Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church

Budapest, Hungary

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Sermon of the Week

September 12, 2020

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 19

Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church

Budapest, Hungary

 

Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35 

 

“Seventy-seven times…” Mt 18:23

 

A bit of math to begin with.

 

You may have noticed that our assigned passage this morning from the Gospel of Matthew has Jesus advising us to forgive others seventy-seven times, which -- you may have also noted -- is four hundred and thirteen times fewer than is found in the same verse in the King James Version of scripture, and elsewhere, in which our Lord clearly advises a full seventy times seven discrete acts of forgiveness, for a grand total of four hundred and ninety. Quite a discrepancy.

 

And, as you might guess, the difference is down not to mathematics but to translation. Or translators. The ancient Greek version of the Scriptures, called in church parlance the Septuagint, does in fact read seventy times seven. This is the version upon which many popular bible translations are based. However, many of the equally ancient -- or even older -- Hebrew texts, from which our scriptural translation is taken this morning, have Jesus saying seventy-seven times. So, what did our Lord actually say…? Or better yet, what did he really mean…?

 

Let’s find out.

 

Peter asks Jesus about forgiveness. This is not entirely surprising as the section of Matthew’s Gospel from which this passage is taken deals mostly with relations among and between church members. And sin among church members as well. So, perhaps Peter was thinking of a particularly annoying disciple he has had to work with. Or perhaps he was infuriated by something he had seen on his Facebook page that morning; something no doubt posted by an unhappy parishioner. We will really never know. Three acts of forgiveness were, by the way, considered more than generous in the ancient world.

 

So, you could perhaps say Peter is here actually being magnanimous in suggesting seven times. To follow his thinking and logic, forgiving someone seven times would probably be about it -- and then some. Seven is a kind of perfect number, in any case, in ancient Jewish culture. And, when you stop to think about it, if someone is really getting on your nerves, seven conscious acts of forgiveness can seem like quite a lot. Thank you very much.

 

So, Peter no doubt figures he is on the right track with his calculations. It has got to be seven times, or thereabouts. And then that is that. One has done one’s duty in the forgiveness department. Self-righteous indignation is now the order of the day. You hurt me, and I forgave you. Seven times. I deserve a medal for just putting up with you already.

 

Except….

 

Except, Jesus does not at all agree with Peter’s arithmetic. Without even getting out his Smart Phone calculator or abacus, Jesus rewrites the equation for Peter -- and for all of us -- and makes it, well, an impossibly large number. More forgiveness, in a sense, than anyone could realistically count. Make it seventy-seven or seventy times seven. Either way, that is a lot of forgiving. After all, who could possibly keep track of so much forgiveness? Why, you might as well say you should always forgive.

 

And that of course is precisely Jesus’ point. If you keep count, you cannot let go. You cannot forgive. If you forgive only three or even seven times, you have in effect not forgiven at all because you have not yourself experienced forgiveness and redemption. You are still a prisoner of the anger and hostility within yourself. Forgiveness – or the lack of it -- is not in the final analysis about the person who has presumably harmed you.

 

It is about you.

 

In business, they say you cannot manage what you cannot count. And, that is no doubt true – in business. But in our spiritual lives – in the business of forgiveness and redemption – what you count manages you. If we do not forgive; if we do not let go of all the hurt and pain in our hearts, it will destroy us spiritually from within. Forgiveness is not only the right thing to do, it alone can bring redemption and life. Forgiveness is the smart thing to do.

 

It is what Christ teaches us in the Cross. Our Lord let go of his very self that we might have forgiveness – that we might live. So, we have no choice, really, but to forgive. All other seeming choices are false and lead us not only away from God but away from our true selves created in the image of God. For, if God forgives and accepts us without keeping count -- so must we do with each other. Our righteousness is only found in God’s grace freely bestowed upon us in love beyond measure – love beyond counting.

 

Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant -- also found in this morning’s Gospel reading -- like so many of his parables is curiously set within a context of balance sheets and money owed. Some days, you might almost think Jesus would have preferred the life of an accountant -- or perhaps church treasurer. Yet he uses this parable to illustrate who owns what -- and who owes what – and to whom. Forgiven by his master, the wicked servant of the story yet turns around and exacts repayment in full from his own debtor. “Pay what you owe!” he demands of someone who owns little or nothing.

 

The irony should not be lost on us. Of ourselves, we own nothing and yet owe everything we have and are to God. Of ourselves, we have nothing to give. But in the Lord, we are rich in the forgiveness and acceptance which has been bestowed upon us. “Pay what you owe,” demands master and servant in our Gospel parable. And, what we owe finally is forgiveness beyond measure or counting.

