Sermon on Matthew 18:21-35
By Rev. Christin Vasilenko Fawcett
On February 28th, 1944, a Dutch watchmaker, Corrie Ten Boom and her family were arrested for harboring Jews and persons with disabilities in a secret room behind a false wall in her bedroom. Remarkably the people hiding in her home were not discovered and were able to escape to safety. But Corrie and her family were imprisoned, tried, and ultimately, she and her sister, Betsie were sent to concentration camps. In December of that year, nearly 10 months after their arrest, Betsie died as a result of the harsh conditions of the camp. 15 days later Corrie was released and a week after that all the women her age in the camp were sent to the gas chambers. She later learned that her release was only because of a clerical error, one which saved her life.
In her book, Hiding Place, Corrie tells the story about how after the war, during a church service in Munich she ran into one of her former SS guards from the concentration camp that had abused her, killed her sister, and tried to kill her. She recalls being overcome with anger and a sense that he was unforgivable. And so she prayed to God to forgive her and to help her forgive him and to her amazement she took his hand, and was “filled with an almost overwhelming love for him.”
“I discovered,” she explains, “that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on [God’s]. When [God] tells us to love our enemies, [God] gives, along with the command, the love itself.”
When I hear stories like this I am always intrigued and inspired. Like when the families of the victims of the shooting and Emmanuel in South Carolina publicly forgave the perpetrator, the Lutheran perpetrator, despite the pain and anguish he had caused.
There is something powerful, spiritual, and transformative that happens to our world when radical forgiveness confronts evil. And yet, I worry about how we talk about forgiveness in the church and hang it on the mantle of our core Christian values.
As the descendant of a victim of domestic violence, who bears the inherited trauma of this abuse in my very body and DNA, the great granddaughter of a women who was beaten regularly at the hands of her alcoholic, Lutheran husband, I worry that the interpretation of 77 times of forgiveness has made us believe that even if it causes us harm or injury, good Christians always forgive. I do not believe that this is at all what Jesus was saying. And if the Lutheran Church had made this theological distinction clearer in the 1930s, my family might not have to face the crippling anxiety of this inherited trauma and the ugly legacy it has left behind.
I am glad that, for her own sense of peace and wholeness, Corrie Ten Boom was able to forgive the SS Guard, but put me in her shoes and I honestly am not sure if I would be able to do the same thing. And I think it is important to note that this radical act of forgiveness did not happen until after war, after she was out of harm’s way.
As important as forgiveness is, protection of the vulnerable is tantamount and should always be in our minds as we discern what Jesus’ radial forgiveness looks like today. And it is not the church’s place to shame victims of abuse and oppression into offering forgiveness at their expense. It is not my place to tell an abused woman that she had to forgive her husband. It is not my place to tell a queer teenager to forgive their captors from a conversion camp. It is not my place to tell Jacob Blake’s mother to forgive the police officer who shot her son seven times in the back while his children watched in horror. It is not my place to tell people who have suffered injustice at the hands of the powerful how to heal and how to find peace.
And rather than dispute that, I think our Gospel text affirms it. Upon asking his question about the parameters of forgiveness, Jesus begins his parable, saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” This story is not instruction, it is imagination. Jesus is bringing into existence the possibility of a world that looks vastly different than the world in which he and we live.
And he speaks of a King, who might be likened to God, the King of Heaven, who unlike earthly Kings whose rule was characterized by greed, violence, and oppression; [this heavenly king’s] rule would be distinguished by its mercy, justice, and inclusion. Which is why when this King discovers that his servant owes him a remarkable amount of money, something like a billion dollars today, he forgives him this debt and frees him from the threat of prison or enslavement.
And yet, despite the King’s radical act of forgiveness, the pardoned servant finds another servant who owes him a much smaller amount of money, and violently demands immediate payment. When this servant could not pay, the pardoned servant throws him into prison, with little hope of ever earning the money to pay back the debt to secure his release.
And God quite simply, does not stand for it. God does not allow such a behavior to poison God’s Kingdom. God does not simply forgive him again, hold hands, and sing kumbaya. God will not stand for the criminalization of poverty! God hands the once pardoned servant over to be tortured by a life outside of God’s Kingdom. But note, this is the life the servant chose. Even after receiving God’s act of radical forgiveness, the servant still chose to live into the kingdoms of the world that are filled with violence and selfishness and greed. God offered him sanctuary in the Kingdom of Heaven; God offered him a chance to live in the community of peace and safety. And he refused. He only wanted his own comfort and safety, his own peace and security; but he did not care about these things for others in his same esteem. He cared about money more than mercy.
