Sunday, February 20, 2022

Sermon: “Forgiveness Clause”, Matthew 18:15-35 (February 20, 2022)


My dad is a lawyer. As is the case with many young children, I insisted for years that I wanted to have the same job when I grew up—not because I had any concept of what a lawyer actually DOES, but because it was pretty much the only job that I knew about. (My mom eventually earned her graduate degree and entered the work force too, but “School Psychologist” is much harder for a six-year-old to say and spell than “Lawyer”, so it didn’t impact my career plans at the time.) Plus, my dad’s downtown office had a spiral staircase, which I called “pizza stairs” and thought was the coolest thing ever.

Now, obviously, my career path wound up taking a different direction, but I’ve been surprised at how often the topic of law comes up in ministry. Prior to seminary, I knew that “Torah” means “Law” and that Jesus said he came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it, but I didn’t quite realize that the Bible was referring to ACTUAL LEGAL CODES. And that the covenants upon which the Jewish and Christian faiths are both founded take the form of ACTUAL LEGAL CONTRACTS. And the things that happened to rulebreakers were ACTUAL LEGAL CONSEQUENCES. A careful reading of scripture in its historical context reveals that it isn’t just laying out general guidelines for God’s people but is, quite literally, laying down the law. So, while I wouldn’t call myself a legal scholar by any means, my childhood self wasn’t QUITE as far off the mark as you might think.

I spend a fair amount of time pondering the nature of ancient treaties between humanity and the divine, and how they compare to our earthly contracts. In contrast to secular law, for example, God has an unusually disproportionate (although not, perhaps, inappropriate) level of control over the original covenant between God and Abraham. God fills the roles of covenantal partner, legal counsel AND judge: the covenant is instigated and enforced entirely by God, who also sets the terms. Of course, I doubt Abraham would have objected to any provisions that God wanted to include, since humanity only stood to gain from such an agreement. Given this fact, I sometimes I wonder why, in light of how many times humanity wound up abandoning their side of the covenant, God doesn’t include an escape clause in this contract.

An escape clause is (and here I must once again emphasize that I am NOT a legal scholar) a provision in a contract which allows one party to “get out of” the agreement upon the occurrence of a specified event. If, for example, humanity chose to behave in a way that reflected badly on God. Or they killed the person sent to save them. Or they abused each other. Or they irreparably damaged creation in the name of personal profit. Or they…well, you get the idea. Why would YHWH want to protect and provide for people who would do such things (even if they did manage to keep their part of the contract by remaining faithful to God, which—spoiler alert—they didn’t)? An escape clause seems like a logical thing for an omnipotent God to have included in any covenant with humanity.

But this is where it’s important to remember that God’s laws are different than ours. Even in the places where escape clauses and irrevocable consequences would make the most sense, God’s law isn’t characterized most by self-interest or vindication, but by grace. This doesn’t mean, of course, that God’s standards are subjective or flexible—God’s law is also characterized by justice, and justice requires accountability and restoration. What it does mean is that, instead of looking for ways to get OUT of covenant with difficult or uncooperative people, God is always looking for more ways to welcome people back INTO community and relationship. I call this the Forgiveness Clause.

Consider the first part of today’s scripture passage. It definitely reads (to my untrained eye, anyway) as a legal procedure. It outlines a detailed process for dealing with someone who has sinned against someone else in the community. The wronged party must begin by seeking restitution in private, and then escalate their responses in pre-defined increments, establishing witnesses and offering the other person every opportunity to make it right. If none of that is enough to elicit repentance, then the consequences take effect: “treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector.” Most of the commentaries I read described this passage as “laying the groundwork for excommunication in the Church”. And it certainly sounds like an escape clause that nullifies the community covenant.

But wait a minute. “Treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector”…how was it that Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors again? Oh, right: he shared meals with them and even included a tax collector in his inner circle of disciples (Matthew, for whom this very gospel was named). Gentiles and tax collectors may technically be on the outside of the community, but God NEVER writes them off completely.

Jesus is NOT suggesting here that anyone should tolerate abuse—this is certainly not a “forgive and forget” situation. If the person who’s sinned against you refuses to repent and make it right, you are under no obligation to remain in relationship with them, and the Church has a responsibility to support and protect you. But neither should we exact revenge, spread deliberate slander, or dehumanize those who have wronged us. They’re no longer a part of the covenantal community, but neither are they condemned to burn in hell for all eternity. There’s still an opportunity, however small, for eventual redemption. This is the Forgiveness Clause in action.

