21Then 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?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
23“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, 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. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.
28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.
32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
36One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.
39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” 41“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”
And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
These two passages are incredibly rich. There are lots of different directions we could go with them, which means there’s a lot I’d like to talk about here that we won’t get to in this sermon. If something grabs your attention, I’d love to talk with you more about it after worship or during the week. As always, I encourage you to read over these passages again when you get home to let the message sink in further and see what else God has to say to you.
Love is the most important part of our faith; I think forgiveness is second. Jesus’ death on the cross is the main way we talk about forgiveness. It’s a powerful expression of how much Jesus’ love and forgiveness cost, and it’s the reason many of us fell in love with Jesus in the first place.
At the same time, there are a lot of Christians who really struggle with the image of the cross. It’s brutal and bloody. Many of us can’t understand why God would send Jesus to such a terrible death. And not understanding that makes us question God’s love. I think there are questions that bring us deeper into faith and questions that stall our faith and keep us from moving forward. Sometimes our questions about the Bible or our faith encourage us to dig deeper, to read closer, to study and pray and discuss; that helps us grow. Other times our questions don’t lead us further, but instead make us hesitate to read, hesitate to trust, hesitate to invest our heart in our faith.
I have a feeling that for a lot of people, the cross is one of those second kinds of questions. I think there are a lot of faithful people who love the story of Jesus, love the message of love and welcome and acceptance, but then get to the cross and have a hard time moving forward. If that doesn’t describe you at all, then don’t worry about what I say in the next 30 seconds. If that struggle with the cross sounds like your story I need you to hear me now.
Today’s sermon is especially for you because we’re talking about forgiveness, but we’re not talking about the cross. I want to be clear, the cross is an essential part of the Christian faith. It’s important for how we think about power and love and destiny. If you struggle with it, I want to explore that with you sometime to see if we can make some progress. I don’t want to convince you of something, but I do want to look at the cross from some different angles and see if we can’t make sense of it together.
But today, we’re not talking about the cross. Jesus forgives the woman in our passage before he goes to the cross, so in some important way the message of forgiveness in Jesus is bigger than the cross. So even if you can’t come to terms with the message of the cross this morning, this passage and this sermon are for you.
Obviously, both of our passages are about forgiveness. And both start with the reality, the experience of being forgiven, so that’s where we’ll start too. We all carry a burden. Sometimes it’s the weight of things we’ve done wrong. Maybe we have taken advantage of someone else. Maybe we feel guilty about an unkind word we said in frustration or anger. Maybe we fell short on our marriage vows or cheated on our taxes or made another person feel less precious than they are. We all do things we shouldn’t sometimes, and we carry that burden.
On top of those times we have done wrong directly, we also carry the burden of guilt for the sinful systems we are part of. Those who live comfortably feel the guilt of having what others do not. Men share the guilt of our society’s refusal to treat women equally. Whether we are personally guilty of that or not, we are part of a system of prejudice.
Those of us who are white share the guilt of racism in our society. Despite loud claims to the contrary, white people still have tremendous privilege in our culture. American culture values American lives much more highly than other lives. In God’s eyes we are all the same, but that’s not how we see the world as a nation.
Those of us who are straight share the guilt of our society’s prejudice against people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered. Those who are able-bodied too easily forget how little we do to make the world accessible to those with disabilities. The list goes on and on. We are all caught up in systems of oppression, systems of sin. We also bear the guilt for our addiction to violence as a species.
We also carry another kind of burden, which is different from sin and guilt, but also keeps us from living the full and free life God invites us to. It’s harder to put a finger on, but it haunts us just the same. We carry a feeling that we are not good enough. Some part of each of us feels like a failure, like a fraud. Some part of us thinks we can’t do anything right, that we aren’t worthy of love, that we don’t deserve joy.
Maybe we learned that feeling from our family or our school or our first boss. Maybe we learned it from magazines full of perfect-looking, thin, strong, rich people who look like they have it all together. Maybe we learned it from our friends or our enemies. Maybe we learned it from our spouse or our lover or our ex. Maybe we learned it from a divorce or a breakup. Sometimes it comes from financial struggles and stresses. Maybe we don’t even know where it came from, which sometimes makes the feeling stronger.
For some of us the feeling is so strong that it haunts every step we take. Sometimes it takes the shape of depression. Other times it looks like boredom or distraction or fatigue. Sometimes it’s an obvious inferiority complex and other times it shows up as arrogance or bullying. Sometimes it feels like fear: shapeless anxiety or crushing terror. When we’re honest with ourselves, and I hope you feel like you can be honest here, at least with yourself and with God, we all know the feeling.
We all have that feeling; you are not alone. Take a moment and feel the weight of your guilt, your shame, your failure and your heartache.
Now let it go, because God already let it go a long time ago.
We say it every week, but we don’t often let the truth really sink into our souls. The proof of God’s amazing love is this: while we were sinners, Christ died for us. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. As far as the east is from the west, so far does God remove our sin from us. The words are familiar, but let the truth and power of that forgiveness, that freedom, that love, surround you. Let it fill the cracks in your soul, the tears in your heart, the anxious spaces in your mind. You are forgiven, loved and set free because Jesus forgives you and makes you whole.
That’s the feeling that brought the woman to a dinner where she wasn’t welcome. She didn’t care what anyone else thought, but she knew Jesus forgave her so she wept at his feet. She covered his feet with tears and ointment because love overflowed her heart. She wasn’t forgiven because of her love; she loved because of her forgiveness. She knew she was a sinner, she knew Jesus could forgive her and she knew that he did forgive her.
We don’t know where the story takes her next, but I can’t imagine her not being transformed by the gift of forgiveness. When we truly accept God’s forgiveness it reshapes the twisted and tangled mess of our soul into something beautiful and loving.
God pours out that gift of forgiveness freely, but we don’t always really accept it. We see the woman totally gripped by the joy of forgiveness, but we also see the servant in Jesus’ story who is also forgiven a massive debt he couldn’t pay. He seems to accept forgiveness; he’s certainly glad to be off the hook, but the master’s grace doesn’t touch his heart. He clings to the old economy of debts and obligations. He will not let go of the power of being owed. He’s been forgiven, but he will not forgive.
In these passages, in the Lord’s Prayer, in our weekly ritual of confession and pardon Jesus extends the same offer and asks the same question to us. We are forgiven. Will we accept forgiveness? Will we receive God’s? Will we let Jesus’ grace transform us? Will forgive others?
The gift of forgiveness is ours and so is the choice to accept it and pass it on. We have that gift and choice today and every day.
Thanks be to God.