Too Much Required?
October 10, 2021
Matthew 18: 21-35
Preface to Scripture
Before we read God’s Word together, I’d like to explain that today’s sermon is the first of three exploring variations of the theme of “too much.” We strive to be faithful stewards not only of our tithes and offerings but also of our time, attention, and energy. As we enter into this year’s stewardship season, this sermon series invites us to be curious: How does a Creative God inspire our imagination? A redeeming God model unconditional love? A sustaining God teach about generosity? (pause) Let us turn to the Word and begin to learn together.
Prayer for Illumination
Please join me in our prayer for illumination. God, you are the giver of all gifts and all graces. By your Holy Spirit, open our minds that as the Scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed, we may be led into your truth and live into your love, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew, the eighteenth chapter:
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 servants.
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 servant 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 servant released him and forgave him the debt.
But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’
Then his fellow servant 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 servants 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 servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.
Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, 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.”
The Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Mrs. Elouise Jackson taught me sixth grade language arts at I. Ellis Johnson Middle School. Mrs. Jackson, or as the church elders called her “Mother Elouise”, wore silk kaftans, black patent leather high heels, acrylic bangles of every color up and down her arm, and bright red lipstick. She taught us how to diagram a sentence and organize an argumentative paper; how to use descriptive words and position adverbs appropriately. When she leaned over my desk to inspect a writing assignment, she smelled like cinnamon candy, fancy perfume, and cigarette smoke. She was strict, expecting a lot out of her students. And she was also eccentric: her husband owned the local funeral home and one time, as a reward for good behavior, a class got to take a field trip and rode in a hearse. She wore fur coats to the high school football games and some year invited the whole town to a birthday party in her yard with a blow-up bouncy house.
Mrs. Jackson taught us more than language arts though. She had funny sayings that she slipped into lessons – phrases that reminded us to take learning seriously and always give our earnest best. “Stop acting like a monkey with two tails,” she would tell us when we got too rowdy in the lunchroom. “You know how I got around town when I was your age?,” she’d ask us while we waited for the bus. (Pointing to each of her legs, one at a time, “Pete and Charlie.”) And “How do you think you can be sharp if you are already dull?,” she would quip, taking a nubby pencil from a student’s hand to the sharpener. What I remember most is that every Friday Mrs. Jackson would thank us for working hard all week, remind us to be grateful for our community, and encourage us to give our best because our small town needed us. “To whom much is given,” she would say, making eye contact with each one of us, “much is required.”
To whom much is given, much is required.
Today’s reading from the book of Matthew gives an example of how much is required. In the particular instance of forgiving others, seventy times seven is how much is required, to be exact.
Peter asks Jesus, “How many times am I supposed to forgive?” And Jesus replies, “seventy times seven.”
If you have a sibling or grew up with a sibling or are trying to raise siblings, you can likely relate to a moment that goes something like this:
Parent says to offending sibling: Please apologize to your brother.
Offending Sibling mumbles an apology while looking in the opposite direction.
Parent says: Come on, now, please try again. Like you mean it.
Offending Sibling: Sigh, roll of eyes, mumbled apology.
Offended sibling huffs and crosses arms over chest.
Parent: Make eye contact. Try to use simple words. Speak up.
Offending Sibling: “Sorry” a bit louder, still mumbled, eyes turned in general direction of offended sibling.
Parent: Okay, that’s a bit better. Now offer a hug and let’s move on with it.
Offending and Offended Siblings embrace weakly with limp arms and return to life.
Forgiveness is hard work. If we knew that the moment I just described would need to happen 490 times per apology in order for it to matter, we might all give up, right?
Is it really about the number though? Is it really about offering forgiveness 490 specific times? Is it about tallying up the total sum of compassion extended, or mercy offered? Asked another way: Is living a life of Christ really about keeping track of sacred tasks and holy habits, what we give and what we receive? Is there a massive chalkboard mounted somewhere in heaven with a special piece of chalk where tally marks are organized into columns? And if there is, whose extensions of compassion and offerings of mercy are being counting? Ours – the times we forgive or offer kindness? Or God’s – the number of times God responds to us in love, and grace, and gentleness?
“The difference between Peter’s proposal and Jesus’ pronouncement is not a matter of math or linguistics, but of the nature of forgiveness. Whoever counts and keeps track has not forgiven at all but is only” keeping track of graces forgiven and received. That is not what grace is about. That is not what generosity is about. That is not what the Gospel is about. The kind of forgiveness, and love and truth we are talking about here is beyond all calculation. (The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume VIII, Matthew and Mark, 1995) p38
So, what is required of us?
In the larger context of the Christian life, in addition to the difficult act of forgiveness, much is required of us. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8) Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. (Matthew 22: 37) Perhaps the greatest commandment we have been given is to love our neighbors as ourselves. This commandment is found in the books of James, Galatians, Romans, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Leviticus.
Even more generally yet still fundamentally important to our shared faith, we are called to confess that we believe in the miracle of a virgin birth, the feeding of a multitude from some stale breadcrumbs and a couple of salty fish; we are to believe that Jesus died and then his body was resurrected and he came to have life eternal. We are to look past material possessions and recognize spiritual truths, to make decisions that will benefit the collective good not further the individual desire, to turn the other check when we have been hurt or deceived. We are to trust and believe in God’s goodness in the midst of cancer and car accidents, devastating diagnoses and surprise divorces, the heartbreak of a child’s death or a parent’s suffering, in the face of a planet that burns, governments that corrupt, institutions that discriminate… (breathless)
Much is required.
Is it too much?
I wonder how many of us “have ever said to God- this week, last week, last year – enough. Enough. It’s just too much.” (Hinson, 2005) I have. Have you been there? Have you been in a place where your grief was so heavy or your hurt so deep or your disappointment so crippling that you felt stuck? Or maybe you are exhausted from being angry or afraid. Or so confused about what you are actually supposed to do that you can’t imagine a way out or a way forward. Are you just weary of living in your own skin? Or is the pain of the world overwhelming? It can be too much sometimes – too much to be human let alone Christian.
This is a fine time to widen the lens of the human experience and remember that we are not in it alone. We are created by God – and also redeemed and sustained by God.
Let us remember the first part of Mrs. Jackson’s maxim: to whom much is given, much is required. We, the children of God, have been given much. We have been given so much (grace and mercy and peace and love and forgiveness…) that we might come to understand that “the primary teachings of Jesus are never rooted in practicality but in grace.” (Jones, 1994) And so trying to be a faithful follower of Christ is not so much about living up to a specific standard or being judged by a precise measurement of faithfulness. It is not as if when we fail to meet the requirements, we are kicked out; it is not that if we fall short or miss the mark, we are demoted. In fact, it is not that at all. God does not measure our faithfulness, if it can be measured at all, by how closely we approach sainthood. Our faithfulness is recognized by our ability to accept the limits of our humanity and our dependence on God’s divinity. Our faithfulness is calculated, if it can be calculated at all, by our capacity to give and receive love. In that way, “too much” becomes less about what is required of us and more about what has been given to us.
We have been given so much love. And so we are asked to let that love multiply in and through us and to share with all the world so that wholeness and peace is possible. This is what is required of us. As our belief statement on the front of this bulletin says, “Here we believe that God is love; and that love is for everyone. God’s extravagant love changes the world and moves us to respond in gratitude. Whoever you are and whoever you are becoming, you are not only welcome here, but invited to shape this community with your God-given gifts.”
This relates to stewardship, I believe. Your contributions to the life of this church family and the community outside these sanctuary doors are not measured in finite terms like dollars or hours or total number of meetings attended. There is not chalkboard mounted in the finance office with a special piece of chalk and tally marks in columns. Because it isn’t about that. Not in the kingdom of heaven, not according to the Gospel truth. When we get caught up in calculating what is fair and what is deserved and what is rational, we miss the whole point. The Old Testament life is about judgement and living life according to the law and keeping score. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But then Jesus came – and lived and died. And with him a new covenant and a merciful approach on what it is to be human in relationship with each other and with God. Living, loving, and serving together is about the spirit in which we offer ourselves. It is about the gratitude with which we recognize God’s gifts and graces among us.
We are almost to the end of this sermon yet before we close, I want to point out three small words – the very last words of the scripture in Matthew we read: from the heart. From the heart. The servant is told to forgive his brother or sister from the heart. Sincerely. Authentically. Intentionally. These little words could be overlooked by the larger, more important theme in the passage yet I wonder if they might be little hints given to us. Perhaps Jesus was telling Peter and us – do all the things you do in my name like you mean it. From the heart.
It turns out, Mrs. Jackson’s maxim is not original to her. “To whom much is given, much is required…” comes from Scripture, the book of Luke, chapter 12 verse 48.
Thanks be to God for all that has been given to us. Thanks be to God for an invitation to share every little bit that we can. And thanks be to God that as we stumble to live and love and serve from the heart, we are held in the arms of a God whose abundant, overflowing, pure, and infinite presence never leaves us. That is all. That is enough. Amen.
Charge and Benediction
The Swiss trinitarian theologian Karl Barth once wrote: “Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth.” (pause) With gratitude for the grace you have experienced, and living as a child in the kingdom of God, on earth and yearning for as it is in heaven, go out into the world and share that grace. Live and love, give and serve – from the heart.
And May the love of God, the peace of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit, be with you every step of the way, this day and forever. Amen.