And this is where the rubber really meets the road. This parable isn’t about emotional forgiveness; it is about FINANCIAL FORGIVENESS. This parable is not about forgiving someone who is mean – in fact, the person who acts wickedly is punished with no mention of forgiveness. What is forgiven is the DEBTS. The emphasis here is on God’s mercy for the poor. God shows us a model where people’s dignity, security, family, and very lives are more important than money. Because the economic systems of Jesus’ day would never allow for a servant with a large debt hanging over his head to move up in the world; he would never be able to truly live an abundant dignified life. But he might have a chance if his debts were forgiven. If he was given a clean slate and the ability to start fresh.
I did some volunteer work in Nicaragua in 2005 and I met a woman named Florence who made and sold cute little decorative animal whistles. And Florence recalled the time when she was over the moon excited because a French company had just contracted her to send them a huge shipment of her whistles. And so for the next month, she and her entire family worked tirelessly making these whistles, using up nearly all their resources for this one order. And not too long before the shipment date, Florence fell ill and was hospitalized. When she returned home, she called the French company back to tell them why the whistles would be arriving a few weeks late, and they told her that she was in breach of contract and they would no longer be paying her for any of the whistles. And she said she was flabbergasted that they would treat her this way, considering that it was a matter of life and death that had kept her from completing their order on time. How could contracts, deadlines, and the bottom dollar be more important than her health and her very life?
But I remember vividly, at age 19, being surprised at how surprised she was. I remember thinking, what do you expect? That’s just business as usual in the corporate world. That’s just how our world operates.
But, Florence made me wonder, maybe this is the world we live in, but is this the world we want to live in? Is that the world that God intended us to be in? Were big corporations meant to crush the hopes and dreams of a poor whistle maker in a poor town, in a poor country who struggles everyday to put food on the table and keep a roof over her head?
This impersonalization and greed has become normalized for us; it’s just part of the way things are. It might as well just be the wallpaper. This type of greed is so commonplace that we don’t even notice it. But it has dire consequences.
Greed and the unrestrained accumulation of wealth is the backbone of the injustices in our society. It is the motor that energizes racism and misogyny; that tells us that we are only worth what we can accomplish and get done while we are on-the-clock. It’s a part of why slave labor has morphed into prison labor; why for every dollar a man makes a white woman only makes 77 cents and a black woman makes 62 cents; why our waters are polluted, our forests dying, and our atmosphere being destroyed; why 1 in 4 black men is incarcerated; why wars are fought in the Middle East and refugees are fleeing to escape the violent poverty-stricken communities that our American greed creates; why sweat shops exist that strip brown-skinned people of their human dignity; why people like Florence and Jacob Blake and my great-grandmother have been stripped of their dignity.
And like the behavior of the unforgiving servant, it is unacceptable. This is not what God intended when God created the world. This is not what the Kingdom of God is like. God will not stand for this and neither should we.
Is it important to forgive people? Yes. Should we teach our children the power of radical forgiveness? Yes. Should we forgive people even when its difficult, yes; should we forgive not 7 but 77 times, yes.
But this forgiveness is for the benefit of the community, for the creation of the Kingdom of God, so that the poor and the powerless can get a leg up and actually be given a fighting chance, so we can imagine a world in which vengeance, bitterness, violence and greed are unwelcome. It’s not about us or even our enemy. It is about fulfilling the vision of Jesus for a Kingdom marked with neighbor-love, peace, justice, and mercy for all people.
This really is not about forgiving powerful people at all – it is about recognizing that God is the one with the ultimate power. That God is already working to dismantle the systems of greed and violence and vengeance that are literally killing people in our streets.
God has already forgiven us. God has already offered us so much more than we deserve. And God is offering us an invitation into God’s Kingdom.
But to truly accept God’s invitation to the Kingdom of mercy, we have to allow ourselves to be truly be transformed by God’s mercy and truly buy into this Kingdom that knows nothing of greed and violence and vengeance. To say it simply, we have to put our money where our mouth is. Maybe this means forgiving someone who hurt us because that makes it that much easier for us to love our neighbor. But maybe, it just as easily means that we are to buy groceries for a friend who is struggling financially without expecting anything in return. Maybe it means taking some of our money out of that rainy-day fund we started and pouring it into the community. Maybe it means working with community organizers and activists to make sure resources are flowing to projects that support the dignity and flourishing of people of all colors, nationalities, creeds, and sexual orientations. Maybe forgiveness is a way of saying to the powerful, you don’t have a hold on me – God has a hold on me. Maybe its our way of rejecting our culture of revenge and the idea that everyone must be punished through violence and degradation. Maybe it’s a way of saying I am going to love the hate out of this world. I am going to love the injustice out of the world. I am going to love and love and love some more, knowing that the more we give that love, the closer we get to the true fulfillment of the Kingdom of God – a Kingdom where we can live in safety and security knowing that all of us will always be treated with grace, mercy, dignity, and unconditional love. Amen.