Jesus reinforces this concept with the story immediately preceding this passage: the parable of the 99 sheep. Before outlining the procedure for “excommunication,” he reminds us that a good shepherd would leave 99 sheep who were safe on the hillside to find and return one who has wandered off. Reconciliation is ALWAYS the goal for God. When we’re able to reconcile with one another through repentance and restitution, it creates a unique opening for God to enter our hearts: “If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask—if you and the wandering sheep are able to agree on a way forward together—I’m there with you.”

Now Peter, ever the pragmatist, thinks that there MUST be a point at which the forgiveness clause no longer applies. “Surely, Lord, forgiving someone seven times is MORE than enough. If a person has to repent of a sin THAT many times, they’ve forfeited their right to forgiveness!” (An escape clause to the forgiveness clause: how very human.) I can only imagine the look on Peter’s face when Jesus corrects his calculations with what most translations render as “not seven times, but seventy times seven times”. We must be willing to forgive those who sin against us 490 times—which, of course, is hyperbolic language for “as many times as it takes”.

A Visual Representation of Seven vs. Seventy-Times-Seven

I assume it was Peter’s look of utter stupefaction that motivates Jesus to tell the parable of the unforgiving servant. The general moral of the story is clear enough—“forgive others the way you have been forgiven”—but what isn’t quite as clear to our modern ears is the respective magnitudes of the servants’ debts. The amount that the servant owes the king is absurd hyperbole: that amount of money wasn’t even in circulation at the time; Jesus might as well have said “a gajillion dollars”. The amount owed by the second servant is significant (a few month’s wages) but nowhere near the first servant’s debt. And yet, while both servants’ reactions to their respective creditors are the same (“Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back,”) the king responds with far more grace than was sought—correctly applying the forgiveness clause in spite of the ridiculously large debt—while the unforgiving servant selfishly responds with far less.

Even when the king (an obvious analogy for God) eventually reverses his decision in light of the first servant’s greed, the forgiveness clause remains in effect: the unforgiving servant isn’t sentenced to death or exile, as he perhaps deserves, but is sent to prison *until he pays what he owes.* Given the magnitude of the debt, this is virtually impossible, but the opening is still there. And we know what Peter doesn’t yet realize: that, although our debt is equally impossible to repay, Jesus himself does so on our behalf through the cross. Jesus is the real-world application of the forgiveness clause.

If God is willing to abide by the forgiveness clause even in the case of our impossible debt, how much more should we be open to forgiving OUR debtors? Could their debt to us be worse than our debt to God? Jesus would say no. How can we invoke the forgiveness clause for ourselves without also including it in our social contracts with others?

Jesus doesn’t expect us to forget the pain someone else has caused us, but rules, discipline, and repercussions CAN coexist with grace. Second chances, and third, and seventh, and even 490th chances can be given while still demanding accountability. It’s neither simple nor easy: it requires mutual participation by the sinner and the one sinned against, courageous honesty, genuine repentance, intentionality, and practice. It’s not automatic, it takes a lot of work, and it can take a very, very long time.

But this is the work that God’s people are called to do. We must be willing to believe that the forgiveness clause applies to EVERYONE who authentically seeks it. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting; it doesn’t mean saying a sin was okay; it means releasing the anger you feel and allowing God to enter the space between you and the one who hurt you in the hopes that they can create something good from the ashes.

I’d like to end this sermon with an apology. Far too many people have been deeply wounded by the Church—the very entity that’s supposed to champion God’s justice and love. It would be a grave omission not to acknowledge this fact in a sermon about reconciliation. Recognizing that faith does not entitle us to a “free pass” from accountability, I’d like to say how truly and deeply sorry I am, on behalf of myself and of the Church. To those who have been abused, neglected, excluded, manipulated, or otherwise hurt by those of us who claim to follow Christ: we’re sorry. We repent, and we want to do better. I know that this doesn’t undo the pain or entitle us to forgiveness…but perhaps it can be a first step in the long, hard road to redemption. As long as there’s a chance, we will keep working towards reconciliation—as God’s sacred law obliges us to. Amen.

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