15 Pentecost • September 13, 2020
Exodus 14:19-31 • Psalm 114 • Romans 14:1-12 • Matthew 18:21-35
In the Name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Forgiveness is at the heart of all of Jesus’ teachings. Forgiveness—the internal movement of the heart to let go of grievances, grudges, resentments, bitterness, ill will, and the like—forgiveness is critical to being able to access the kingdom of heaven.
We can look at forgiveness in a moment, but first I would like us to notice the ways in which Jesus teaches, his methods for engaging his disciples as we seek the kingdom of heaven.
In today’s Gospel Lesson, we can see two teaching methods, each of which aims at quite different kinds of learning. The first is what I am going to call the “koan” method, and the second I’ll call the “story” method.
A koan is defined as “a paradoxical anecdote or a riddle that has no solution.” There is a famous koan used by Zen Buddhists which you probably have heard: “What is the sound of one hand clapping.” Such a question is meant to derail logical thinking, to short-circuit our ravenous desire for easy explanations and simple answers.
A koan invites us to dig deeper, to look for ourselves at how something can be. This kind of teaching requires the disciple to create his own learning, and to let go of the need to be spoon-fed answers. The koan invites deep inquiry, and Jesus was a master of the koan.
In this lesson Jesus says, in answer to Peter’s question as to how many times we should forgive another: “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” An immediate question: “How could you possibly keep count? This is ridiculous!” But then arrives another question, “Is there no end of forgiveness? Are we supposed to let them get away with their bad behavior forever, world without end?” Which invites another inquiry into the difference between unforgiveness—holding onto a grudge—and correcting others’ bad behavior.
A deep inquiry, like one initiated by a koan, leads to multiple questions, and profound, deep knowledge. This is the best kind of teaching, for it leads those of us who are disciples into the hard labor of actually thinking things thorough.
The “story” method that Jesus uses to teach his disciples is just that—story-telling. Cleverly designed stories are a great way to teach, because they can engage the listener with something that connects with our own experience; and it provokes an emotional reaction in us that makes the story memorable.
In this story about forgiveness, a servant of the king owes a great amount of money, which he cannot pay. So the king orders him and his household sold to pay the debt. The servant begs, promises to pay, and the king has pity and even forgives the debt. A simple story of forgiveness that leaves us feeling good.
The servant, however, has a colleague who owes him money and cannot pay. But instead of forgiving the debt as the king did for him, the servant tosses him in debtor’s prison. The king is outraged, as so are we. And it seems right that the unforgiving servant should himself be tortured until he could pay—serves him right!
The story tells the truth that we all have been forgiven multiple offenses by many people—particularly those closest to us—and it behooves us to be generous in forgiving the people around us.
We withhold forgiveness and hold on to resentments and grudges primarily because we hope it will protect us from the other person so they can’t hurt us again. A resentment keeps the other person at a distance, far enough away to that we cannot be vulnerable. It looks like safety to our primitive instincts.
But, in fact, distance isolates us from love. And the kingdom of heaven is a state of being where love engages us with others. And the truth is that without forgiveness, we ourselves end up with a kind of torture, made miserable by our own resentment.
Matthew puts together a koan and a story into today’s compelling and memorable parable. To love one another is to forgive … and forgive … and forgive.