“If you give me a chance, I swear I will take care of you until my last breath.”
“I’m not going to hurt you like she did. I wish you would give me a real chance.”
“To see you cry wasn’t my intention. Just let me make it OK; just give me one more chance to say.”
“How about we give this one more try, one more chance to finally get this right, give me a chance to change your mind.”
“I’m sorry I messed up I really am. I’ll make it up to you if you give me a chance.”
“As long as we can see the same sky, breathe the same air, step on the same planet then you and I are not impossible.”
“I guess I never let you go because in the back of my mind I still believe that someday, we’ll get our second chance.”
“I could be the best thing that’s ever been yours, if you just give me a chance.”
“You were the love of my life. Without you, I can’t live. I am begging for a second chance. We both went thought many obstacles together. I’ll miss the smile I see every day from your face. That was a smile that gives me feeling that I can’t describe.”
“I may not be the hottest or hunkiest guy out there but trust me, if you give me a chance, I will love you like no one else could.”
And Mae West was once quoted as saying, “Always give your unfaithful husband a second chance. With somebody else.”
The most common misreading of today’s gospel passage is that it is a formula for dealing with problematic people, a guide for a legalistic judge and jury process. Although not untrue, it would be an inadequate reading of this message. Jesus knew that there was conflict in human relationships. Lord knows, he experienced it himself. And he knew that there would be conflict in the church. He knew there would be trouble-makers in the church – you know – one of them handed him over to the authorities for 30 pieces of silver. His church started out as a band of fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, and farmers. But rather than being merely a formula for how to deal with bad actors, this gospel passage is really a prescription for giving chances. If someone does you wrong, go and talk to them: Chance number one. And if that person doesn’t respond, if the one-on-one talking doesn’t work, then go seek out a couple more people to have the conversation with them: Chance number two. And if that doesn’t work, bring it to the larger church where more people can listen and hear and have input: Chance number three. And THEN, if THAT doesn’t work, then maybe it can’t be worked out. But interestingly, when chance number three doesn’t work out, Jesus uses the following instruction: “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” That would seem to be a total rejection of the offender, wouldn’t it? EXCEPT that Jesus spent much of his ministry speaking on behalf of Gentiles and Tax Collectors! And if THAT’S the case, what does this say about relationships? Are there really only three chances? Or does true Christian love demand more than that.
So today’s Gospel addresses two groups of people: the offender, and the offended. In a Christian way of thinking, both have responsibility, each to the other. As much as the offender should be repentant, the offended should be patient and forbearing.
Now let me make something really clear. There are people who are abusive, and they use forgiveness as a tool to perpetrate abuse and harm. For example, in cases of domestic abuse, cycles of apology and reoffending are dangerous, and in the worst case scenario – fatal. In the case of a highly dysfunctional marriage, confusing victimization and irresponsibility for forgiveness can do lasting harm to many people, most notably the children. Sometimes a relationship just has to end. That’s the way it is. Some of you are aware of a church case from one of my other jobs at the New England Synod, where a member became so abusive and bullying, that she was asked to resign her membership or be expelled by an act of the church council. The ELCA is one of those denominations that holds its members to the same standards of conduct as its clergy, with clear consequences for member misconduct that disrupts the well-being of the larger community. The health and welfare of a family or community may require some distance from an offender.
In my church experience, the peccadillos and offenses that go unforgiven can be the slightest things. Someone’s toes get stepped on. Someone inadvertently leaves someone out, or speaks out of turn. But if not addressed upfront, these sorts of things take on a life of their own.
We cannot apply today’s Gospel to every single situation. But in large part, Matthew 18:15 makes a pretty good case for second and third chances, and even more. And the greatest example of how this works is in our relationship with God. If God didn’t give do-overs, we would not be here today. It is no accident that this gospel comes after Jesus once again reminds his disciples of the cross. In Matthew 17: 22-23, we read, “One day while they were still in Galilee, Jesus told them, “I am going to be betrayed into the power of those who will kill me, and on the third day afterwards I will be brought back to life again.” And the disciples’ hearts were filled with sorrow and dread. And then practically ALL of chapter 18 – not just today’s passage – is about forgiveness. Why? Because the death of Jesus on the cross is the biggest do-over in the history of humankind. And it would seem that we are called to do no less. To look at the cross and not be able to give people chances to get things right makes no sense at all.
And we end with this teaching of Jesus: 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We forgive because we are meant to be one.
My twin brother and I were about six or seven years old, and I suppose like many siblings, we had gone through an extended period of bickering. One weekend while my mother was working at the telephone office, my father – tired of the constant bickering and tattling – took us to the toy department of JJ Newberry’s and bought us each a set of boxing gloves. We had no say in the matter. We were dead silent in the back seat riding home. When we got home, dad took us to the back yard, handed us the gloves, and told us to put them on and beat each other up, and get it over with. I know it sounds like horrible parenting, and I don’t recommend this as sibling conflict resolution method. But we couldn’t even put the gloves on. We stood in the backyard and cried. That’s all we did. We cried. There was no way we could put the gloves on. There was no way we could box. He’s my twin. I’m his twin. If you are a twin, maybe you understand this. To hit Mike would be like hitting myself. When he hurts, I hurt. I still have the boxing gloves in my attic. They are still in the box. They’re signed by Cassias Clay. They’re probably worth a fortune. But I’ll probably keep them.
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We are one in Christ. It is in our DNA as God’s people to live in harmony and forgiveness. Giving second and third chances and more is who we are as forgiven people of God, washed by the waters of baptism and cleansed, once and for all, by the blood of the cross. The term Christian unity should be redundant. And if you hear the term “Christian forgiveness” the correct response is, “Thank you, Captain Obvious.!”
It is at the height of arrogance to think that we control the conversation about forgiveness. We don’t get to write that script. And thanks be to God for that. Amen.