Matthew 18:21-35 ~ Rev. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ September 13, 2020
What words of advice are you hearing these days? “Wash your hands”… “Wear a mask”… “Line up here”…“Do not wear a mask and give up your rights”… “Beware of the vaccine which will have a microchip implanted to track us”…“be kind…be calm…be safe.” As I was pondering this morning’s text, I wondered if this morning’s scripture focus might be a portion of some of Jesus’ words to us in such unique times. Throughout the text, we hear Jesus calling us to tend our heart. Hear the conclusion of the text once again: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Jesus offers us wise words for this day in which we live…to tend to our heart. Tending to the heart is an interesting analogy because the heart is a complex organ that biologists tell us is necessary for our physical existence. The heart is also something that Jesus explains as being necessary for a full spiritual life. The heart: weighing in at just under one pound, it is roughly the size of one’s fist. It is divided into four main chambers: the upper left and right atria and the lower left and right ventricles. Indispensable for life, it busily circulates blood throughout the body. Deoxygenated blood pumped to the lungs and oxygenated blood pumped back in, symphonically beating at a rate of 60 to 90 beats per minute. Our heart is perhaps, the most important muscle in our body: vital for life.
The reason that I wanted to commence with the amazing qualities of this great organ in the body is that the heart also has tremendous implications for our spiritual life. What was Jesus’ purpose of concluding this parable with locating forgiveness in the heart? Why did he not just simply conclude the teaching without any reference to the heart. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister” (and end it there). What was the purpose of tagging on the spatial location of the forgiveness as being heart-centred? To forgive from the heart. Would it not have been an equally valid teaching, simply to call one to forgiveness? It would have lifted up the challenging virtue and would have provided a powerful lesson. No? But as we get to the heart of the matter, we find get a little closer to what Jesus was teaching for living a way of forgiveness. Allow me to explain.
“So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” As we have read through the text, the lesson is clear and challenging. If someone sins against you, you are not required to forgive them once or even seven times (a challenge in and of itself). You are required to forgive them 77 times. 77 is a BIG number. 77 times forgiveness is like the story of the great fish that got away ~ the fish who was this big. 77 times is an incomprehensible level of forgiveness. It is beyond anything that one could be understood as fair or ethical or moral. It is extravagant forgiveness. This was the message found in the stories Jesus told. The King and the two servants where the first slave owed 10,000 talents. Now, if you are not up on your biblical currency, the talent is the largest monetary unit that existed. It was equal to the wages of a manual labourer for 15 (that’s right fifteen) years. To put that further into perspective, the tax income from all of Herod’s great territories was only 900 talents per year. Ten thousand talents would exceed the taxes for all of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea and Samaria. 10,000 talents is a number beyond one’s comprehension, just like 77 measures of forgiveness.
So, as we consider the extravagant levels of forgiveness called for, let’s get back to the heart of our conversation. In terms of a biblical understanding of the heart, there is also a spiritual reference when it comes to the heart. The Oxford Bible dictionary suggests that the heart is the most important anthropological word in all the Hebrew Scriptures. Used just under 1000 times, the heart is the source of thought, it is the place of understanding, it provides wisdom, and is the base for discernment between good and evil. A stopped heart leads to paralysis (not death). Eating served to refresh one’s heart and lead to recovery, and the heart of heaven referred to those areas beyond explanation and exploration. Conversely, a hardened heart connotes one’s inflexibility of purpose and often leads to sin. An example would be of Jesus’ disciples’ hearts being so hardened that they could not understand his miracles. “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
So, when we consider forgiveness, what is the importance of these last three words “from your heart”. I think Jesus concluded this parable in order to focus our attention on the on the necessity of the heart in truly living in forgiveness. Jesus wanted to highlight the importance of having a healthy heart if we are ever to live in the Way of God’s Kingdom. No differently than we know the virtues of having a healthy biological heart, Jesus wanted to highlight the importance of having a healthy spiritual heart. Biological heart disease include blockages in the arteries causing heart attacks, arrythmias or irregular heart beating, and heart failure coming from a damaged or weakened heart. Interventions include adjusting one’s diet, level of exercise and the cessation of smoking. I wonder what the risk factors to having a healthy heart are from a spiritual perspective are? I wonder how we might work towards having a healthy heart? It seems that forgiveness has a lot to do with exercising the heart.
Forgiving, if you will allow the analogy, when truly offered is an exercise for our spiritual heart. We have all heard the principle of ‘use it or lose it’ and I think that it applies here. If you don’t use your heart it will deteriorate, malfunction and die. The heart, a muscle, will atrophy from lack of use. Much like the prescription of exercise for the biological heart, the prescription of practicing spiritual forgiveness from the heart is equally important. For a runner to have mild jog and barely break a sweat will not allow them to train their heart. However, when they apply themselves, and run, and sweat, they exercise their heart. So how do you exercise forgiveness with the heart? Do you practice forgiveness when you are in traffic? Angry at people who cut you off, busily chatting on their cell phone or putting on their lipstick. How do you react to them? Do you forgive them and give them a safe distance? Or do you follow on their bumper to show them your anger? Or think of other examples: when a friend hurts you, a co-worker infuriates you, a neighbour disappoints, a family member lets you down. Can you offer forgiveness or are you out for blood and revenge as a result? I wonder if the linkage of the heart with forgiveness serves to further empower us to achieve this calling. A runner could never complete her race with a weak heart. The spiritual heart that God has placed inside each of us strengthens us to be the extravagantly forgiving people Jesus calls us to be. Drawing upon your heart allows your to be the forgiving person that we strive to become.
From another perspective, I believe that forgiveness from the heart creates empathy. Heart forgiveness allows us to be aware of other’s needs. Physiologically, we must be aware of the stresses placed upon us, lest they become so overwhelming, take over, and ultimately damage our heart. We must find a healthy way to deal with the stress, to be a partner in their solution, and to dig deeper in understanding them. I think that this is equally true when it applies to the spiritual heart. Part of our call as Christians is to be aware of the needs around us and share the gifts that are inside waiting to be shared. If we split forgiveness into its two syllables, we are reminded that forgiving, at its core, is ‘for…giving’ The heart is for / giving. Our lives are for / giving. Being mindful of the needs around you take many forms. This, in many ways, is the message of our Provincial Health Minister, Dr. Bonnie Henry when she says: “be kind…be calm…be safe”. How might it look, amidst these challenging times, if were truly mindful of the needs around us, and the needs within? As we become increasingly attuned to other’s fears and frustrations, we find ways to forgive, to comfort, to care. As we turn inside and mindfully listen to our hearts that are equally afraid and frustrated, we can also receive forgiveness, and comfort and care.
This is an odd message for ‘Welcome Back Sunday’. Normally, I feel more like cheerleader celebrating the kick-off of new beginnings as we re-assemble for yet another wonderful church year. Yet, somehow this message is the one God calls us to hear in these times. As we go to our heart and find grace, and forgiveness, and a strong heart that will guide us into this church year ahead.
May we each be strengthened with our spiritual hearts as we faithfully move ahead into this new year.