Seventy times seven

Genesis 50:15-21

 Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

Romans 14:1-12

 Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

Matthew 18:21-35

 Then 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?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, 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. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But 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.’ Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Flatliners is a 1990 movie about four medical students who decide they want to find out what it on the other side of death.
They all take turns having their heart be stopped and letting it flatline for a time, before they are brought back from the dead by defibrillation.
They have dreams and experiences during the time that their hearts are stopped and come to believe there is something there on the other side of this life..
 But after a while these visions come back to haunt them.
One of them sees a vision of a boy he bullied and in his dreams of visions he is beaten up by the boy. And when he wakes up the bruises are there.
Another is being haunted by visions of her father who committed suicide.
Another is haunted by a young black girl that he bullied.
 They begin to think that what is going on is Payback. They are getting these visions and more than visions, because the visions are real to them. They think they are being punished…
 Finally the one who bullied the black girl goes to visits that girl who is now a grown woman and apologizes and she accepts his apology and the visions for him stop.
 And the girl who is haunted by her father’s suicide has a dream in which he apologizes and she forgives him.
 The one who bullied the boy confesses that the boy actually died when he threw a rock. And he needs to forgive himself and be forgiven too.
 The theme is not payback after all, but forgiveness and reconciliation.
 It is a movie, but it raises the whole idea that if we do not forgive and be forgiven the unforgiveness can haunt us and make life into a living hell.
 I don’t know if you have ever been haunted by your past sins, or haunted because of someone who hurt you or yours and you were never able to forgive or move on.
I know there are a number of things I did and said, a number of attitudes I held when I was younger of which I am totally ashamed.
 Small town New Brunswick in the sixties for all its charms and good points was a little bit racist and a little bit homophobic.
 I literally cringe at some of the things I used to say and the attitudes I held as a young teenager and high school student.
 I have asked God for forgiveness and have tried my best to love all people and be inclusive.
 And I have also tried my best to forgive anyone who has ever hurt me.
 But sometimes even to this day my mind will wander to those who hurt me, and feelings of wanting to hurt them will flash through my mind….
The boy who punched me, the woman who lied about me, the friends who betrayed me, the parishioners who made my life a living hell…
Most of the time I can realize it is a random thought and let it go…
I have forgiven and moved on, or so I think, but sometimes, something comes back to bite me a little.
And then I realize that while it was that person long ago that hurt me, it is only me who can remember it, nurture it, let it bother me or haunt me.
And the real secret is to forgive.
And yet I don’t know of anything harder. You have all seen on the television newscast and footage of parents whose kids were struck down by a drunk driver, and how devastated they are, and how their lives are ruined, and how badly they want the drunk driver to pay for their crimes.
And often I secretly pray for them that in time they will learn to forgive and let go and move on and do something good and not live in hell for the rest of their lives.
And maybe you have been hurt. Maybe you have been hurt badly. Betrayed, or lied to, stolen from.
Maybe sometimes has attacked you, verbally, emotionally, spiritually, physically, sexually.
 Maybe you have been abused.
Maybe you have been rejected or humiliated.
Maybe you have been ignored, excluded or isolated.
Maybe you have tried to live long term with an addict or alcoholic.
And you ask. “Really God, just how long am I to forgive.”
 That’s what Peter says when he comes to Jesus.
“How many times must I forgive?”
And he picks a big number. “Seven?”
And believe me, seven is a big number for forgiveness.
For instance, just try these on for size.
 How many times must I forgive my spouse for adultery? Seven?
How many times must I forgive my employee for stealing from the till? Seven?
How many times must we forgive the minister for getting caught drinking and driving? Seven?
Seven is a big number.
 And Jesus blows us all away. Seventy times seven.
You may note that the scripture I read said. Seventy-seven.
The King James uses seventy-times seven.
The reason is that Jesus is alluding to a verse in the Old Testament,
Gen 4:24 “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”
However in the Koine Greek translation of that Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, the Greek translation, called the Septuagint, uses seventy times seven.
The Septuagint was the translation of the Old Testament into the same version of Greek that was used in the writing of the New Testament and it was commonly used at the time of Jesus.
So Jesus could have been quoting from either the Hebrew or the Greek.
But the point is not the actually number but that forgiveness is never-ending.
The Jews actually had a kind of three strike rule, long before baseball was even invented.
It was believe you should forgive up to three times and then that was enough.
 So Jesus says to Peter. You should forgive unlimited times.
 But Peter thinks he is the one who is being sinned against.
He is talking as if he is the victim and people are hurting him…
But the real dynamic is that Peter and the disciples are the sinners who are being forgiven much by Jesus.
 If I may remind you, that a couple of chapters earlier when Jesus said he was going to suffer and die, he was rebuked by Peter.
May I remind you that the disciples are trying to figure out who is going to be the greatest and Jesus tells them that the great ones are the one who are humble.
May I remind you that disciples didn’t have the faith to cure the epileptic.
May I remind you that Jesus went out of his way to say that they need to seek the lost…
…that they need to reconcile themselves to those who have hurt them.
 The disciples right now are the ones who are sinning because they are not buying into Jesus message of love, inclusion, forgiveness, compassion and unlimited grace.
In fact they are greatly distressed to find out that Jesus will suffer and die.
They are greatly distressed by Jesus’ vision of heaven, which is that the kingdom of love can come on earth as it is in heaven, whenever we love, whenever we care, whenever we forgive, whenever we include, whenever we reconcile…
 So Jesus tells them the story of the unforgiving slave.
I’ll update it a bit.

