9-17-23 “The Sinners Who Are Forgiven”

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Matthew 18:21-35

Pastor Jenny Lee, Ph.D.

“The Sinners Who Are Forgiven”

I want to start with something funny that I found on an internet site: A priest was called away for an emergency. Not wanting to leave the confessional unattended, he called his rabbi friend from across the street and asked him to cover for him. The rabbi told him he wouldn’t know what to say, but the priest told him to come on over, and he’d stay with him for a little bit and show him what to do.

The rabbi comes, and he and the priest are in the confessional. In a few minutes, a woman comes in and says, “Father, forgive me for I have sinned.” The priest asks, “What did you do?” The woman says, “I committed adultery.” The priest says, “How many times?” and the woman replies, “Three.” The priest says, “Say two Hail Mary’s, put $5 in the box, and go and sin no more.” A few minutes later, a man enters the confessional. He says, “Father, forgive me, for I have sinned.” “What did you do?” “I committed adultery.” “How many times?” “Three times.” The priest says, “Say two Hail Mary’s, put $5 in the box, and go and sin no more.”

The rabbi tells the priest that he thinks he’s got it, so the priest leaves. A few minutes later, another woman enters and says, “Father, forgive me, for I have sinned.” The rabbi says, “What did you do?” The woman replies, “I committed adultery.” The rabbi, getting it off pat, says, “How many times?” The woman replies, “Once.” The rabbi says, “Go and do it two more times. We have a special this week, three for $5.”

Today’s scripture continues on the subject of “forgiveness.” I want to repeat what happened in last week’s scripture. In summary, if you have brothers or sisters who sin against you, you should try to reconcile with them. If they don’t listen to you, ask your close friends two or three of them, to pray together; if it still doesn’t work, ask the church to pray together; then, where two or three gather in Jesus’ name, he will be there. It is essential to forgive and reconcile with one another because it relates to God as well as people.

Then, Peter, who listens to Jesus, came and said to him immediately, “Lord, if brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Peter was the best disciple of Jesus and understood Jesus’ lesson well at this point, and proudly said, “Ok, Lord, you mean we should forgive one another. But I wonder how often I should forgive them if they sin against me. Is it enough to forgive them seven times?” They have learned they should forgive others up to three times. However, Peter said, “Is it enough to forgive others seven times?” The number seven in the scripture is a heavenly number, meaning they would forgive as much as possible. But Jesus said, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times,” which means “forgive others beyond human limitation.”

Can you imagine what “forgiveness beyond human limitation” looks like?  You may say we are human; how can we forgive others beyond human limitation? Whenever two or three people gather in Jesus’ name, they should pray together. Otherwise, we can’t make it happen.

I want to share a Korean film, “Secret Sunshine” (Cinema: Korean, 2007). It is not a religious movie, but it tells us how difficult it is to forgive others who sinned against us. A woman had just lost her husband in a car accident, and she and her four-year-old son moved to a small town to live a new life after the loss of their loved one. When they are about to settle in that town, her son is taken and killed by a kidnapper. She had almost lost her mind; she cried daily in depression; she quit her job; and she couldn’t sleep most nights.

Meanwhile, one of her neighbors invited her to the church. She seemed to be fine as long as she was committed to the church ministry. She testifies how God helped her to get peace, and she planned to forgave the kidnapper who killed her precious son. One day, she visited the jail to see the kidnapper so that she may forgive him. However, when they see each other before she tells him she forgives him, the kidnapper smiles and says, “I am at peace because God forgives me. I will pray for you so God may also give you peace.” Hearing him, she felt terrible, thinking how God forgave him before she did. She felt betrayed by God and all Christians, thinking of them as hypocrites. Then, she gets into a more terrible situation emotionally, spiritually, and physically, and goes against the church ministry, interrupting the ministry and gossiping about church leaders. Can you understand her situation? What would you do for her if you knew this woman? “Forgiveness” is an act you give with your whole heart, which may go beyond human limitation.

Jesus tells us a story to help us understand “why” and “how” we should forgive the one who sins against us: “For this reason, the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.” “Forgiveness” might be like a king who would be compared with the kingdom of heaven, meaning it might be extraordinary.

The story is this: There was a slave who was in debt for ten thousand talents to his Lord. His Lord ordered him to pay him back by selling his wife, his children, and all his possessions. However, ten thousand talents was an enormous amount, likely one country’s income for a year. Even though he sold all his family and his possessions, he still couldn’t pay them back. So, the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” Then, the Lord forgave him the debt and released him with mercy. But when he went out as free man, he met a fellow slave who owed him a hundred denarii. A hundred denarii was like a typical wage for working a hundred days. The slave says, “Pay what you owe.” The fellow slave says, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused, throwing him into prison until he would pay the debt. The other fellow slave saw it and reported it to the Lord. Then, his Lord summoned him and said, “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 could pay his entire debt. “So, my heavenly Father will also do this to you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

“Forgiveness” is not an easy word, but an act done with your whole heart, which is not easy for us. However, suppose you think of it as if you all were debtors who never paid back your debt by yourselves, but have been paid back by God’s only Son, Jesus Christ. In that case, if you believe that you all were sinners forgiven by God’s unconditional and steadfast love, you may do so to others as you pay it forward. It is like when Jesus on the cross forgave the people who killed him and how Stephen prayed for the people who stoned him, “Lord, forgive them their sins” (Acts 7:60).

After Jesus taught us the Lord’s prayer, “Forgive us our debts (trespass/sins) as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12), he added, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (sins)” (Matthew 6:14-15). Remember, we are debtors by God’s grace and Jesus’ love, so we should pay it back as forgiven sinners. Going back to the Korean movie “Secret Sunshine,” who needs God’s grace and mercy, the woman or the kidnapper? We all need God’s grace and mercy to forgive and to be forgiven. Thanks be to God. Amen!