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Joel 2.1-2, 12-17

Matthew 18.18-22

The 491st Sin

First Sunday in Lent

I am a real stickler for paying my bills on time.  I can tell you the exact dates my car insurance is due, my property insurance, the cable bill, my Quincy rent, my mortgage payment, Eversource, National Grid. cell phone, credit cards, etc.  In fact, I’m one of those people credit card companies don’t like very much, because I never carry an outstanding balance between months.  When I used to receive my bills via US mail I would write the due date on the outside of the envelope, just to be sure I would pay everything on time.

So imagine my chagrin about two years ago when I received a notice from my homeowner’s insurance company – which will remain unnamed, for reasons you’ll soon hear – informing me my coverage was cancelled for non-payment.  I went back and looked at my electronic bill pay, and sure enough, I saw I had gotten the due date wrong – by one day.  I understand the insurer needs to protect itself, but what a legalistic interpretation of a due date, to cancel my insurance for a payment one day late.  Still, all it took was a phone call to set things to the right.  Or so I believed.  Apparently, from that time forth, the insurance company treated me like a marked man.  Every quarter thenceforth I received a cancellation notice, dated the last day of the month, even though my payments reached them before they were due.  I thought that was pretty low, but what really got my juices flowing was when I arranged for my payment to arrive a full week early, yet I still received a cancellation notice dated three days before the bill’s due date!  Fed up, I called my agent, gave her an earful in my most pastoral tone of voice, and as a result, it only happened one more time before the insurer decided I could be cut some slack.  Talk about a pharisaic way to do business!

It was a similar kind of legalistic preoccupation with detail that led Peter to ask the uncharacteristically literalist question of Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother or sister sin against me, and I forgive them?  As many as seven times?”  I say uncharacteristic because, for all his faults, Peter really wasn’t like this.  It’s more likely that the same question had been making the rounds among Jesus’ followers – probably somebody had first asked Peter the question -  maybe out of curiosity, more likely out of the kind of Pharisaic attention to legalistic detail for which Jesus’ detractors and certain insurance companies have long been known.  So Peter tried to straighten things out without riling Jesus. “Lord, how often shall my sister or brother sin against me, and I forgive them?  As many as seven times?”  Notice the implication here that once a follower fulfilled what appeared to be the entirely reasonable rubric to forgive seven times, then any subsequent offense would be legitimately actionable.  And this does make a certain amount of sense:  if you do something disrespectful or worse to me again and again, then in Christ I can reasonably be expected to forgive you for it more than once, and if I were very, very patient, I might not reach my breaking point, the last straw as it were, until you dissed me for the eighth time.  Surely that’s going the extra mile, right? - and if I lost my patience or blew you off after that, any rational person would understand.

So in a way, Jesus’ answer has to boggle the mind:  Jesus said to Peter, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”  Does Jesus really mean we have to forgive each other four hundred ninety times before we get to hold their sin against them?  Is he serious, or is he just trying to wear us down?  Who of us is even going to remain acquainted with somebody who offends us so many times?  I don’t know about you, but after the first or second hundredth time or so, I’d cross that person off my Christmas card list.  And besides, even if any of us proves as long-suffering as Jesus seems to require, what happens when the threshold is crossed?  What do we do at the 491st sin?

Theoretically, we’ll never get there.  We know the point Jesus is making without having to count up to four hundred ninety.  But I still think there is something even deeper at work here, because just doing the math suggests the same kind of literalism, or legalism, that Peter’s question implies, and which, deep down, I think Jesus’ words mitigate against.  In Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s wonderful play Inherit the Wind, based on the Scopes’ Monkey Trial, the Clarence Darrow character gives a speech that I think cuts right to the heart of such a detail-oriented, Pharisaic approach to faith.  The attorney says, “Truth has meaning – as a direction.  But one of the peculiar imbecilities of our time is the grid of morality we have placed on human behavior:  so that every human act must be measured against an arbitrary latitude of right and longitude of wrong – in exact minutes, seconds, and degrees!”  Jesus, if we are somehow able to forgive each other four hundred ninety times, what happens on the four hundred ninety first?  Do we really get to let them have it?

There is another way of looking at it.  We’ve all seen, or at least have conjured the mental image of, St. Peter standing at the pearly gates with the heavenly ledger open to the entire life story of whoever is standing before him, imagining him asking something along the lines of, “And what about that time in the fourth grade when you borrowed lunch money from your best friend and never paid it back?”  And you realize in that moment that not only is this the only sin you have ever neglected to repent, but worse, you’re still technically in debt.  Is the celestial gatekeeper going to review our lives and decide whether we have paid up, whether by penitence or recompense, for every single sin we have ever committed, all four hundred ninety plus of them?

This Lent, I’m going to suggest we go deeper with Jesus with the notion of sin and forgiveness.  I think that it is less helpful to think of it in terms of sins (plural), meaning a numerical compilation of our offenses, omission and commission – and more helpful to think of it in terms of sin (singular), that state of being separated from God and each other.  John helpfully combines the singular and the plural in his first letter:  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  The forgiveness of God you and I know in Jesus Christ is more than the erasure of the entire collocation of our individual wrongdoings, it is our very transformation in the eyes of God from sinners to righteous.  It is a new state of being – the old being has passed away, as Paul wrote, and a new being is put upon us.  Sin is not the ruling passion of life; grace has eclipsed it and made us whole.  Does this mean we will never commit those individual sins again?  You and I know ourselves too well to ever make such a claim.  But it does mean that the power of sin to deceive and compel us is completely and entirely enervated.  Once God accounts us as righteous, there is no need to keep a running tally of offenses.  Now this does not mean that you and I can go ahead and wrong each other with impunity, or as Paul ironically puts it, we may not “sin so that grace may abound.”  But it does mean that as God forgives us once for all in the redemptive act of Christ, so then you and I are also able to turn and forgive each other, not x number of times, not x times x number of times, not even x times x number of times plus one, but rather the once that is enough for always.

Lent is the time we focus most deliberately on sin and redemption.  On this first Sunday in the season of Lent, even as we may have thought about our sins or those things we want to hand over to God for good, I think it’s helpful to remember that as much as sin is more a state of being than an act of doing, so forgiveness is more than a one-at-a-time achievement; it is the state of living that is open to all of us who live in the grace and compassion of Christ.

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