Sermon: Proper 19 RCL A – “Seventy Times Seven”

The podcast can be found here.

True story: Andy Thomossan was fishing aboard the boat named Citation during the 52nd Annual Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament on June 14, 2010 off the coast of North Carolina, when he hooked a whopper – an 883 pound marlin. He set the record and won the prize. The prize: one million dollars. Not bad for a day fishing.

After posing for pictures, the team began to celebrate their first place million dollar prize. Just one small problem: it was discovered that one of Thomossan’s partners, Peter Wann, didn’t have a valid fishing license.  That oversight was a direct violation of tournament rules, and after deliberating, officials disqualified the catch, and denied the entire team the winning purse.

Further adding to Wann’s shame, the fisheries division of North Carolina revealed that Wann purchased a license after the fish had been caught. He was hoping to keep his secret…secret.   

Who won? It was the team aboard the vessel named Carnivore, who caught the second largest fish and they were awarded a grand total of $999,453 for their 528 pound marlin. A fish that weighed 355 pounds less than the one caught by Thomaosan’s team.

Thomossan, who did all the work fighting the beast of the sea lamented his partner’s actions. “No record. No money. No fish. No nothing. Yep, it’s a nice ending to the story isn’t it? He failed to get a fishing license, but we didn’t know it. He told us he had it. He didn’t. So you take a man at his word, you know?”

Wann cost his team $999,453 because he didn’t have a $15 fishing license. To make matters slightly worse for him, his fine for fishing without a license cost him an additional $160. The article doesn’t indicate why, but I suspect Pete Wann had justified in his mind why, unlike everyone else, he didn’t need a license. Perhaps he thought the law didn’t apply to him. Or perhaps he didn’t care what the law said. However, when the prize money was taken from him, I’m guessing he – along with many others – thought he should be cut a little slack. I’m also guessing, had hen been a legal fisherman aboard the other boat, he would have wanted the fullest extent of the rules to be applied. Why? Because we so often expect to be cut a bit of slack, while at the same time we expect everyone else to be held 100% accountable.

Fred Craddock, a tremendous preacher, recalls the time that he told the parable of the prodigal son to a congregation, but added a twist at the end.

The youngest son asked his father for his half of the inheritance and when he received it, he went into the city where he squandered it all and ended up working on a farm where the pigs ate better than him. When he came to his senses, he decided to go back home and confess his sins to his father in hopes of being hired by him, because he knew that his father’s servants were at least treated well.

In Jesus’ version of the story, the boy is welcomed back by his father, given a ring for his hand, new clothes to wear, and the fatted calf is served up at a great celebratory feast; and his older brother is upset, because he had remained at home and been faithful. In Craddock’s version, the ring and the clothes were not given to the younger rebellious son, but to the older faithful one. There was also a party, but it was a celebration of the older brother because he had always done what was right. As for the younger brother, he was sent to the fields.

Craddock reports that upon completing this new version of the parable, a woman in the back of the church shouted, “That’s the way it should have been written!” I listen to Jesus’ version of the parable and I know I want to have that same heart, to be that forgiving, but I read Craddock’s version and for a moment I think, “The little snot finally got what he deserved.”

My friend Thomas à Kempis writes in the Imitation of Christ, “If you cannot make yourself what you would wish to be, how can you bend others to your will? We want them to be perfect, yet we do not correct our own faults. We wish them to be severely corrected, yet we will not correct ourselves. Their great liberty displeases us, yet we would not be denied what we ask. We would have them bound by laws, yet we will allow ourselves to be restrained in nothing. Hence, it is clear how seldom we think of others as we do of ourselves.”

The parable of the wicked slave points to this fault of looking to ourselves and not to others. Of having them pay the full price, even though we have been forgiven an even greater debt.

