Feb. 28, 2016 “Do the Math” – Matthew 18:21-35

Matthew 18:21-35
“Do the Math”
February 28, 2016 – Third Sunday of Lent

In California it’s three strikes and you’re out. Commit a serious or violent felony after two previous convictions for the same sort of offense and you are automatically sentenced to 25 years to live in prison.

Some rabbis back near Jesus’ time were more lenient than California. They offered four strikes. If someone offends you repeatedly, forgive that person three times. But with the fourth offense no forgiveness was necessary.

Peter had been hanging out with Jesus and saw how He operated. So Peter more than doubled the rabbis’ forgiveness quotient. He asked Jesus if he should forgive an offending person seven times. Peter probably thought that was a pretty magnanimous number, probably expected Jesus to give him a high-five and congratulate him on his spiritual progress. But Jesus’ math was completely different.

There’s some question about whether Jesus told Peter to forgive those who offend him seventy-seven times or seven-times-seven. It’s very likely Jesus was thinking of Genesis 4:24, where there’s a mention of revenge happening seven times, then seventy-seven times. So Jesus probably meant seven-seven times rather than 490. But “just” seventy-seven times is still a lot. It’s more than most people are going to count.

So what does all this mean for you and me? You’ve heard (or read) the Gospel lesson, Jesus and Peter and then the parable of the unforgiving servant. Today I invite you to do the math, to talk about what forgiveness is and the extent to which you and I as Christians are meant to offer it. This sermon is a dialogue.

First of all, what is forgiveness?

Peter asked about forgiving a brother (or sister), which my translation understands as another member of the church. The parable talked about forgiving a “fellow servant.” To whom are you and I are meant to offer forgiveness?

What are the limits, if any, to God’s forgiveness?

What are the limits, if any, to the forgiveness we are to offer each other?

Would anyone like to offer a memory or an example of repeated offense and forgiveness?

Who is forgiveness for, the forgiver or the offender, or both? Why?

Does forgiveness in a relationship mean staying in relationship where one is being seriously injured? If not, what does it mean when someone has experienced repetitive hurt in a relationship?

Recently some people have complained about quick public offers of forgiveness, by black people, for instance, when injustice is done to them. The complaint is that quick forgiveness keeps people from experiencing the necessary feelings of righteous anger at injustice that would lead to changing bad systems and convicting evil people. What do you think?

Would anyone like to offer a story of forgiving a repeated offense that turned out well?

How can we become people who are able to offer repeated forgiveness?

Thank you for the conversation. Forgiveness is like math. You don’t start with quadratic equations or differential calculus. You learn to add and subtract, multiply and divide, solve simple equations, before you move on to the complex stuff.

The same is true of learning forgiveness. We must practice with the little things, the small slights, the petty insults, the almost insignificant hurts we experience all the time. Learning to let go of anger and not seek revenge for small wounds helps us move on to the harder things, the hurts of a lifetime, the pain that goes on and on, the wrongs that wound us to the core. Those will take much more time. Those will take some difficult homework.

My suggestion for today, for right now, is to start doing the math. Remember and take account of one small wrong that has happened to you. Write it down. Recall the hurt, the anger, the pain you felt. Don’t take on a big one. Don’t take on a person who wounded you for life. You can get to that. But for right now, write out a little sin against you that you can forgive.

Then do the math. Start erasing the wrong in your mind. Hit the delete key in your heart. Let go of the anger you so rightly feel. If you can, think of a way to show or tell that other person that he or she is forgiven. Start speaking to her again. Write him a note. Make a phone call. In whatever way you can, complete the assignment the Lord gave us. As Colossians 3:13 says, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

Remember, the Lord forgave you. Jesus told Peter to forgive 77 times, and then told a story in which the king went far beyond that. In Jesus, God cancels every debt, no matter how large. He’s cancelled all of yours, every bit of it. He’s even cancelled the debts for which you haven’t forgiven others. It’s all forgiven in the grace of Jesus Christ. We’re free. God teaches us to forgive by the gift and example of His own incredible forgiveness. Let’s learn the lesson, let’s do the math.


Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj