Today we are looking at the readings for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, aka Proper 19, aka the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. September 13, 2020. The readings assigned for this Sunday are Exodus 14:19-31 or Genesis 50:15-21; Romans 14:1-12; and Matthew 18:21-35.
I want to focus on the gospel reading today. This text begins with Peter’s famous question, “How many times should I forgive my brother or sister? As many as seven times?” Jesus responds, depending on which manuscript you read, “Nope. Seventy-seven,” or, “Nope. Seventy times seven.” Either way, it’s a whole lot. Either way, it’s not a number meant literally, but a symbol pointing to unending forgiveness.
The usual interpretation of the parable that follows goes something like this: God is the king. The first slave owes an enormous debt to the king, and the king feels pity and forgives him the whole debt. (Just as God forgives our debt/sin/trespasses.) The first slave then finds the second one, who owes him a small amount. The second slave pleads for mercy, but the first shows him none. The king is furious. (Just as, presumably, God is furious when we refuse to forgive someone, forgetting the enormity of forgiveness we’ve received.)
For so many of us, though, the toughest person in the world to forgive is ourselves. This is especially true, perhaps, for those with depression. What does this passage say to someone who can’t forgive themselves?
Well, let’s sketch out the story. We’ll refer to our depressed slave as Mel, short for Melancholy.
The king demands a reckoning of the debts of all his slaves, and he calls Mel before him. He discovers that Mel’s debt is quite substantial. Mel, wracked with guilt, apologizes profusely. He doesn’t ask for mercy, knowing he deserves the punishment. The king, nonetheless, is moved by Mel’s honesty and emotion, and forgives him the whole debt. Mel thanks the king and walks away. As he’s going out, he realizes that the king was wrong to forgive him. He deserves punishment. The mistakes he has made are too severe, too numerous. “I should have known better,” he tells himself over and over again. “I should have known better, and I should have done better.” He thinks about what it means that the king has forgiven him. “I have a second chance,” he says, “but I’ll just screw this one up as well. I’ll never change. I can’t change. I simply can’t.”
Mel sits in a corner and weeps. He has no hope. Eventually, his fellow slaves find him, and tell the king about him. The king calls him back, and says, “I forgave you all that debt when you came before me. Should you not also have mercy on yourself, as I had mercy on you?’ And in sadness the king said, “You’ll end up torturing yourself like this until you pay your entire debt.” To himself, the king added, “And you’ll never pay it off.”
When we cannot forgive ourselves, we cannot accept forgiveness from others, not even from God. That’s a tough nut to crack, from a homiletical or pastoral standpoint. How do we convince someone in such desolation that God actually forgives them? They think that God must be wrong to do so. They welcome God’s condemnation, and in its absence, they condemn themselves. (I know this feeling from experience, and I don’t honestly know how someone could reach me in that state.)
Perhaps the best that can be done is to proclaim as boldly as possible that God’s forgiveness is real. And that God’s forgiveness is assured. And that God’s forgiveness is freely given. And that God’s forgiveness calls us to do the difficult work of forgiving, even that most difficult work of forgiving ourselves.
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