Scripture: Genesis 50: 15-21 and Matthew 18: 21-35

Is there a harder commandment in all of scripture?

Chelsey Harmon tells a story or paints a picture about forgiveness. She writes, “One of the complaints that student loan borrowers made about the lack of political support for loan forgiveness programs related to the pandemic was that corporations and politicians received loans that they were not required to pay back. How, advocates asked, could these same people who had benefited from a similar forgiveness adjudication, be so vehemently opposed to others receiving the same grace (and usually on a much smaller scale)?

“Like our parable today, we have no idea why the money was borrowed, or what sort of goodwill efforts had been made to pay it back (or why it hadn’t been paid back). We have no way of knowing whether the money should have been loaned in the first place. The point isn’t the circumstances, it’s the greedy and selfish posture of the one who receives grace. If they are not willing to share and extend it to others, then they didn’t really have it in the first place.” (Chelsey Harmon –

This is a hard passage. Forgiveness, in all the ways it can take shape and form.

If I tell you to love God and your neighbour. Well, you can do that, it’s abstract, it isn’t clearly defined. We can set limits on how we love our neighbour and still be loving our neighbour.

But forgiveness? That’s much harder.

When we don’t get it right, when we fail to forgive, it shows.

Forgiveness is incredibly difficult. If we are honest, we can all name a handful of people that we should probably approach and ask forgiveness. Not that they should forgive us, not that they have wronged us, but individuals for whom our own actions have harmed. We are the ones who need forgiveness. And I’m not talking about large transgressions that are hard to forgive, but the simple things that sometimes just occur as a result of our living together that cause hurt or harm.

We are all in need of forgiveness. Often the focus of this passage is people who have hurt us. After all, Peter is asking Jesus “How often must I forgive?” That emphasis sometimes gives us a free pass to gloss over the ways in which we have hurt people.

Of course, asking for forgiveness, means we have to own our mistakes. And that is hard.

Our passage from Genesis this morning deals with a very difficult narrative. We don’t have the entirety of the story about Joseph and his brothers. Rather, we have this snippet from the end. Joseph’s brothers realize that the man before them is their younger brother. An individual that they have done grievous harm to and who now holds tremendous power and could use that power to punish them. And if Joseph did use that power to punish them, no one else would have blinked. His brothers know this and so they, remember they aren’t the most honest or up-front individuals, concoct a plan to seek forgiveness by using words from their father. Please forgive your brothers is the message.

Joseph offers forgiveness.

The parable in Matthews gospel this morning takes a turn, it becomes personal. Peter asks how many times must I forgive? He isn’t asking abstractly. Remember this passage comes on the heels of the lost sheep and our reading from last week where we have someone who has caused you harm. However, the passage this week is about when you cause the hurt.

This is a difficult passage because we could never imagine ourselves acting the way the servant did. Receiving forgiveness and then acting is such a hard and callous manner. However, as a parable, we need to remind ourselves of the fact that Jesus is making a very specific point about one thing. And that one thing is forgiveness. The parable paints an extreme picture to drive home the point of how important forgiveness is.

Joseph’s brothers beat him and left him for dead. Yet, they still ask for and receive forgiveness.

The servant owes an extravagant debt. The amount owed in this story is beyond what a servant should be able to accrue in debt, which makes the forgiveness of that debt and subsequent punishment to someone else who owed him money so striking.

It would have been difficult to forgive that level of debt, yet the servant can’t see how he too must act with mercy and compassion and offer forgiveness.

Often, the king in this passage will be compared to God. That the mercy and compassion the king offers is symbolic of the same grace we receive from God through Christ. That’s a fair comparison, but if we stop there then the full impact of the passage is lost. We’ve taken the easy route, no less true, but the easy route. The reason it’s easy is because we have taken ourselves out of the equation and not factored in how we are in need of forgiveness and the ways in which we can also offer forgiveness.

St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church

St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.

St. Andrew’s supports the gathering of community agencies, providing space for the Affordable Housing Committee. Rev. Ellis’ voice is key in advocating for improvements in awareness, empathy and action on key determinants such as housing, income and food security. 

Kristina Nairn

Public Health Nurse, HKPR Health Unit

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