Gospel text: Matthew 18:21-35; Epistle text: Romans 14:1-12
Last week we got to reflect on how to handle conflict in the church. Today we move right along to the next set of verses in Matthew and get to reflect on forgiveness.
Forgiveness is something we all struggle with, whether you are an active part of the body of Christ or not. I’m sure you can call to mind at least one person that you struggle to forgive. Maybe you’ve been holding onto that person for years, or maybe it’s a pattern in your relationship. “Often we do not really want to forgive someone or ask for their forgiveness, even though we know we “should”.” (Dudley Cleghorn, Feasting On The Word, 70) Forgiveness can be hard to practice! Why? We might have a desire for revenge. We might want to get back at the person who has hurt us. We might want to return the hurt, or think they need to do something to mend or repay what they have done, something that we think will fix what we have experienced. Our pride gets in the way, especially in asking for forgiveness. We justify ourselves so that we don’t have to do it. We want conditions on forgiveness, right? I’ll forgive him when he finally realizes what he has done, or when she finally apologizes.
What is forgiveness, anyway? In my newsletter article to you this weekend in the Pastor’s Corner I said that forgiveness is a process, that only God can forgive perfectly. We’ll get to God’s forgiveness later. Forgiveness for us is a process. It’s a process of release, of letting go. It’s not something we can easily do in one fell swoop. It may need to be redone over and over, depending on how deep the hurt. Forgiveness is not denying our hurt. Sometimes we minimize what has happened. We say, “it was not big deal,” or “it’s okay” for one reason or another. We tell ourselves it wasn’t really that bad. But when we gloss over what has happened to us, we cannot really forgive. Forgiveness can only happen when we acknowledge the impact someone’s actions, words, or attitude in our lives. We have to acknowledge the deep hurt, and take it seriously, before we can start to let go.
Forgiveness is not a matter of putting others on probation, waiting for them to do something wrong so we can take it back. Forgiveness is making a conscious choice to release the person who has wronged us. It is leaving behind our resentment and our desire for revenge. Forgiveness is releasing them from what we imagine their punishment should be, however fair that punishment may seem. It is excusing them from the punishments and consequences they deserve because of their behavior. It does not mean that their behavior was acceptable, or that they shouldn’t receive the punishments they are due by the law, but it means that the power of the wound they left is broken. (Dudley Cleghorn and Marjorie Thompson, FOTW, 72)
To forgive is not to forget. We can let go of the resentment, of the hurt, without forgetting what has happened. There are some things that we shouldn’t forget, like “the Holocaust, slavery, ethnic cleansing, exploitation of children and women, mistreatment of Native peoples, the infidelity of a spouse, a lie told that turned your life upside down, or betrayal.” (Dudley Cleghorn, FOTW, 70) Forgiveness is not saying that those wrongs that happened are okay. Forgiveness is letting go of the power those events hold over you. There are a couple illustrations that help us see this.
There’s a story told of one prisoner of war who asked another, “Have you forgiven your captors yet?” “I will never do that,” the second one answered. “Then they still have you in prison, don’t they?” the first one replied.
Rabbi Harold Kushner tells this story: A woman in my congregation comes to see me. She is a single mother, divorced, working to support herself and three young children. She says to me, “Since my husband walked out on us, every month is a struggle to pay our bills. I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies, while he’s living it up with his new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him?” I answer her, “I’m not asking you to forgive him b/c what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to forgive b/c he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically, but you keep holding onto him. You’re not hurting him by holding onto that resentment, but you’re hurting yourself.”
(Illustrations offered by Dudley Cleghorn, FOTW, 72)
Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive. Not seven times, but seventy-seven times, Jesus says. Sometimes you’ve heard that verse ending with seven times seven, or seventy times seven…it doesn’t really matter. If we are focusing on whether or not we should forgive 7 times, 49 times, or 77 times, we’re focusing on the wrong thing. The number is not the important thing. Except numbers were more than just numbers in biblical days. They had meaning. And we see that today in this parable.
The number seven is a holy number. If I asked you to give me an example of the number seven in the Bible, you could come up with many. The first might be seven days of creation, Joshua marched around Jericho for seven days, Jesus has seven I AM statements in the Gospel of John… Seven is the number for divine completion, for perfection. With this is mind, it is thought that Peter’s original question might be something like, “Must I practice perfect forgiveness?” And Jesus answer might have been something like, “Forgiveness must beyond perfect; it must be beyond counting.” (Donelson, FOTW, 69) That ‘beyond counting’ part will come back again.
