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September 13, 2020

“The Circle of Grace” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, September 13, 2020, Year A / 15th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19) –  Exodus 12:1-14 and Psalm 149  •  Ezekiel 33:7-11 and Psalm 119:33-40  •  Romans 13:8-14  •  Matthew 18:15-20

THEME:  Reflect God’s grace by showing it to others through forgiveness.


This morning, Jesus is on the road with his disciples, teaching as he goes.  The topic is Christian community and, more specifically, how to keep it intact. 

As we know from last week, step one is to go after those who have become separated from the community and do our best to bring them back.  Step two is seeking reconciliation with those who sin against another in order to heal those relationships and make the community whole. 

Peter doesn’t seem to be buying into this, however.  He wants to know the limits of forgiveness.  Forgiving one another is all well and good, but what about those church members who cause us harm over and over again?  How many times do we have to forgive them? 

Evidently, he wasn’t so sure these repeat offenders deserved to be forgiven.  Surely there must be a limit to the mercy we show these habitual sinners.

Which is ironic.  Because Peter himself is one of them.  In little over a week, he will have denied Jesus three times.  But clearly, that’s not how Peter sees himself, at least not yet.

So, to set Peter straight, Jesus tells the parable of the unforgiving servant.  It’s a description of how forgiveness operates in the ideal community, which is, of course, the Kingdom of Heaven.  It starts like this:

A slave owes his king 10,000 talents.  That sentence alone would have alerted the disciples that this parable is talking about something more than just a financial debt.

 They know one talent is equal to 6,000 denarii, and a denarius is a day’s pay for a typical laborer.  That means this slave is in debt 60 million denarii.

It’s a debt so large it could never be repaid by even the wealthiest individual, let alone a slave.  What he owes his king is beyond anyone’s ability to repay.

The only tactic this slave can think of is to plead for more time.  It never crosses his mind that the king would forgive such a huge debt.  But, to his utter amazement, the king does exactly that.

Compassion has moved the king’s heart.  And the debt-free slave must surely be dumb-struck with the grace his king has shown him.

But, whatever he feels, it doesn’t last more than a fleeting moment.  On his way out the door, he encounters another slave who owes him money.  It’s a much smaller amount.  Unlike the king, however, the slave’s heart is unmoved by his fellow slave’s plea for patience. 

And, without an ounce of compassion, he exacts the full penalty the law allows:  he has this poor slave thrown into prison.

The other slaves are horrified.  When they tell the king, he is furious.  The question he asks the unforgiving slave is the same one Jesus wants his disciples to ask themselves: 

Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?'

Jesus’ point is that forgiveness is a function of grace.  It all starts with God’s grace.  That grace took human form in him, a human being, Jesus of Nazareth. 

In total obedience to God, Jesus willingly  sacrificed himself on the cross in order to restore humanity’s relationship with their divine creator.  You and I are the beneficiaries of that grace. 

It wiped away a debt that was every bit as large as the 60 million denarii the unforgiving slave owed the king.  It is a debt we could never repay through our own means.  But God’s heart was moved to compassion.  And, out of love for us, he chose to forgive our debt so that we could be restored to him.

Christ’s disciples are expected to do the same for each other.  To forgive one another, without restriction.  That is the third and final element of Jesus’ instructions about maintaining a Christian community so that it stands as a witness to the Kingdom of God.

But you and I know this ability to forgive does not always come easily, nor is it always a fast and straightforward process.

The deeper the hurt, the harder it is to forgive.  There are some hurts that can only be addressed with the professional help of a counselor or spiritual director.

But when Jesus answers Peter’s question by saying he must forgive a repeat sinner not seven, but seventy-seven times”, he means always, every time.  It suggests the process of forgiveness and reconciliation can be long and it can be difficult.

That’s how it is with true forgiveness.  Forgiveness isn’t forgiveness unless it’s from our heart.  In other words, we have to really forgive, not just pretend we do simply to keep the peace, or to conceal the grudges we harbor in secret.

That’s not easy.  When someone has hurt us, we know how much better they will feel if we forgive them.  And, deep down, maybe we don’t really want to do that.

We think that not forgiving them is a way to punish them, a way to get even, a means of making them suffer as we have.  Which is really just an attempt to exert some control over a painful situation we didn't have any control over in the first place.  

Then there’s the fear that, if we do forgive them, we are somehow validating the wrong they perpetrated, and thus delegitimizing our own pain. 

This is simply unacceptable to us.  Because what we really want is to legitimize and honor our own pain. We want to hang on to it like a treasured memorial.

  But the problem with resisting Jesus’ call to unlimited forgiveness is that we pay the price.  And, as the pastor and social worker Nancy Collier has written, the price we pay is our freedom. 

As she says, “In the absence of forgiveness, we’re shackled to anger and resentment, uncomfortably comfortable in our misbelief that non-forgiveness rights the wrongs of the past and keeps the other on the hook.”  This poisonous, self-defeating mindset effectively gives the other person control over our lives.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, means voluntarily surrendering our feelings of resentment and any need for retribution. 

As difficult as it can be, doing that frees us from the need to change the person who harmed us.  It liberates us from the need to even the score, to make them suffer as they have made us suffer. 

As the famous Reformed theologian and seminary professor Lewis Smedes said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and to discover that the prisoner was you.”

The question is how do we do bring ourselves to do that?  What motivation can we draw on to help us live into the freedom that comes from forgiving those who have hurt us, as Jesus teaches us to do?

To understand that, we have to first at the root of the problem.  What gets in our way is the reality that you and I are a lot like Peter.  We are all far more ready to see others as needing our forgiveness, than we are to see ourselves as needing theirs.

We forget that we have been forgiven, too.  And we forget just how good that feels. 

 There is a story of a young woman, a nurse in fact, who suffered a severe infection that turned into meningitis and, at a young age, left her unable to walk without the help of a cane.  She lost her job.  Her medical bills quickly escalated until she lost everything else.  Only the grace of friends and family stood between her and homelessness.

One day, she received a forwarded piece of mail, a thin yellow envelope.  In that envelope was a message that her medical bills had been forgiven.

At first, she thought it was a scam.  But when she looked into it further, she found that a philanthropic foundation had purchased the collection agency that owned her medical debts, along with the debts of many others. 

And, as was their practice and their mission, this anonymous foundation paid them all off.  She was free – free to live again. 

Can you imagine what that felt like?  First disbelief.  Then, like a flood gate opening, a giant wave of relief.  Finally, as the reality settles in, a joyous, jump up and down sense of gratitude.

That is what God has done for each of us. And when we forgive others, they can feel that, too.  And it doesn’t stop there. 

It’s like a circle of grace.  It starts with God’s overwhelming, almost unbelievable grace, unexpected and undeserved, but real.  It continues in the grace we show others when we forgive them.  And that encourages them to show the grace of forgiveness to others, who show others, and so on – and so on.

Does that sound unrealistic to you? 

Well, let’s remember we pray for exactly that every Sunday when we ask God to forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. 

What we are praying for is a chain reaction of forgiveness, a wildfire of willingness to free others from the debts they owe us.  And all because we know the liberating joy of God’s gracious, worldwide debt-forgiveness program in Jesus Christ.

Whose debt are you hanging on to?  What might happen if you simply made up your mind to let it go?

And, most of all, how good might that feel?  For them – and for you.

That is how we perpetuate the circle of God’s grace.  And it’s how we keep the community of faith intact.  It’s how we point the way to the Kingdom of God.

May it be so. 





Last Published: September 11, 2020 3:31 PM
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