Pockets of Poison: The Need for Forgiveness
Pentecost 17A Matthew 18:21-35
They had been married for twenty five years. It was one of those average, not so good marriages. Not so good and not so bad. But over time, the love between the two of them gradually dissolved. He had an affair and that pretty much ended the marriage. They divorced, leaving her with the four children. She ended up much poorer than she thought she was going to be. There just wasn’t enough money to pay all the bills, causing her much inner turmoil. He soon remarried, too soon so it felt. But it was the wedding day of their youngest daughter that got to her.....when that woman was escorted down the aisle, now seated right behind her. The inner rage started to burn. And when her husband come down the aisle, smiling ear to ear with their daughter, that was just too much. Her feelings of bitterness flooded into her heart, forming a pocket of poison within. Nobody knew it, of course; she covered it up with an appropriate smile. But that moment in the church on the wedding day was one of the most difficult times of her whole life.
He had been hired by his company right out of college. He had done well for himself, gradually climbing to the top. His company had gone through a couple of buy-outs, but he always landed on his feet, and landed on top. He hadn’t seen it coming, but in the latest reorganization, his name wasn’t part of the chart. He couldn’t believe it. They gave him a good severance package and all, but he was out on the streets without a job. Too young to retire. To old to get another good job. And the anger was building inside, anger towards the company, in particular anger towards his old boss. And he wasn’t sleeping well any more and was taking too much aspirin for tension. Yes, at the bottom of his heart, was forming a pocket of poison.
She left Seattle for Minneapolis with the new baby, to show the baby off to her parents. The infant had all the necessary vaccinations, including the vaccination for polio. It was a real fluky deal, but the polio vaccine seeped through a diaper and into her cut finger, and she, herself, got polio, of all things. And by the time she and her daughter flew back to Seattle, she was in a wheel chair. What a bizarre turn of events! And when she came back home to Seattle, the marriage just couldn’t handle it; her handicap, the new baby, a radically changed life. And gradually, at the bottom of her heart, was a pocket of poison, a pool of bitterness, growing ever so slowly.
God has built us human beings in such a way, that when we experience enormous pain in our lives, we respond with internal anger. When we experience enormous pain in our lives or prolonged pain or repeated petty pain in our lives, we human beings develop this pocket of poison in our hearts, a pool of anger and bitterness inside; and if this pocket of poison is not lanced and drained, it can kill us or ruin the rest of our lives.
To illustrate. My wife and I have just returned from our summer vacation where we were hiking up in the Rockies, both the American and Canadian Rockies. The first day out on the trails, we were on the top of Logan Pass at Glacier Park and we went on an eleven mile hike. It was not any easy one. By the end of that first hike on the first day of our vacation, my wife, Jan, had developed an enormous blister on the heel of her left foot. That blister had to be lanced and drained, or ..... we would ruin the rest of our hiking vacation. And so it is with you and me; if we don’t lance the pockets of poison in the bottom of our hearts, it can ruin the rest of our lives.
It is with this introduction that we approach the Gospel lesson for today. And as a good rabbi, I would like to walk through the Biblical text with you. Would you please refer to your bulletin where the Gospel is printed? I would like to read the whole story again to you, highlighting certain words and phrases for you.
The word, “Peter.” Peter means rock, solid as a rock. Two chapters ago in Matthew, in chapter 16, Jesus asked Peter who he was and Peter responded: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus said, “Very good, Simon. From now on I am going to call you Peter, Peter the solid rock, and on your confession of faith, I will build my church. You, Peter, are the solid rock, and I will give you the crucial keys of the kingdom, the keys of forgiveness.” And so two chapters ago, Peter was given the keys of the kingdom, the master key to the kingdom, the key of forgiveness, but Peter, the Rock, didn’t know how to use the keys of the kingdom. It was now time for him to learn how to use the keys of the kingdom, the keys of forgiveness.
And so Peter, the Rock, asked Jesus, the Son of God, “How many times shall I forgive?” “Forgive.” Focus on the word forgive. The word forgive, “apheamee,” in the Greek language, means to “let go.” Look at my hand, clenched and hard, and then my clenched hand opens to let go. Let go of the rock. Let go of the rage. Let go of the anger. It is letting to of what you are clutching in your hand. The word, forgive, means to let go. ..... In my Adult Inquiry class, I always teach about how to trap monkeys. You drill holes the size of a monkey’s hand into a coconut, and put such coconuts under the trees where the monkeys are. The monkey squeezes his right hand into the hole and grabs the coconut meat inside; his right hand is expanded by grabbing the sweet coconut. Then the left hand. Then the right foot. Then the left foot. And now, all four appendages of the monkey are trapped as he clutches the coconut. The only way the monkey can become free is to let go, let go of the coconut. ..... And likewise with you and me, the only way we become free of the pain we have experienced....the deep pain, the prolonged pain, the repeated pain.....the only way we ever become free is to let go of the way we have been hurt by others.