In order to demonstrate his response, Jesus launches into a parable about the kingdom of heaven. In typical Jesus-fashion, his parable neither answers the question, nor brings clarity to his answer. A king wants to settle his accounts. He brings in the slave who owed 10,000 talents and he is unable to pay. I told you that numbers mean something more here, and this case is the same. Apparently 10,000 is the largest number possible in Greek – I’m not sure if it’s still that way today, but the point stands for our text. And a talent was the largest denominator. So saying 10,000 talents is kind of like saying a gazillion dollars (Pulpit Fiction). This is an exorbitant amount. It’s so high that it’s hard to imagine a slave being able to rack up that much debt. It is beyond counting. Not only it is hard to imagine a slave owing that much, it’s even harder to imagine him paying it off, and even more to imagine a ruler to let it go.
This response by the lord, the king, demonstrates to us that he is extreme, both in his severity and mercy. He was going to sell the slave with all his family and possessions, but in the end he forgives. Selling the slave doesn’t sound to severe until we know that selling debtors into slavery was prohibited in Greek and Roman law and was almost never practiced. (Donelson, FOTW, 71) How could a lord who comes up with a punishment that is almost never used, go from that to complete forgiveness, and just by the slave’s request? It seems a little far-fetched, and it is – remember, this is a parable, a story used to teach us about the kingdom of heaven. It’s not realistic. Jesus may be going for a bit of overkill here so that our senses are shaken and we can realize the depth of the story.
The part that sinks to the depths of our hearts is the reaction of the slave. He walks away with this great forgiveness, the cancellation of his great debt. But when he comes across someone who owes him a small amount, compared to what he owed, he has that one thrown in prison because he cannot pay! For the sake of clarification, it might be helpful to know that a talent was equivalent to about 130 pounds of silver; it would take about fifteen years to earn that. A denarius was worth about one day’s wage, which means the second slave owed about 100 days of labor, which is still not a tiny amount. But the comparison seems ridiculous. He was forgiven the debt of a gazillion dollars, and now he throws someone in prison for owning him the equivalent of three months’ pay. This parable is often called the Unforgiving Servant. We could give him other titles too – ungrateful comes to mind.
That’s where we find ourselves. We are the unforgiving, the ungrateful, the one who is unable to let go of whatever offense done to us, though great forgiveness has been extended to us. God is able to forgive us for everything we’ve done or not done. God gives grace abundant, and yet we are unable to extend that grace to all others. We are unworthy, just as the slave in the parable. We don’t deserve God’s grace.
We automatically assume that the lord in the parable is a stand-in for God. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. One difficulty with assuming that comes at the end. The lord brings the slave back in after hearing how he couldn’t forgive another’s debt, and he hands him over to be tortured until he should pay it – really the point being that only his death will pay his debt. And then Matthew has Jesus end in this way,” So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” It’s hard to know what to do with this. Do we really have a God that would torture us if we can’t forgive? I hope not. I have a hard time believing that the God we proclaim who loves and has grace forever and ever would go to such lengths as torture.
What do we do with this? It could be that Jesus is driving the point home. Like he has through the rest of the parable, he’s going to extremes to show how much he means what he says. Forgiving others is a huge part of our calling as Christians, especially in the Gospel of Matthew. For Matthew at least, God’s forgiveness to some extent depends on our ability to forgive. We even speak these words every Sunday in the Lord’s prayer: Forgive us, Lord, as we forgive those who sin against us. Matthew goes even farther in his version and says, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (6:14-15) Like I said, I have a hard time believing that God would stop short of unconditional forgiveness, but whatever the reality, forgiveness is clearly an important thing for us to do.
When do we get to stop practicing forgiveness? Never. As we heard in Romans today, we are not to judge each other. Just as we remembered last Sunday, we are all God’s, as Romans says. Whether we live or we die, we are the Lord’s. We are always children of God, no matter what! You are loved! You are forgiven! You are enough! This may be comforting to hear, but challenging when we think of how that applies to others. We are to practice forgiveness, as we proclaim that God has forgiven us. We are to work on letting go of the revenge and the desire for punishments so that the hurts we have accumulated will not eat us up. It is in dying that we receive life. We must let those things go to experience the freedom Christ offers. For it is he who first loved us and forgave us, no matter the wrongs we have accumulated against ourselves. God forgives us beyond counting. Praise be to God for that.