Peter said, “‘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.’” Peter was being generous when he asked if he should forgive seven times, because, in the time of Jesus, the religious leaders taught that you need only forgive someone three times, so by asking if seven would be enough times, Peter has caught onto the fact that Jesus is expecting more, but he just doesn’t realize how much more. And when Jesus answers seventy times seven times we are to forgive, he is not expecting us to keep track so at offense number four hundred ninety-one we can cast out the offender, but he is instead saying that the number of times we are to forgive is without number. Now, before I go on, let me say this: we are always to forgive, but that does not mean that we must remain in situations or relationships where a person constantly sins against us, causing mental or physical harm. You can free yourself from them, but you must also forgive them, because the forgiveness has more to do with you than it does with them. In the process of forgiving we are healing our own souls. The same sentiment has been expressed in various ways, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”

In the parable Jesus is telling us that like the first slave, we have been forgiven much by our Father in Heaven; therefore, we also are to forgive. We are not to justify the withholding of forgiveness or seek to impose our own system of justice, this is for God. It is not easy. I know. I like James and John’s plan of calling down thunder on those who ignored the teachings of Jesus, but they were rebuked and so am I. St. Paul teaches us in his epistle to the Romans:

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written:
‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.  On the contrary:
‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Put another way, do not allow the sins of another to cause you to sin, but seek reconciliation and forgiveness; and even if that reconciliation cannot happen because of the other’s refusal, you will at least be reconciled in your own soul and with God.

We live in a very broken world and much of that brokenness comes from the fact that we refuse to participate in reconciliation. There is an interesting story that comes to us from Spain.  It just so happens that a father and son got into an argument.  The son ran away and the father set off to find him. He searched for months, but he could not find him. Finally, in a last frantic endeavor to find him, the father put an ad in a Madrid newspaper. The ad read: Dear Paco, meet me in front of this newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your Father. On Saturday 800 Pacos showed up, looking for forgiveness and love from their fathers. (source)

Finally, my friend Thomas also has one other thing to say on this subject of forgiveness, “Try to bear patiently with the defects and infirmities of others, whatever they may be, because you also have many a fault which others must endure.” That one always makes me smile, because where we think that others should get what they deserve, we also think that they are the only ones who have ever offended. We must humbly recognize the fact that we too can and have caused offense, therefore we should forgive others as we hope to be forgiven by them.

How many times should you forgive someone? Seventy times seven. This is not a mathematical issue. It is a matter of the heart, of the soul, and it is a call placed on us to respond to others as God has responded to us. Not in vengeance, but in mercy. In love.

Let us pray: Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; for it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life. Amen

3 Replies to “Sermon: Proper 19 RCL A – “Seventy Times Seven””

  1. I loved this sermon. As I listened to you speak I was thinking about the things I am learning about the human ego, our pride, and how the enemy uses it to divide us. We as Christians must learn to humble ourselves as Jesus did (and taught us to do) and when we do so it becomes much easier to forgive someone whom we believe has wronged us. When we let go of our pride can anyone really wrong us? In the Lord’s prayer it says “forgive us of our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us”. Maybe in today’s language it could say “thank you for forgiving me of my trespasses, as I let go of my pride no one can trespass against me.” If we weren’t so prideful then really no matter what anyone did to us it would not matter, it would not be an offense because you cannot offend Spirit, and that is who we truly are. Our relationships with others woud be much different if we weren’t so prideful, if we weren’t allowing the enemy to divide us. It is hard to see this when we are right in the middle of it, but if somehow we can step out of it (usually after some time has passed) it becomes easier to see our pride in action and then it becomes easier to forgive. Thank goodness God is patient with us as we go through the process of forgiving others. Do you think there is a link between pride and unforgiveness?

    1. I most definitely think there is a link between pride and unforgiveness. We are playing the role of God when we are unforgiving. We say in our hearts, “I will judge.” Wonderful story from the desert fathers: A brother whom another brother had wronged came to see Abba Sisoes and said to him, ‘My brother has hurt me and I want to avenge myself.’ The old man pleaded with him saying, ‘No, my child, leave vengeance to God.’ He said to him, ‘I shall not rest until I have avenged myself.’ The old man said, ‘Brother, let us pray.’ Then the old man stood up and said, ‘God, we no longer need you to care for us, since we do justice for ourselves.’ Hearing these words, the brothers fell at the old man’s feet, saying, ‘I will no longer seek justice from my brother; forgive me, abba.’

      It is also spiritual pride not to forgive oneself, for it says that the sacrifice of Jesus is not enough to cover your sin… but that is another sermon 😉

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