole community is affected.
  4. And finally, significant steps must be taken to change one’s ways and not repeat the offense.

So –

  1. Confession to wrong that has been done.
  2. Restore what has been lost
  3. Charity to the wider community
  4. Change one’s ways so as not to repeat the sin.

For the sake of ongoing life in the community, if one is offered forgiveness without the proper steps of repentance, forgiveness cannot be complete. They are two sides of the same coin.

Perhaps that’s why we are called to offer forgiveness so many times, again and again and again, until it is received and repentance is complete—because forgiveness, both giving and receiving, is as much about restoring community as it is about restoring individual relationships.

Forgiveness is hard. It moves us out of our comfort zone. It’s not a part of our instincts as human beings. But, as the church, we are called to be human and then some. We are called to be an odd mixture of humans walking around in the shoes of the divine. Not to be better than others but to simply embody that which we confess, that which we believe, the one whom we follow. The one who says, not just seven times but seven times seventy… it’s not just a challenge for those of us who are mathematically challenged, it’s a challenge for all of us who are human.

And that means we’ll need some help. Like anything that is difficult, we need help with forgiveness and it begins with the admission that we, too are forgiven by a God who doesn’t understand that concept of limited love or limited forgiveness.