In his memorable sermon “The Gospel as Hyperbole,” Fred Craddock points out that Jesus most assuredly had a way with words and with exaggeration as a way to get his points across. When it comes to conveying the sheer size of the gospel and of faith, Jesus refused to do what a lot of preachers today do; namely, make the gospel neat, tidy, manageable, as though the whole thing could get contained in pithy slogans and forty days of purpose or something. The problem with a lot of preaching, Craddock lamented, is that the gospel as presented is just not big enough. There’s not enough size to faith these days.
Text: Matthew 18: 21-35
Jesus used hyperbole to get the point across. Jesus was not adverse to talking about someone’s walking around with an entire log protruding from his eyeball, or pondering a camel’s squeezing through the eye of a sewing needle, or someone’s swallowing a camel but gagging on a gnat, or telling a whole mountain to take a swan dive into the sea.
In Matthew 18 Jesus says that a certain servant had racked up a debt equivalent to thousands of lifetimes’ worth of wages.
Or as Craddock put it of this servant, “Now he has maxed out the card!” (Center for Excellence in Preaching).
When the king forgives this one slave, what he does is set off a period of financial amnesty. The forgiveness of the debt is not a private matter, it is public and it ripples outward. Not only is this slave relieved of their obligation, but so is every other slave who owed the king. We note that this financial revolution does not make it out the door as the slave, with his now new found freedom, begins to settle his own accounts. When the king learns this he cannot ignore it and the slave is tortured.
But let’s be clear, the debt the servant acquired had nothing to do with money.
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 (Center for Excellence in Preaching).
In order to understand the kingdom of heaven, you need to understand forgiveness. It is part in parcel with why Jesus came. There are no options or outs when it comes to forgiveness. It seems like Peter is looking for an out and Jesus is not providing it.
Forgiveness requires reflection, often self-reflection about where we may have personally gone wrong. Sometimes self-reflection can be painful as we accept and confront truths about ourselves.
Forgiving is hard, uncomfortable and complex. Forgiving is not just about you, it’s about the people around you as well. Even when all we are seeking to do is forgive ourselves, that act has an impact on our family and friends. When we seek to reconcile with a neighbour, that act requires their participation.
What about wrongs which are unforgivable? In light of Jesus’ words are there such things? What we read in Matthew about forgiveness might give us pause? Should we forgive all things or is there a limit? However, if at the very least this passage moves us to think about the possibility of forgiving the unforgiveable then it has done something.
Peter’s question of how many times he must forgive misses the point. It’s not how often or how much we must forgive. Forgiveness is a limitless, measureless act. Forgiveness is never not present.
Forgiveness for our sins is a powerful force.
Reading this passage about the unforgiving servant and his eventual punishment we might surmise that God’s forgiveness has limits, but I believe if God has any limits in God’s ability to forgive they are imposed by us. Not by God. The problem is not with the merciful king or through analogy with God. The problem is with the world view that the slave has insisted in constructing for himself.
In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Book The Last Battle there is a scene where a group of dwarves who are only out for themselves. Aslan tries to show them a better way and offers them a sumptuous meal. “Aslan raised his head and shook his mane. Instantly a glorious feast appeared on the Dwarfs’ knees: pies and tongues and pigeons and trifles and ices, and each Dwarf had a goblet of good wine in his right hand. But it wasn’t much use. They began eating and drinking greedily enough, but it was clear that they couldn’t taste it properly. They thought they were eating and drinking only the sort of things you might find in a Stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he had got a bit of an old turnip and a third said he’d found a raw cabbage leaf. And they raised golden goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said, ‘Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of a trough that a donkey’s been at! Never thought we’d come to this.’ But very soon every Dwarf began suspecting that every other Dwarf had found something nicer than he had, and they started grabbing and snatching, and went on to quarreling, till in a few minutes there was a free fight and all the good food was smeared on their faces and clothes or trodden under foot. But when at last they sat down to nurse their black eyes and their bleeding noses…”
“‘You see,’ said Aslan. ‘They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they can not be taken out” (reference).
It begs the question what systems do we bind ourselves to each day? What are we indebted to simply because of the way we view the world? What limits our actions and ability to love? Is it of our own construction? Is it a cultural belief that society perpetuates?
Theologian Charles Campbell writes, “As the church we know better when it comes to forgiveness. For [we] know how much you have already been forgiven. That perspective enables the church’s ongoing practice of forgiveness.” This is one of our primary purposes, to demonstrate God’s forgiveness to us and how we ought to forgive one another through the grace and love of God’s limitless mercy. Amen.