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"Sunflowers

Certain things are hard for us to forgive – power abused, trust betrayed, words used to cut or batter, cruel acts, cold-hearted neglect. You know. We each have our own sunflowers – reminders of the inexcusable behavior of others.

[1] “Two Cut Sunflowers” by Vincent Van Gogh
[1] “Two Cut Sunflowers” by Vincent Van Gogh

Matthew 18:21-35

September 17, 2023

Dr. Todd R. Wright


Simon Wiesenthal spent much of his life tracking down Nazi war criminals. He also wrote a book titled The Sunflower. It begins in 1944 in a concentration camp in Poland. He is part of a work detail that is sent to do cleanup work in a makeshift hospital for wounded German soldiers. Along the way, Wiesenthal notices that in the cemetery for deceased Germans each grave has a sunflower on it. For him, those sunflowers signify the contrast between the fate of the Nazi dead and the fate of Jews like him: individual, decorated graves, versus mass graves, unmarked and unmarkable.


Upon arriving at the hospital, Wiesenthal is brought into the room of a dying Nazi, a 21-year-old SS man, named Karl. His body is wrapped in bandages, and he is barely able to speak. But before he dies, he wants to confess to a Jew. He wants to confess his shame at having become a Nazi. Even more, he wants to confess that he killed a family trying to flee a building, crammed with hundreds of Jews, to which the Nazis had set fire. He cannot get their faces out of his mind; he covers his blinded eves as he retells the tale.


Wiesenthal is moved by Karl’s repentance, yet he concludes that the contrast between the dying Nazi and the doomed Jews is too great; between them there seemed to rest a sunflower. And so, without a word Wiesenthal left the room.


Yet he is haunted by questions. He asserts that only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision. Even so, he continues to wrestle with forgiveness. Finally, Wiesenthal addresses the question to the reader: “What would you have done?”

 

It is not an easy question. We request and receive forgiveness countless times every day. Usually it is over trivial matters – bumping into someone in the hall, arriving at an appointment ten minutes late, forgetting to make a phone call – but this situation is different. Certain things are hard for us to forgive – power abused, trust betrayed, words used to cut or batter, cruel acts, cold-hearted neglect. You know. We each have our own sunflowers – reminders of the inexcusable behavior of others. How do you forgive when the sin is tragic not trifling, when the evil is intentional, when the act is repeated over and over again? What do you do then?


As Christians we’ve been given an answer, though I’m not sure we want to hear it. Peter broaches the question in today’s passage. He asks, “How much is expected of us?” Rabbinic law called for a person to forgive another three times. Peter, trying to be big-hearted and compassionate like his Lord, asks, “as many as seven times?” Jesus says, “No, better to forgive seventy times seven.”


Who can keep track of 490 episodes of forgiveness? You can’t. And that’s the point. If you are counting, you haven’t forgiven; you are just bidding your time.


To drive the nail deeper, Jesus tells a parable. A king is reviewing his books and notices that one of his servants has a huge debt, a sum that was greater than the GNP of most nations, a sum that represents the day’s wages for 100 million laborers, a sum that is unpayable.


How does a servant build up this kind of debt: day-trading, shopping on Amazon, taking up golf? It really doesn’t matter. The fact is he cannot pay it, not in a thousand years.


Threatened with being sold into slavery along with his wife and children, the man drops to his knees and begs for patience and pity. And the king, acting like the God we love, forgives his debt. There is no repayment plan worked out, no threats, no lectures, in fact there is no further mention of the matter. The debt is forgiven and that is the end of it.


If the parable had stopped here, we would have just one more reminder that we serve a generous, merciful God, a God slow to anger and quick to forgive, but this parable continues, and it has sharp edges! Jesus says the man, fresh from his audience with the king, with forgiveness still ringing in his ears, bumps into a fellow servant who owed him a small sum. Catching him by the throat and backing him into a coner, the forgiven servant demands his money back. He will not listen to the man’s pleas, he will not show mercy, he will not forgive.


If the parable stopped there, we might rail at the unfairness of it all – how the wicked take advantage of the generous, how the evil hearted seldom change their ways, how the weak are at the mercy of the strong. All our grumbling would just be describing the world in all its brokenness, but this is not a parable about the world. It is about the kingdom of God.

 

To this point our focus has been on the king and the wicked servant, but now another group adds its voice – the community, the witnesses, the offended:


They speak up for the “seventy-times-seven” forgiveness that characterizes God’s kingdom.


They point out that refusing to forgive is an ungrateful response to overwhelming grace.


They assert, like Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, that marked by grace, we are a new creation, the old person we once were, with all their old ways of doing things, is gone and we are free to act in new ways.


They express deep disappointment that, invited to live in the kingdom, the wicked servant has chosen to remain in the world.


The phrase from the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” lays out the choice in stark terms.


None of the characters in the parable live out this choice perfectly:

not the king who is initially extravagant in his forgiveness, but takes revenge at the end;

not the indebted servant who learns nothing from his own forgiveness;

not even the community of servants, who while speaking for forgiveness, do not forgive.


You and I do not live it out perfectly either. There are a host of reasons:

 

Maybe there is a sunflower, a reminder of all that is wrong with the world,

that makes you grind your teeth whenever we get to that portion of the Lord’s Prayer.


The world is full of hurt given and received and the memories, like scars, remain.


But we are forgiven people that can choose whether to live in the world or in the kingdom

where God will wipe away every tear.


Maybe you are afraid that forgiving is the same as saying

it never happened, or it doesn’t matter, or it wasn’t wrong.


The world may see it that way, but not God. God weeps at the hurt suffered and offers healing.


The world nurses grudges and licks its lips at revenge;

but the kingdom is a place where grace is given and received.


You get to choose; but choose knowing that the world’s ways never satisfy.


And finally, maybe the last sentences of the passage worry you for they paint a picture of a God who also has limits to forgiveness.


In truth, I think Jesus is saying God’s forgiveness is limited only by the hardness of our hearts.


If we choose not to accept it, we are our own jailer, and the torture will last until we do.


The choice is up to each one of us, as it was up to Wiesenthal, but I wonder if he didn’t have the symbolism of the sunflowers all wrong. Maybe they weren’t a sign of injustice. Maybe they were a reminder that those who have done unforgiveable things, need to seek out God just as sunflowers relentlessly turn toward the sun. Amen


[1] “Two Cut Sunflowers” by Vincent Van Gogh
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