Scripture: Matthew 18:15–35
Today’s sermon was preached by both Pastor Matt Sturtevant and our guest speaker, Ottawa University Chancellor Dr. William M. Tsutsui. The text that follows is the portion preached by Pastor Matt. Please view the video for the full sermon.
Once there was a man. And that man found himself in so much debt to the king, there was literally no way that he could ever pay it off. The king had every right to throw him, and his entire family, into prison for failing to pay his debts. So the man threw himself at the feet of the king, and begged for just a little more time. He would find a way to pay it all off. And the king smiled, knowing that there was no way that he could possibly pay off all of that debt, and on the spot, he forgave it all. No debt. A new life.
That man had a choice. In the face of such grace and forgiveness, he could have built his life on this foundation of forgiveness, showing mercy and grace to others as it was shown to him. That is not what he did. Some people, when given a chance to be redeemed and restored, turn ugly. Turn arrogant. Believe that they deserve such forgiveness…that they are owed it. That was this man. As soon as he had been forgiven a debt that he could never repay, he ran into a man that owed him a relative pittance. A few bucks. And what did he do? He had that man arrested and thrown into prison for failing to pay his debts. Instead of living out of the forgiveness shown him, he chose the way of arrogance and rigid legalism. The king, having heard of his gracelessness, reversed his decision and threw the man into prison and torture for the rest of his life.
Once there was a man. He was a follower of Jesus by the name of Peter. Ever since Peter met Jesus, he had been fed a constant stream of forgiveness. Every time Peter messed up, or said the wrong thing, or leapt before he looked, Jesus picked him up, dusted him off, and restored him in grace.
He came to Jesus one day with a question. Should I forgive someone seven times? The question had the air of arrogance to it. Peter knew that Jesus was talking about forgiveness all the time, and so he figured he would earn some brownie points by showing off how forgiving he was. Seven times was much more than the religious law expected. He would sound pretty awesome to Jesus, he figured, and Jesus might actually brag to all the rest of the disciples that Peter was his favorite. He was right, while they were wrong.
But Jesus’ response floored Peter. He smiled, and told him, “Seven times? Try seventy times seven. Forgive so many times that you lose track. In fact, if you are counting at all, you are missing the point. Your life should be such a constant stream of forgiveness and grace and mercy that it becomes the norm, not just the legalistic exception that you do just because you are supposed to. Once you gain that muscle memory of forgiveness, the foundation of forgiveness, only then will you really begin to live kingdom life.”
Once there was a man. Or a woman. Or likely some of each. And these siblings in Christ lived together in harmony in the early Church of Jesus-followers. Until they didn’t. As a part of that early Church, probably fifty or sixty years after Jesus’ life on earth, they began to have conflicts with each other. Probably some ideological conflicts. Or personality conflicts. Or disagreements about how the Church should be run, its policies and practices. Most likely, all of the above. And the Gospel writer Matthew wrote to these early Church Christ-followers about how they might behave when these conflicts arose. Not if, but when.
Matthew collected several of Jesus’ parables to share with them. It seems that the point of these parables was to over and over again ask this question: “Where is the Kingdom?” And in this parable, the answer has to do with putting another’s needs before your own. With hearing the perspective of someone different than you, before you place your hands around their neck and toss them off to judgment. With setting aside your need to be right, considering first your need to be gracious. With giving up your need to keep score, because you understand that your score has already been settled in the favor of grace. Seventy times seven.
And paired with the parable of the foundation of forgiveness, and Jesus’ proclamation to Peter to live out of the muscle memory of forgiveness, Matthew included some pragmatic and practical words about how to handle conflict in the church. Just like the man in the story who had a choice between forgiveness and arrogance. Just like Peter who had a choice between forgiveness and arrogance. Matthew reminds these conflicting members of the early Church that they too have a choice.
When (not if) you have a conflict, a few simple Kingdom guidelines:
1. Direct and honest communication. When conflict happens, people tend to slide in one of two unhealthy responses. Some internalize that conflict and blame either themselves in self-defeating shame, or blame others to the point of holding an angry grudge. The result of such internalization is usually that resentment eats away at us, crumbling the foundation of forgiveness. Meanwhile, others externalize that conflict through unhealthy triangles. Person A is upset with Person B, so naturally, they send an email to Person C. Or a bulk email to Persons C-Q. Again, this gossip train erodes the foundation of forgiveness. But Jesus teaches a third, healthy way: direct and honest communication. Are you upset with someone? You should go to them and talk to them about it. A novel concept.
2. A second guideline: Circle back to community. Sometimes direct and honest communication doesn’t work, at least not right away. That doesn’t mean you give up. It just means you ask for another’s perspective. And then another’s. And then another’s. Keep listening. Keep learning. Keep working to understand the other and perhaps listen to the ways that you may be wrong. Be open to compromise or adjusting your assumptions. Be ready to grow, personally and as the Body of Christ, by hearing how the Spirit is speaking to and through others. Whether that is in a Christian small group, a medium-sized congregation, or even the larger ecumenical Church…the principle is the same. Hear more voices. Listen to those who might agree with you. Circle back to community. Move from arrogance to forgiveness.
3. A final guideline. Set clear boundaries. Matthew was reminding the Christ-followers of his day that they were to be different. They needed to stand for the counter-order, counter-Empire ethic of peace, humility, honesty, meekness, and the other Sermon on the Mount perspectives. But Jesus understood that some will not accept this ethic, and want to live in a different way. Note Jesus’ response: treat them like you would a tax collector or Gentile. Pay attention that this doesn’t say throw them out to the wolves, into the place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. But simply acknowledge that if they have chosen to live by the ethic of Empire, they are free to do so…somewhere else. The message needs to be “you are always welcome here, but this is how we do things.” We choose to stand on the foundation of forgiveness. Finally, it is important to remember how Jesus treated tax collectors and Gentiles. Not with eternal damnation, but always with the open door to return to the ethic that he preached. When they were ready to live by the laws of love, there was room for them in the community.
Once there was a woman. A man. A sibling in Christ who worked to discern how they might be faithful to Christ in the midst of the world. We are those Christ-followers today, just like so many who have gone before. Today, and in this season of discernment and contemplation, fellow siblings, may we learn afresh what it means to build on the foundation of forgiveness of our Lord.
Dr. William M. Tsutsui has served as Chancellor and Professor of History at Ottawa University since July 2021. Educated at Harvard, Oxford, and Princeton Universities, he has taught modern Japanese history for almost 30 years. He has written or edited eight books, including Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters (2004), which was called a “cult classic” by the New York Times. Prior to joining Ottawa University, he taught at the University of Kansas, served as Dean of Humanities and Sciences at Southern Methodist University, and was the President of Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. Bill and his wife Marjorie Swann, who is Professor of English at Ottawa, have been married for 33 years and are devoted servants of two cats and a dog.