A certain Canadian senator owed the government 6 billion dollars.
He didn’t have the money and he and his family were going to be sold to into slavery.

 And He falls on his knees and begs the Prime Minister and the Senate to forgive him saying that he will pay it back when there is no way he could ever pay it back.
He would have to work for 30,000 years or something  like that and save every penny in order to pay it back.
 But the Senate and the Prime minister in their customary forgiving way forgive the Senator.
 And then the Senator goes out and finds that there is another Senator who owes him a few thousand dollars, and when he can’t pay he has a couple of thugs beat him up.
When other Senators heard about it they were greatly distressed.
And the Prime minister and Senate, when they heard about it sent the Senator to Guantanamo to be tortured until he had paid it back.
 What Peter and the disciples, so not realize is that the story is about them.
They are the slaves, the servants, the senators, who have been forgiven much.
 They are the forgiven ones who are questioning just how much they to forgive others.
 And isn’t that pretty common of human nature. One way to deal with our own faults, weakness, sins and crap is to focus on someone who is worse than us…
 But look at that person over there. He is worse. She has done that.
Should that person be forgiven?
Maybe not.
 And yet how much have we been forgiven.
We Christians are guilty of starting wars in the name of Christ, of torturing and executing gays and lesbians, of burning what we called heretics and witches.
We are guilty in this country of turning Jews away  who were trying to escape Hitler. We promoted slavery. We started residential schools.
We denied women rights for centuries.
We have polluted the air and the land and the sea.
 The so called Christian countries of the world for centuries, colonized and exploited so-called third world countries, that is developing countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
…forcing Christianity and European culture into other countries, and taking away their self-determination and control, pillaging their raw materials for their industries and taking advantage of cheap labour to make their countries rich.
 I believe that we humans are learning and that we are forgiven much by God for terrible things that we have done to each other…
 But I think that we are Peter and God says to us just like he said to the unforgiving servant:
Should you not have mercy on your fellow slave? Your fellow humans who are enslaved to sin?
Who are we to judge?
We who have been forgiven much.
 Paul writes about the early church squabbling over what foods are clean or unclean, whether it is appropriate to buy meat sacrificed to idols.
And to us maybe they seem like trivial things and Paul is telling not to get upset about trivial things that separate us.
But these things were not trivial in the church. People were arguing about who truly followed Jesus and who did not.
And Paul tells them not to judge. It seems to be a message that Jesus taught as well.
 We are all sinners. We have all been forgiven much. Huge debt.
Instead of judging people, we are to understand and forgive.
 And if we do not…. Torture and hell.
 The point of the movie Flatliners I think is that when we hurt, when we don’t forgive and when we don’t ask for forgiveness, it is not so much that we will end up in torture and hell after we die, but that the consequences in this life are torture and hell.
 Guilt, shame, ongoing fighting with family, friends, church members, can lead to hell.
 Marriages of unfaithfulness, bitterness, cutting words, mistrust can be hell.
 When we in this world do not share and hoard our resources we create hell for millions of people.
I remember the story of a doctor who had been a prisoner of war in Japanese prison camp. When he was a grandfather, one day his little granddaughter said to him. “Grandpa, if you don’t accept Jesus as your Saviour, you will go to hell.”
He replied with sadness: “I have already been in hell, sweetie.”
 There is an oft-told story of one prisoner of war who asked another, “Have you forgiven your captors yet?”
“I will never do that,” the second one answered.
“Then they still have you in prison, don’t they?” the first one replied.
 When we do not forgive, we put ourselves in hell. We put ourselves in torture. We create inner turmoil and anxiety and bitterness. We increase the pain within, and rub the inner wounds raw and bleeding.
 And it is why Jesus says: “Come to me you who have heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”
 And we can walk right out of hell any time we want. By forgiving and loving.
Sister Helen Prejean, in her book Dead Man Walking, (which later was turned into a movie) tells the true story of Lloyd LeBlanc, a Roman Catholic layman, whose son was murdered. When he arrived in the field with the sheriff’s deputies to identify his son, LeBlanc immediately knelt by his boy’s body and prayed the Lord’s Prayer. When he came to the words: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” he realized the depth of the commitment he was making.
“Whoever did this, I must forgive them,” he later told Sister Prejean.
And he continued to meet every month with Sister Prejean from then on to pray and forgive the man who murdered his son.
And he walked out of hell and into heaven.
Joseph sold into slavery by his brothers, given up for dead, many years later reconciles with them and forgives them.
“You meant it for evil” he says: “God meant it for good.”
God doesn’t cause any of the evil in this world, but with God’s help, with Christ’s example, we can take the worst in this world, and with love and forgiveness walk out of hells and make something good happen.
Amen