RCL Year A Proper 19 Alternate Readings
Genesis 50:15-21, Psalm 103:8-13, Romans 14:1-12, Saint Matthew 18:21-35

The Gospel is another one of those Gospels concerning “church discipline” that has earned Saint Matthew the name of being “The Ecclesiastical Gospel.” Last week, the question was: how to address a sin against us by a member of the church. This week the question is: how many times should we forgive sins against us.

In this translation, Jesus’ answer is “seventy-seven times.”[1] But the more familiar and equally accurate translation is “seventy times seven times” that adds up to 490 times. The point clearly is that we are to permit no limit to our willingness to forgive.

Forgiveness is a hard thing. It is as hard as it is to say, “I forgive you.” The words are easy; the much more difficult part is the disposition to forgive, the genuineness of the intention that supports the words. It does not help to realize that forgiveness is difficult in exact proportion to the degree that we feel, or think, that we have been injured. The more we have been injured, the more difficult it is to forgive. And yet Jesus’ rule remains unchanged: we are to permit no limit to our willingness to forgive.

How do we manage this obligation? One answer is Joseph’s in the First Lesson. You remember that his brothers have beaten him within an inch of his life, thrown him into a pit for safe-keeping, and sold him into slavery to some Midianite traders on their way to Egypt. The harm they did to him exceeds by far any harm ever done to me. And what has Joseph learned on his journey? You know that he is close to God; God has blessed him; God has protected him; and God as prospered him, so much so that when his brothers come to buy grain from him in the famine that he is second only to the King in Egypt. And Joseph gives the best answer I know to the question of how to manage forgiveness. He says to them “even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”[2] Privately and now today publicly, I call it the “silver lining.” In the world God made for human beings with our intelligence, we can always find a silver lining. For Joseph and his brothers, the silver lining is that they will be saved from the famine and they in time will march into the Promised Land. They are saved from something worse—the famine— and they are given something better—the Promised Land.

It is so; it is always so. I can count on two fingers the harmful things done to me, the two things hardest to forgive. But in each case they were doorways to a better way to live.

Which brings me, finally, to the parable Jesus tells to illustrate his teaching that we are to permit no limit on our willingness to forgive. The slave forgiven a debt of ten thousand talents, a huge amount, limits his forgiveness to almost nothing and does not forgive a debt of a hundred denarii, a very small amount. And that is no way to live. Having been forgiven, he cannot forgive. He’s churlish and wicked; I daresay he appreciates not the forgiveness he has received.

The better way, the infinitely better way, to live is this: as quickly as we possibly can, we accept the bad with the good, and look around us for the good which comes from the hand of God, for with God the future is always better than the past. No one can take God’s blessings from us. No way, no time, never.

[1] Saint Matthew 18:22.

[2] Genesis 50:20.