What Not to Do
The Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis
September 14, 2014 - Genesis 50:15-21; Matthew 18:21-35


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What Not to Do
Genesis 50:15-21; Matthew 18:21-35               

Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis
Morningside Presbyterian Church
September 14, 2014


When my friend Chris’s cancer returned she called and asked me to have lunch.  We had lunch from time to time and to be honest, we talked a lot of smack about a lot of people, frequently ourselves.  Once, when I was being particularly insufferably self-congratulatory, she said, “Baron, I am your friend, and even my gorge is rising now.”

I learned a lot from Chris about living with a life-threatening illness – and probably the most significant lesson I learned was on not admitting defeat before it was eminent. But I’ve never forgotten the lunch when she said to me, “I have fully resigned myself to the fact that I am going to die before some people whom I don’t like.  So I have a task for you.”

At this point, I was scrambling, in true ministerial fashion, for anything to do 

 - you know how it is when you’re dealing with bad news, you want something you can do.

“Anything, Chris, just name it.”

 “Well, when I am dead, I need you to make sure that ­­­­­­­­______ and _______ are not allowed to come to my funeral.  It’s bad enough I’ll be dead, but I don’t want them looking at me!”

“Chris,” I replied, “Somehow I think you’ll have bigger things on your mind at the time.”

“No,” she replied, “I’m serious.  Put a sniper in the steeple if you have to, but I don’t want ­­­­­­­_______ and ________ to come to my funeral!”

I’m pretty sure I said something glib about forgiveness. 

And, for what it’s worth, she didn’t really mean it; she was just venting her feelings. 

But it is rather easy to be glib about forgiveness, isn’t it?

It is really easy to be glib about somebody else’s need to forgive, isn’t it?

And it is really, really easy when you are the offending party, to expect forgiveness as a matter of Christian Discipline, isn’t it?

But forgiveness can be exceedingly hard to do.  In fact, I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that of the theological conversations I’ve had about faith with people through the years, forgiveness is the one that most people struggle with the most. 

“I’ve said the words, ‘I forgive you,’” people tell me, “But I can’t make my heart follow my head on it.”

Has that ever been the case for you?  You can say the words, to yourself, even, if not to someone else, but then in honesty, you look into your heart and your heart tells you that the words you’ve said about forgiveness are a big fat lie. 

Forgiveness must be one of the hardest things we ever do because I’ve sure heard plenty about it through the years.

If you’ve ever felt that way, you’re in good company with Peter.  Right on the tails of Jesus’s rather procedural teachings on what to do when someone has wronged you, Peter asks this rather leading question, “How many times should I forgive?”

Rather, actually, I expect it was a self-congratulatory question, “Should I forgive as many as seven times?”

If I have to forgive someone seven times for the same offense, personally, I think that’s approaching sainthood. 

To be honest, if we’re forgiving something of any substance, I’d almost say once you’ve had to do it more than, well, twice, that’s sainthood.

If you steal my lunch and I forgive you once, I’m a good person.

If you steal my lunch a second time, and I forgive you again, this is pressing your luck.

If you steal my lunch a third time – honestly, I’m probably going to smack you.

Four times and you probably think I’m a fool to keep forgiving.

Seven times sounds awfully generous to me. 

So Jesus tells this story.  You know how it goes.  The accounts are reviewed, the discrepancy is found – and that’s one heck of a discrepancy. 

Ten thousand talents is about 15 years pay. 

It could never be repaid.

I’m not sure who is the fool – the clerk for running up such a tab, or the king for lending so much to such an un-creditworthy risk.

But either way, the die is cast.  The king determines the accounts must be settled.  He will cut his loss, sell the debtor and his family into slavery, wash his hands, write off the loss. 

There is some sobbing and sniveling and then, in a surprise turn, the account is settled. 

Then the slave grabs his friend by the throat and demands that he pay every penny that is owed.

That would never happen, right?

First off, nobody would ever forgive that big of a debt – right?  I mean, that big of a debt could bring the whole economy down.  The whole system would fold, right?

Secondly, nobody who was given such generosity would then in-turn foreclose on someone in a position of weakness, right?  That would be unthinkable.

The whole thing wraps up with the original debtor being taken back into custody and thrown into a torture chamber. 

It sounds like a cautionary tale of what not to do.

If you don’t want to be thrown into the torture chamber, then don’t grab your friend by the throat and threaten him. 

It seems easy enough to derive the moral of this story.

Just say those three little words, “I forgive you,” and you, yourself, are off the hook – no torture chamber. 

The moral seems clear: keep the equation balanced or else.