“My brother.” My brother is a broad word, including all human beings. My brother, sister, mother, father, son, daughter, friend, co-worker, neighbor, stranger, in laws, ex laws, spouse, ex spouse, even myself, especially myself. Sometimes the person who has hurt you most deeply is yourself. Through poor choices; foolish actions. Sometimes the person most difficult to forgive is one’s self. “My brother” includes all human beings who have hurt you deeply or repeatedly.
“Who has sinned.” The word sin means “miss the mark, miss the target.” Imagine a target there in the front of the church, and your have a bow and arrow and you are about to shoot the arrow at the target, at the bulls eye of target. Your arrow flies and you miss the whole target. You miss the mark. And so it is with our lives; we miss the mark of doing it right; we miss the target of doing things the way God wanted us to, the way we wanted to, coming up short. Missed again. Didn’t do it quite right.
“Against me.” That personal word, “me.” The pain is always the greatest when it affects me and mine. Me, my family, my closest friends. When someone deeply hurts me, my family, my closest friends, my rage against such people burns inside of me.
And then Peter quickly thinks to himself: “Three times? I know in the Old Testament, the prophets tell us to forgive others three times. The Old Testament is clear about that. Like baseball, three strikes and you’re out. Like our new laws, three strikes and you’re out of society and into prison. Three sins and you’re out. But Jesus seems to be a generous hearted fellow, so I will ‘up it’ to seven.”
“Seven times, Jesus?” And Jesus said, “No, Peter, not seven times but seventy seven times.” And Peter’s mouth dropped. Flabbergasted. Stunned. He had never heard of such a thing. It was shocking. Jesus spoke the Aramaic language. In Aramaic, they have no words for million, billion, trillion, infinity. They didn’t have such big numbers, so when Jesus said, seventy seven seventy seven seventy seven seventy seven seventy seven, it was like saying “infinitely.” And Peter’s mouth dropped. He was stunned. No one had ever said that in the history of human race. Not in the Old Testament. Not in the ancient philosophers. No one ever. Of course, Peter would not have known that, but we know that. Incredible.
And Jesus said, “let me tell you a story that illustrates this.” And Jesus went on to tell the following story.
“There was a servant owed the king 10,000 talents.” Ten thousand talents! And his jaw dropped again. That’s the equivalent of twenty-five life times of labor. Impossible. Incredible. What servant could ever run up that kind of debt? Taxation for the Roman empire for all of Israel ran 600 talents a year. It was an unimaginable number, the level of debt that was run up by such a peon servant. And it is unimaginable the level of debt that we human beings can run up against God, an accumulation of sin throughout our whole life time.
“Sold the servant, his wife and children and all possessions to pay the debt.” Wow. This king is tough, selling not only the servant, but his whole family.
“The servant fell on his knees and pleaded ‘be patient with me.’” And that is the way we are with God. When we get up to the pearly gates and face Jesus and Simon Peter, gatekeeper in all the jokes; when we stand before God, at the pearly gates, we will be pleading: “Be patient with me. I tried. I know it wasn’t good enough. I really need your patience with me.”
“I will pay back everything I owe.” What a liar. How could the servant pay back twenty five life times of labor? Impossible. Could any of you pay back a debt of twenty five million dollars? Of twenty five billion dollars? Could I see your hands? No one. And who could ever pay God back for all the sins of our entire lives, beginning with infancy, early childhood, the teen years, all the years? Who could ever pay God back for the accumulation of our sins and missing the mark our entire lives? Could anyone pay back such a debt? No one.
“But the servant’s master.” And by now, you clearly realize that you are in the middle of Jesus’ parable, and the servant’s master, the king, is God. Yes, this parable is obviously about God.
“God, the master or king, took pity on him.” Pity. Mercy. This is one of the most important words in the Bible to describe God, in both the Old and New Testaments. That God’s heart is merciful and kind. The psalmist said it over and over again: Gods’ mercy endures forever. God’s mercy endures forever. God’s mercy lives forever. It is God’s kindness of heart that we rely upon and need.
“Canceled his debt.” Incredible. God cancels the debt. And immediately, our mind rushes to other Bible verses which tell us that Christ’s death on the cross paid for all our sins. Our sins are canceled on the cross; our slate is wiped clean; our sins are erased. The atonement of Christ. The death of Christ. The payment of Christ, canceling all our sins.
“And let him go”...free. This is the heart of the theology of the Apostle Paul. Christ died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins. Our debt is canceled. He let’s go of our sins; he forgives our sins and we are now free.
Jesus could have ended his story right now and he would have summarized the theology of grace, but Jesus has more to say, more twists and turns that need to be revealed.
(Then read the rest of the parable about the harsh, unforgiving servant.)
The key line to the parable: shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant...your husband, wife, ex husband, ex wife, children, parents, co-worker, boss, exlaw, inlaws, yourself...as I have had on you? This is the key question to the parable. ... There is a momentary pause, and Christ waits for your answer.
