Fuzzy Math (sermon 9/14/14)

abbott costello math

Matthew 18:21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”


There’s been a lot of talk in the news recently about the new “Common Core” education standards being implemented in the public schools. I don’t know much about Common Core – next to nothing, actually. But it’s definitely stirred up a lot of controversy. I’ve seen that a lot of people are upset, for example, about the new way that Common Core would teach kids math. They say that Common Core teaches kids methods that are more complicated than they need to be; methods more complicated than the old-fashioned way – which, of course, was what back in the day was called the “New Math,” and which faced the exact same criticism, almost verbatim, that we’ve heard about Common Core. Again, I don’t know if they’re right, but the critics of Common Core say that it’s too focused on trying to teach kids underlying mathematical concepts than on actually getting the right answer – that it’s too much of a touchy-feely math; or to borrow a phrase from the political realm, it’s “fuzzy math.”

Well in today’s gospel text, the disciples are trying to nail down some math of their own, as they’re talking with Jesus. Last week, we looked at the passage just before this weeks, and I said that that passage, which dealt with church order and discipline, actually had more to do with our willingness to extend grace and be more forgiving than it had to do with the supposed offender. This next passage seems to bear that out, since in the story, Jesus moves directly into this discussion about our need to extend grace, and mercy, and forgiveness. Here they were, the disciples and Jesus, getting into the nitty-gritty of the subject. And Peter obviously recognizes that Jesus is stretching what they’d all understood about forgiveness up until then. So to challenge Jesus, Peter asks him, “OK, but just how far do we go with being gracious and forgiving? I mean, really, we have to have some limits. At some point, we have to say enough is enough, don’t we?”

There’s some evidence in Jewish tradition that maybe forgiveness was called for up to three times, or maybe if you were being extremely gracious, maybe four times. We see some of that “three strikes and you’re out” viewpoint in the scriptures: in the Old Testament book of Amos, it’s after the fourth time the nations of Judah and Israel sin that God snaps and brings the boom down on them. In the book of Job, Job says that God is so great, forgiving twice, even three times.

So to push out beyond that “three strikes and you’re out” mindset that Peter and the disciples would have been familiar with, to go where Peter thinks would have been beyond any reasonable point, he asks, “would I even have to forgive someone up to seven times?” and of course, Jesus gives his famous answer, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. And maybe at this point, we can feel Jesus cringing as soon as he’d said that, you can almost see his eyes rolling, because he knows that there will be some people who will take things so literally that they’d listen to his words words and say “OK, OK, it will be tough, but I’ll forgive someone up to 77 times – but on the 78th time, I’m going to really let him have it!”

So Jesus backs up and tries to make his real point again, and he says, “OK, you want to talk numbers? You want to talk quantities? Here’s a story for you. The Kingdom of Heaven is like….” And he launches into this story about a man who owes the king “ten thousand talents.” A talent was actually a unit of money, equal to 130 pounds of silver. One talent was equal to about fifteen years of pay for an average worker. So a debt of ten thousand talents would have been equal to something like 150,000 years’ wages. In other words, this was Jesus’ version of the term “bazillion” – it was an outrageous amount, so large, so off-the-charts, that everyone could realize that this was an imaginary situation, and that Jesus was talking about a quantity really beyond measure. It was a debt that couldn’t ever be repaid. And yet that’s exactly the magnitude, the kind of forgiveness, that Jesus says the Kingdom of God is all about. It’s a forgiveness that goes beyond numbers and quantities and balance sheets. That’s the fuzzy math that Jesus says that God offers, that the Kingdom of God runs on. Jesus is saying here that if we’re still counting and keeping score about how much, or how many times, we’re supposed to forgive, then we’ve never really forgiven a person to begin with – we’ve missed the whole point. Forgiveness is a thing of the heart. The preacher David Lose once wrote that in order to get that point more easily, it helps to flip Peter’s question around and ask how many times are we supposed to love our neighbor as ourselves.

As important as this passage is in terms of how we understand forgiveness, though, we know that it’s a hard thing to always apply to our own lives. Plus, this passage has sometimes been used in ways that have hurt a lot of people. There have been many times where a victim of domestic violence, someone with an abusive spouse or parent, was counseled by a pastor somewhere that the proper Christian response to the abuse was to just forgive the person repeatedly and just go on, without any change to the situation. And abusers who have confessed their actions have had pastors offer them forgiveness, without taking any additional steps to prevent the abuse from continuing in the future.

It’s very possible that some of us here have gotten that kind of counsel in situations of domestic violence. Others here have no doubt experienced the same kind of advice regarding similar, but smaller problems. That way of thinking has caused a lot of pain and suffering, and in extreme cases, even death. Something that causes that kind of suffering can’t possibly be Jesus’ understanding of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is crucial to us as Christians. It’s critical as the start of the healing process for the person who’s caused the harm to us. But maybe more importantly, it’s crucial for our own spiritual and emotional well-being. To forgive someone is to release any power that the other person has to influence our lives. Forgiving someone isn’t pretending the wrong or the hurt didn’t happen. It’s refusing to allow that person and their past actions from controlling us and how we’ll experience life now and into the future. And forgiving a person does not mean that we have to stay in situations where the wrong, where the harm, is likely to continue. Forgiveness does not equal volunteering to become a perpetual victim. Forgiveness is an outgrowth of love, and there are many examples where, out of love, it’s best to be separated from someone rather than being together with them.

That’s a very important distinction to make when we think about Jesus’ words this week. But on a more general level, Jesus is telling us that we need to be way more forgiving than we typically are, way more forgiving than we want to be, even way more forgiving than a person deserves – which, of course, is the whole point of the concept of grace – extending love and mercy to someone beyond what they deserve – just as God has done with us.

Many of you probably remember an incident that occurred in 2006 at the small school in the Nickel Mines Amish community in Pennsylvania, when a mentally deranged young man shot ten young Amish schoolgirls, killing five of them, and then turning the gun on himself. It was a terrible tragedy, and one that tears at our hearts even now when we think about it. In the middle of that tragedy, though, something truly remarkable happened. Because they believed that God called them to be unlimited in their forgiveness, the very day after the shooting the Amish community reached out not only to support the families of the girls who had been killed, but also to offer condolences and support to the wife of the young man who’d killed them. With some of the financial support that flowed into them from around the world, they set up an assistance fund for the man’s widow and educational trust funds for the man’s small children. They did it, they said, because they realized that the man’s family was just as much a victim of this tragedy as were the families in their own community.

I admit that sometimes, I struggle with the concept of forgiveness. I can think of a couple of people who have hurt me deeply, and who, even though I’m still working on it, I admit that even years later, I haven’t completely forgiven yet. I suspect that many of you know that same struggle. As I deal with that, I sometimes wonder the same question as Peter; is there some reasonable limit on just how much God expects us to forgive? Is there some real-world boundary, some line that someone can cross and we won’t be called to forgive them? Ultimately, I guess the answer doesn’t really matter, at least not to me, because if there is such a line, it’s apparently somewhere out past Nickle Mines, and I’m not sure I’m even that far yet. But I know that I can continue to pray, and to ask God to continue showing the way to greater grace, greater mercy, greater forgiveness. And I know that God has promised to work within me, to gradually teach me more and more about those things, and to teach me more about the fuzzy math of forgiveness that God applies to me, and to you, and to everyone else in the Kingdom.

Thanks be to God.

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