But have ever noticed how often in Matthew’s version of the Gospel story somebody seems to be getting some sort of ultimate consequence for getting something wrong?

There is a lot of outer darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth as a consequence of bad behavior in Matthew.

That’s just a little bit terrifying, you know?  Keep the equation balanced or else you don’t know when it’s going to be your turn. 

Matthew seems to dole out a lot of ultimate consequences to those who miss the mark.  It would be a great incentive to keep on task and make sure that you’ve dotted all your forgiveness I’s and crossed all your forgiveness T’s so that you can be sure that you’re not going to wind up toast. 

And if it were just a question of checking off the box, we’d be fine. 

If checking off the box is saying the words, “I forgive you,” we’re in the clear.

But what if it’s more?  What if God wants whole-scale change?

I know sometimes you just don’t want the person who made your life difficult to come to your funeral and look at you.

Sometimes someone is going to steal your lunch for the eighth time. 

Sometimes you’ll say the words and your heart will flat out refuse to follow suit. 

What then?

For those of us who wish to remain in the inner light rather than the outer darkness, who would like to keep our eyes dry and our dental work intact – what then?

Jesus told this story about an impossible situation because he wanted us to get that this isn’t about a balance sheet. 

If you forgive that much, the whole system is going to fold.  And that’s the point.

Forgiveness isn’t an equation.

Forgiveness is as much a way of being as it is an act. 

Being the recipient of forgiveness means that we are changed.  It means that when we forgive, we are changed.

I don’t want to imply that it is easy.  I would love to tell you that the scales can fall from your eyes and you can just do it, and all is going to be right, but it’s harder than that. 

Grudges can be deeply enjoyable.  Anger can be deeply satisfying.

Listen to Frederick Buechner,

“Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun.  To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll your tongue over the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor down to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back – in many ways, it’s a feast fit for a king.  The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself.  The skeleton at the feast is you.”[1]

I sort of think that is what Jesus is getting at with these awful consequences for the folks who don’t seem to get it – it’s not that God is planning terrible things for you if you don’t straighten up and fly right, it’s that if we don’t get what God’s grace is, nothing changes.

We see the world in the same pinched, miserly, stingy way.

And we live in the same pinched, miserly, stingy way. 

If we look at God’s grace as an equation, we’ll never see it right because what we’re looking at isn’t grace.  It’s bookkeeping. 

And when that is the case, we are as trapped by sin as ever we could be.

But what if we saw it a different way?

What if our vision changed?

That is the heart of the extravagance of the story. 

The point of it is not to say what horrible human beings that we are that God has to forgive us 15 years’ salary and we better then be willing to forgive the 50 cents our neighbor or else we’re in deep trouble.

The point is that God loves us that much that if we did need that kind of forgiveness, it would still be forthcoming. 

So what if we saw grace as endless, boundless love for absolutely no reason other than that that’s the way God wants it to be?

Would that change anything for you?

Somewhere a while back I heard a story from a rabbi.  One day, God needed a break and so God put a committee of angels in charge of creation for 15 minutes.  Just fifteen minutes. 

It happened that it was the fifteen minutes when Moses needed to get the Israelites to safety away from the Egyptians, and so the angels, when Moses put forth his hand to part the red sea did exactly what was needed- and they parted the sea and the Israelites fled from the Egyptians who had enslaved them and held them in bondage for generations.  Just when the last Israelite had cleared the sea and the Egyptians were in the middle, the angels saw their opportunity to avenge God’s people for their suffering so they broke the surface tension of the red sea and the waters rushed back in and drowned every one of those Egyptian soldiers and the horses they rode in on. 

The angels were all high fiving each other and cheering and saying, “Yeah, we did it.  We got ‘em!  Yeah!”

And God came back into the room and asked what all of the cheering was about… the angels excitedly told God about their accomplishment, and God replied, “Well, that’s the last time I ever ask you to do anything.”

And the angels said, “But they were Egyptians!  They held your people hostage and enslaved them… We thought you’d be pleased!”

And God said, “Yes, but the Egyptians were my children too.”[2]

Oh, when God calls us out into the deep waters of faith and the deep waters of forgiveness, it is so easy to relapse.  That is when we need God the most.  But it is also when God is most with us, when we need to do the hard work of learning to forgive in grace. 

It’s so much easier to keep score.  It’s so much easier to get by on just what gets the job done.

It’s so easy to settle for less.  But less isn’t grace. 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.


 Buechner, Frederick.  Wishful Thinking.  (Harper, NY, 1973) p2
 I believe this story is attributed to Fred Craddock.

Last Published: November 21, 2014 11:43 PM