 

So, you do the math.

 

Amen.

 

The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs

September 05, 2020

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 18

Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church

Budapest, Hungary

Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119:33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

If another member of the church sins against you…

Against You…

It may come as a surprise to know that in some of the most ancient texts or codices of the Gospel of Matthew -- from which our Gospel account this morning is taken -- the two little words from this passage against you are missing. In other words, in these alternate texts, the passage simply says, “If another member of the Church sins, go and point out the fault…” Scholars, who make their living writing arcane articles about such things, are not quite sure what to make of it.

Some consider that the words against you were in fact intended in the original but were somehow inadvertently left out in these other manuscripts by one or the other scribe centuries ago -- a kind of ancient typographical error, if you will. Such things were known to happen. Often, in fact. Other experts however believe the words themselves, against you, were in fact a later addition, perhaps made to provide further clarity to the text. I suppose we shall never know for sure. But the Church, in its wisdom, has for whatever reason decided to side with those who believe the words against you actually belong there. And so, there they are in our Reading this morning.

These two little words are of course important. They are not immaterial. They change the meaning of the text in a significant way, if you leave them in or take them out, as you can readily see. There is after all a big difference between someone sinning, period; and someone sinning against me. Or against you. One is general: Sin. Something we all know we all do all the time. It is part of the human condition. The other reading, against you, is up-front and personal. One-on-one. Confrontational even.

If the text is read, against you, there could of course as well be an unintended implication of which the Evangelist -- or those pesky scribes -- might not have even been entirely aware. For instance, say someone -- God forbid -- should sin against our kindly Churchwarden, Alice; we might then be tempted to say: Sorry, Alice, not my problem. That person sinned against you. You sort it. And, I suppose there is an element of logic to this. At some level, we must all fight our own battles. You and I cannot possibly be held responsible for the actions of the entire Church.

Or can we…?

If we leave the words against you out of the text, as of course some codices do, that is exactly the implication. That is, we all bear an element of responsibility for each other in the Church -- not just in specific, discrete instances but more or less all the time. The sin against you becomes also a sin against me and against the entire community of the Church. That is something quite different from a spat between two individuals. And, we all share the duty or responsibility of seeking an end to such conflict and sin. For, the Church is one body. 

I am no scholar, but I somehow think that is probably what our Lord would have intended.

This passage, by the way, comes from one of our Lord’s last great discourses in the Gospel of Matthew; one sometimes aptly called the Discourse on the Church. It speaks of the role of the apostles and disciples in the early Church and emphasises the importance of humility and harmony among all believers. Yet in spite of this, as this narrative seems to imply, that early budding Church was clearly as filled with frail and fragile human beings -- sinners -- as is the Church still today so many centuries later.

And, our Lord’s prescription for conflict and reconciliation in the Church is in many ways as modern as any contemporary organisation’s Human Resources Manual or any self-help book written in the past few years. Nothing esoteric or mystical about it. Just plain common sense. First, try to resolve matters privately among yourselves. If that is not successful, bring in a couple of willing -- or even unwilling -- witnesses. Work the problem. Seek reconciliation with the one who has sinned against you. Resolve the issue.

We live in a time of polarization at least as troubling as was the first century in Palestine and beyond. But then, perhaps all times and eras are times of conflict. Ask anyone who lived through World War Two. It is after all in the nature of humankind to have differing opinions and so to disagree. But the conflict which leads to sin is of a different order. 

It is the conflict which pits person against person; the one which demeans and humiliates the other to make points. The one which denigrates the other in order to glorify the self. The sin against you that become the sin against all of us; against the Church. 

But if Christ and his Church are about anything, it remains reconciliation. And, reconciliation means respect for the other -- in Church and out -- even sometimes when we are not feeling so respectful of the other. It means, as this Gospel narrative suggests, dialogue. Encounter. Humility and love. It cannot for us be otherwise of course. As Paul admonishes us in our second reading from the Letter to the Romans. “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Well… Should we leave those two little words against you in the narrative or not…? Difficult to say. I leave it to you to decide. For me, I say leave them out. The Church, no matter how big or small, is after all one body, the very Body of Christ. It is not just you or me. It is all of us. And, there is no room in it for against, whether against you, me, or her or him. We are after all gathered in Christ’s name.

And as our Lord himself tells us, when we are gathered in his name, he is there among us.

The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs

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