Seven Times Seventy

St John the Baptist Manor Park – 10:00

Genesis 50:15-21
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

I feel like I am going out on a limb this morning – preaching to a congregation I only met last week about the big F! That being forgiveness – of course.

I trust that this won’t be the first or last sermon you hear preached on forgiveness. I also hope that I have something new to offer. It is a tough subject. I am sure we all have stories – that we could share about times when we have needed to forgive or be forgiven. I would also venture to guess that we have stories that we don’t share about times and situations of forgiveness and unforgiveness.

It seems that the untold stories are that ones that often go unresolved. These are the stories that often come out around the deathbed and by then – let’s be honest – it is often too late to do anything about it.

Why do we let it get like that? Pride, needing to be right, needing to get one up on another? Not wanting to let whatever happened go – keeping the offending party on our hook for a little longer? Sadly – none of these apparent rewards live up to what we want them to be. They don’t satisfy!

Firstly, we need to think about what we think forgiveness is and is not. How do we define it? Secondly, what will be extending forgiveness to another – or – accepting forgiveness look like for us? What will change? What will life be like?

Forgiveness is an act of the will – that acknowledges that something negative, awful, traumatic and damaging happened but that it will not rule our lives. We take the power out of the event.

It is not in any way saying that what happened was okay or acceptable. Forgiveness does not mean that we have to continue a relationship with the person/people who caused the event. We don’t have to trust them again.

In the Genesis and Matthew readings this morning we see something of the power of forgiveness and unforgiveness. I am starting this morning with Joseph’s story which begins in Genesis 37 when his family settles in the land of Canaan.

The story of Joseph is a remarkable one. Joseph was the first-born son of Jacob and Rachel but was not the first born of all Jacob’s sons. Joseph was however, the favourite son of Jacob – he was 17 years old and rather arrogant.

Joseph was a tattle-tale and generally disliked by his brothers. That is a lot of dislike as there were 11 of them! Jacob gave Joseph a special robe which indicated his special place.

Joseph had arrogant dreams – he told his brothers his dream about them all being sheaves of wheat – his sheaf rose above all the others while the other sheaves (representing the brothers) bowed down to his sheaf. Wheat becomes important in the story of Joseph and his brothers later on of course.

Anyway – the brothers decide that they want to kill Joseph but they end up selling him to some traders instead. They told their father that Joseph has been killed by wild animals. Joseph was sold on and ended up in the household of Potiphar – one of Pharaoh’s officials.

Joseph becomes a successful man – the Lord was with him. He rose through the ranks of Pharaoh’s household – runs into some trouble with the bosses’ wife, goes to jail but then gets released when Pharaoh needs his troubling dreams interpreted. This leads to him getting a big promotion – all buy the age of 30!

Time goes on – a famine comes to Canaan but Egypt has grain to sell. Jacob sends Joseph’s brothers to buy grain. They run into Joseph but don’t recognise him. But Joseph knows them! He doesn’t tell them at first but makes them wait! But Joseph finally introduces himself to them and reassures the brothers that he will look after them. He gives them food and livestock so that none of them will starve. Joseph gets to see his father Jacob again – big reunion.

We pick up the final story of Joseph in the last chapter of Genesis. Jacob has died and the brothers are nervous about what might happen next. They are not sure what Joseph will do to them. All through the story of Joseph is the tension between him and his brothers. The fighting, jealousy, the arrogance and finally the brothers do something that frankly seems unforgiveable.

There is still tension because the brothers had not yet asked for forgiveness from Joseph; they are anxious. The brothers admit they have wronged Joseph and go to him.

Joseph’s response is amazing – Do not be afraid! Even though you intended to harm me, God intended it for good. I will provide for you and your little ones. He spoke kindly to them, he reassured them.

Can you picture how those brothers must have felt at those words? Oh the relief that comes when we are let off the hook! It is physical sometimes!

Now I know – and you probably do to – that this seemingly ideal model of asking for and receiving forgiveness might not happen in real life! But we will still have to do it. We have to ask for forgiveness if/when we have wronged someone else. We also have to extended forgiveness to those who need it from us. This can be a slow process! We may have to remind ourselves over and over again.

This is what Peter wants clarified in the Matthew reading. Jesus has taught the disciples about forgiveness when he taught them how to pray.

What Peter wants to know is how this works out practically – what is the limit? The Jewish rabbis were teaching that forgiving someone 3 times for the same sin was good enough. Peter thinks that by offering 7 he is doing better. 7 being the number of fulfilment or perfection.

Jesus’ reply is much greater than that – Jesus tells Peter and us that there is no limit to forgiveness. It is something that we are always going to have to do! As long as human beings exist together in community, in families – forgiveness is a cornerstone to good relationships.

The parable that Jesus goes on to tell about the king and his servants is to underline what Jesus has just said about unrestricted, unlimited forgiveness.

The first servant who sees the king has massive debt – in today’s money it would be billions of pounds. It is also totally beyond what he could ever pay back. The king was within his rights to order the man, his family and possessions to be sold to pay it off – even though it wouldn’t cover it.
The man falls on his face – asks for mercy even though he knows he can never pay it off.

The king is moved by this – and decides to forgive him the debt. The king was moved with compassion – the only other times this word is used in Matthew is in relation to Jesus. This king showed the compassion of Jesus. This is a show of the unlimited grace of God.

Unfortunately for the newly forgiven servant the story doesn’t end here! He very quickly forgets what he has been released from as he encounters his fellow slave who owes him much less. About 600,000 times less!

The fellow servant pleads in the very same way that the servant had pled with the king but for a much smaller debt. But the responses were entirely different. This gets back to the king and he reverses his decision and the servant is thrown into prison. He will be there forever.

God’s forgiveness is of a person must be reflected in that person’s forgiveness of others. As we will pray in the Lord’s Prayer shortly – forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Disciples are to act in mercy, forgiveness and love – act towards others as God has acted towards them.

There are consequences if we don’t – our forgiveness can be revoked! This is scary stuff. We will be treated as we treat others. This is why we have to love our neighbours, forgive our neighbours as ourselves. I need God’s forgiveness – a lot. I need to forgive and be forgiven.

This is not easy – I am not trying to make light of that or suggest that it can happen in the blink of an eye. It can take a long time – but if we can hold to and remember the unlimited grace of God – we can do it.

Let him help you! The prison of unforgiveness is not a place you want to be in. Joseph freed his brothers from the prison of their anxiety and worry. Not only that – he looked after them, cared for them and their families. The king and the servants shows us what happens if we don’t free others.

Jesus has all the love, grace and mercy we will ever need – we can use his when we don’t have enough of our own. Forgiveness comes at a high price – but ultimately a price paid for by Jesus.