Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost Matthew 18:21-35

A TV producer was driving around, looking for an idea. He stopped where horses grazed. One of the horses trotted over to him – and said, “Let me tell you about myself.  I’ve run in 25 races and won over 5 million dollars.” Our man suddenly had a dozen ideas involving a talking horse.  He offered the rancher half a million dollars for the horse.  The rancher said, “You don’t want’im, but I’ll take your money.” The TV man wrote the check.  “But why wouldn’t I want’im?”  The rancher laughed.  “You can’t believe a thing he says.”

Today’s gospel story follows a conversation in which Jesus told the disciples, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”  Can you redeem the situation by forgiving him?  That wasn’t enough for Peter.  “But how often shall we forgive?” he asks Jesus.  Jesus gives an answer that sounds like a riddle, but it really means, ‘As often as you wish to do the Godly thing.”

Then Jesus told a story about a man who could not tell the truth, like that talking horse which had never won a race. The man’s boss asked him to pay back what he had borrowed.  We’d say that made a really bad day at the office.  The boss said, “I want my money – now.”  Our man knew what was coming. Just as soon as he got home, he called his wife.  “Sit down.  We need to talk.”  That’s always an ominous remark.  He says, “You remember a year ago when your mother needed an operation and her insurance had lapsed?  And Johnny needed braces?  We paid for all that.  Then I told you we had struck it rich on the stock market and now we could buy a new car and a boat?”

He had all this rehearsed, of course, and with much perspiration and his heart thundering in his ears. He went on, “What happened was that I borrowed that money from the company. “The boss wants it back and I don’t have it.  So tomorrow the auctioneer is coming to sell everything and I’ve got a job for you with a cleaning service.”

He knew what his wife – any wife — would say. ‘Where were your brains?  What have you done to us?  Now you expect my forgiveness?”  Everything tumbles down.  A way of life ends.  All their possessions, house and car, will be sold.  Payment has to be made.

When everything we have ever done wrong is ready to come out of the woodwork and turn into our worst nightmare, God, out of pity, becomes a careless bookkeeper. The boss changed his mind, forgave the entire debt.  Can you imagine any such scenario today?

We don’t live in that world. We are taught from infancy to work for positions of power, to compete, to win.  Even some well-meaning teachers divide us into winners and losers.  I still remember so-called physical education classes where we played basketball, starting with standing on the line for a foul shot.  If you made the basket, then you went to the back of the line to take another shot.

If you didn’t make it, drop out. I had never touched a basketball.  After all, I wore glasses, read a lot, and took piano lessons. So I wondered how I would ever learn to handle a basketball since my entire experience consisted of not making a goal and dropping out with the other losers.  Or think of the Super Bowl in January when the best teams come to a showdown.  Only one wins.  The other team is not remembered as second best, but as the loser.

Whether we look at politics or job or competition in school for grades or honors, someone will become a loser. Forgiveness has no place.  Some preachers turn the way of the cross into the way of glory, and promise that you’ll be happy and rich and dynamic.   Such an approach denies the reality of evil, the power of sin in all humanity.  The wrath and judgment of God fell on Jesus Christ who became the scapegoat for our sins.

Life under God, in the church, is different. We do not divide the world into winners and losers.  We do not confront other people with that dreadful “in your face” attitude which characterizes so much of contemporary society.  There is a reality to evil and the power of sin.  We cannot take away the wrath and judgment of God, which focused not on us for our failures but fell on Jesus Christ as the scapegoat for us all.  If we want the truth about the gospel of God, we should look to his presence and activity in the power of the spirit as he comes in word and sacraments in the ordinary life of an average congregation of ordinary people – like us.  Our way of life is driven not by competition but by the kingdom of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

Suppose a businessman told his payroll clerk, “You remember that twenty thousand I loaned our night watchman? Just write that off.  Call it a loss.  Don’t ask him about it, either.”  The kingdom of God is like that.  We should call it the kingdom of mercy, or the kingdom of grace.  But do we think God goes over our record? Does he say, “Gabriel, give a little toot and get her up here.  She stole a week’s pay, played around with another woman’s husband, and cheated on her income tax for years.”

Is that God talking? God’s kingdom is different.  It’s like the man who carelessly and recklessly forgave all those debts, everything that was owed.  He puts down, “paid in full” even though we haven’t paid a cent.  He is always ready to forgive without counting the times, but forgiveness is not cheap.   God has a unique way of balancing the books.  Jesus Christ was wounded for our transgressions.  Just as Isaiah predicted, he was bruised for our iniquities.

Like Adam and Eve, we’re always plucking forbidden fruit thinking that we’ll be happier or wiser or better off. Someone asked Carlyle Marney, who was a giant among preachers, if he knew where the Garden of Eden was.  He said, “Of course, Two-fifteen Elm Street, Knoxville, Tennessee.” “Aw, you know better.  It’s somewhere eastward of Jerusalem.”

Marney said, “Well, you can’t prove it by me. When I was a boy there on Elm Street, I stole money out of Mama’s purse and went to the store and bought me some candy and I ate the last bit of it.  Then I was so ashamed I hid in a closet.  “It was there Mama found me.  She said, ‘Where are you? Why are you hiding?  What have you done?’  ”

Wasn’t that the conversation between God and Adam? What have you done?  We have all repeated the original experience of sin, time and again, thinking we deserve a little more. Jesus Christ came to say, “God already knows what you have done and you don’t need to hide.”  God’s mercy is such that by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has proved that love and forgiveness and goodness and a final write-off will triumph over sin and evil and death – and keeping score.

Our great moral problems are not questions of right or wrong, but whether we have the will to do what God wants his family to do. Whether we think of our personal ambitions or personal relations, or success or power or our total way of life, we are always wondering whether God really knows what he is talking about. Satan keeps whispering out of his darkness, “Your way may be better.”

What the Bible calls sin then arises within each one of us, and all we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned everyone to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. God says, “You’re forgiven.  I’ll take care of your indebtedness to my moral demands.”  The forgiving love of God is the foundation of our life in the family of God in this world.

God forgives sin, and on that certainty we gamble everything. But then the one forgiven so much would not forgive his fellow servant of a much smaller debt.

When friendship turns to envy, when trust is betrayed, when love becomes indifference and we are consumed by our anger, the guide for our behavior is the heavenly word, “God forgives.” When we want to strike back, get even, when we want to take matters into our own hands because we’re not getting the personal satisfaction we want, then the cross of Christ enlightens our darkened hearts with the reality that God forgives.

When we would be hostile and defiant over what life has done to us, when we have gone our own way because God’s plan seems so ridiculous, we face the reality that God forgives. When we are down to our last chip on life’s poker table and it’s either win with this hand or lose everything, the card we turn up last says God forgives.

When we accept God’s forgiveness, then in his spirit and attitude, we are ready to forgive any sin or anyone who may wrong us from time to time. As Christians, we naturally forgive one another because God forgives us.  Unless we do forgive others without counting the times, we ought to ask whether we have accepted God’s forgiveness for ourselves.  Some people dwell on just how terrible they have been treated by others and by life.  Others look at their own shortcomings and think how well they have been treated by the God who forgives.

Now the living Christ challenges us to live in the light of God’s forgiveness for us. How much has God forgiven us?   Then, how often shall we forgive someone who needs our forgiveness?  Same answer – who’s counting?   There is no room for misunderstanding the Gospel, and the quality of mercy God requires of us.  How often shall  we forgive another?

As often as it takes.

May the Lord Be with us all.