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Friday, June 17, 2016

Forgiven. Forgiving. Matthew 18

Every time we pray the Lord's prayer, most of us say, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." This, however, is not what Matthew 6:12 actually says. There we read "Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors." In Matthew 6:14-15 Jesus explains that if we forgive the trespasses of others, ours will be forgiven, but if we do not forgive the trespasses of others, then ours will not be forgiven. In Luke the word used is "sins." As Jesus probably did not speak in Greek, all of the New Testament is a translation of the Aramaic which He would have spoken; and in Jewish thought of His time debts, trespasses and sins were interchangeable concepts. Their meaning would overlap. I think that English does provide us some interesting depth though.

Today's MP Gospel is from a section on forgiveness in Mt 18:15-35. It begins with how to confront those who have sinned and then goes on to say that when two or three gather in Jesus' Name He is with them. For many Christians, this is a very uncomfortable word from the Lord, because He says that the Church (humans) are an extension of God. In other words, there is no simple division between God and Man, as is so popular among many. Jesus says (in other places as well) that when we are in Him, our words and actions carry the Divine imprimatur  and convey the power and authority of God. Jesus takes the church very, very seriously.

Our reading today begins in verse 21, where Peter asks how many times must we forgive, "seven times?" This is a Biblical number and conveys the idea of generous mercy. However, Jesus ups the ante considerably (the Greek can be translated as seventy times seven [490] or seventy seven [77]). There is probably a reference here to Genesis 4:24 ("If Cain is avenged seven fold, truly Lamech seventy-seven fold") and makes clear that we, as Jesus people, are in the mercy and forgiveness business.

The Lord then illustrates the principle with a parable. A man is in debt, owing ten thousand talents. One talent is about six to ten thousand denarii. A denarii is a day's wage. So it is at least six thousand days wages or about seventeen years wages. Multiply that by ten thousand and you have many, many lifetimes of debt. It is totally unpayable, the equivalent of a billion dollars for us. So the man is to be sold into slavery and his family as well. However, after begging for mercy (and making the ridiculous promise to pay it back if given time) the man receives gracious kindness and the Master writes off the debt. Then, the same man bumps into someone who owes him one hundred days wages (just over three months). However, he ignores the pleas for mercy and imprisons his debtor. In the end, other servants distressed by his cruelty go to the Master and inform him of this turn of events. So the Master confronts the man and points out the mercy which he received, the lack of mercy he demonstrated and the punishment. He receives what he gave the other, prison...

In English, the words sin and trespasses are negative. They refer to an act which transgresses. Debt, on the other hand, has a broader meaning. A debt is something owed. Sin focused western Christians can be so sin aware that we are at risk to overlook the blessings for which we are also indebted to God. We also have an unpayable debt of gratitude. Too often people view their minor sins as unworthy of a death sentence, even if God is perfect. It does not resonate that He cannot bear to be in the presence of flawed humanity. Perhaps, if that is how you think, it is easier to imagine God's problem with people who are so far in debt for blessings (as well as sins) not being grateful and graceful to others. Let's ponder.

Every breath is a gift, hundreds of gifts each hour, day after day. If you don't believe it ask someone with COPD or asthma or lung disease. Every breath a gift, a debt.

Each heart beat is a gift. Sending life sustaining blood throughout our bodies. hundreds of heart beats a day, day after day. If you don't believe ask someone unable to walk because of congestive heart failure or other heart disease. Every beat of your heart, a gift, a debt.

Is seeing a blessing? Yes the debt of eyesight.
Is hearing a blessing" Yes, every sound a blessing, a debt.
Is beauty around you a blessing? Yes, and each beautiful thing a blessing, a debt.
What of love, acceptance, laughter, companionship --- every act of kindness we receive, any good thing which enriches us, each moment and every blessing, another debt.

Food and drink, rest and sleep, painless moments and pleasures---each one, every second it lasts, a blessing, a wonderful gift, and another debt.

Even if I were sinless and could stand before God in righteousness, my debt would remain unpayable, because all that I am and all that I have is a gift. Existence is a gift. Thinking and feeling and being all gifts. What is my debt? Millions of heart beats and breaths. Thousands of sunlit days and gentle breezes, glorious rains and sparkling stars. Hundreds of loved ones to share my life journey. Memories of days gone by, good days (and ask those whose memories are gone what a blessing  memory is---more debts)

Yes, I owe God billions and billions. Many blessings, blessings I take for granted, blessings which I assume I should have. Everything I have I owe to God. All things. And He writes it all off. Every debt. Every good thing He has done, and every bad thing I have done. Written off.
Except, says Jesus... Except, as we pray... Except unforgiveness. Except the refusal to give mercy as we receive it. Except the rejection of His life in us. The one debt that must be paid by us is treating others with love and mercy. Unforgiveness cancels His gracious mercy. So says Jesus.

We are all debtors, debtors beyond imagining. Treat others debtors as God the Father has treated you. Forgive them their debts. Forgive as you have been forgiven.

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