Again, Jesus could have ended the parable here, but adds another twist. In anger, the king turned the first servant over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back.” In Matthew’s Gospel, you often hear of this threat of hell and damnation, the “grinding and gnashing of teeth,” the eternal punishment of God.
The threat of the tortures of hell always gets your attention.
Unless you forgive your brother from the heart. From the heart. Forgiveness from the heart. Not merely from the lips. Not merely from the head. Not merely out of churchly obligation. But that forgiveness would genuinely flow from deep within the human heart.
And when Jesus finished telling this story, I wrote on bottom of the page. Scintillating. Brilliant. Genius. Only a spiritual genius could have created such a story. Or, the very Son of God who knew the heart and mind of God.
So what does this parable mean for our lives? How do we apply this story to the way we live and die?
First, the language of love is always the language of forgiveness. Love is not love unless it is essentially the spirit of forgiveness. Forgives as Jesus forgives is the master key of all human relationships. You cannot live in the house of life with all it varied rooms without a master key, and the master key of the house of life is forgiveness.
Now, why is this so? Why is forgiveness so essential to successful living? Because the only kind of human beings there are on this earth are imperfect ones, who miss the mark, who don’t do it right, who come up short; and the only way you can live an abundant life with such imperfect people is with forgiveness....letting to of their sins, of your sins, of their imperfections, of your imperfections; of their mistakes, of your mistakes. Let me be absolutely clear: All people are imperfect. That’s the way it will always be with all people here on earth, and the only way your can live with such imperfect people, including yourself, is through forgiveness. Oh, you can be miserable. You can forever punish others and yourself for your flaws and their flaws, but the only way to live happily with imperfect people is to learn the divine art of forgiveness...letting go.
Forgiveness is essential to living. It is simply true: you cannot live without water. You cannot live without food. And you cannot live without forgiveness. That’s just the way life is. That is true. Dr. Weatherhead said that forgives is the most powerful therapeutic force in the world, and I agree. Forgiveness of self. Forgiveness of others. It is absolutely essential in order to live.
Forgiveness is the master key to the kingdom of God and the house of life, and we need to learn how to use that master key well..... and often.
Second, in this parable, Jesus is inspiring us to forgive, motivating us, lifting us up, encouraging us to be more forgiving people. And how does Jesus do this? By telling us of the greatness, the vastness, the mind-boggling infinity of God’s forgiveness towards us. Millions, billions, trillions of sin that God has forgiveness us. Wiped it away. Canceled. Payment made in Jesus Christ. If God is go generous in forgiving us, certainly we need to be generous in forgiving others, including ourselves.
When we were on our vacation, we happened to be watching TV one morning as we were getting ready for the day, and about the only channel available to us was a religious channel. The host was interviewing a woman whose son had been murdered at school, in a shooting similar to the one that happened at Columbine Highschool. The mother of a boy who had been killed told of how she talked to the mother of the son who had killed her boy; and how she talked to the murderer himself. And as this grieving mother talked, you sensed that God’s healing had already been at work, that the pool of poison in the bottom of her heart, was being drained of its poisonous power. The nature of her grief was inspiring, because her grief was deep and enormously difficult, but at the same time, there was an absence of bitterness in her. She was an inspirational person.
The same is true of interviews that I have seen of Nelson Mandella, the President of South Africa who had been in prison for more than thirty years, who had been tortured by his guards. It has always amazed me that Mandella has this peace about him, this inner tranquillity, after losing three decades of life to prison. That pool of poison seems to have been drained completely from Mandella’s heart.
And that is the reason that Jesus tells this story about the immensity of God’s forgiveness towards us. A million. A billion. A trillion amount of forgiveness for your sins and mine. And the purpose of this is to inspire us, motivate us, lift us up, enable us to be forgiving people. When the story if finished, you don’t want to be cheap with your own forgiveness towards yourself and others.
But this story is not only to inspire us to forgive, we also hear that we are commanded to forgive. God says, “If you don’t forgive the sins of others, neither will I forgive you your sins.” And we hear this threat. So God not only inspires us to forgive; he then commands; then demands forgiveness from us.
I wish we prayed the Lord’s Prayer according to Matthew’s version instead of Luke’s. You know Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. It is marked indelibly into your memory chip: “Our Father.......forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin again us. And lead us not into temptation.” But Matthew’s version has this twist: forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. For if we do not forgive the sins of others, neither will God our heavenly father forgive us our sins. Ouch. What if you and I prayed that version of the Lord’s prayer every day instead of Luke’s version, I think it would make a difference. We would know that forgiveness is also God’s demand, God’s command.
Two chapters before, in Matthew 16, Peter had been given the keys of the kingdom, the master key to the house of life, the keys of forgiveness. He didn’t know how to use those keys yet, and so two chapters later, in the story for today, Peter asked Jesus, “And how often should I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Three times? Seven times?”
And Jesus said “seventy seven seventy seven seventy seven seventy seven seventy seven seventy seven” (said as I the preacher walked to my seat and sat down), and Peter’s mouth dropped in shock by what Jesus said. Amen.”
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