It seems like an uncanny coincidence that a parable about radical forgiveness is our lectionary text for today, this the tenth anniversary of the attack by terrorists on the Pentegon and the World Trade Center. We all might prefer a different text, like an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But, no, we get this parable of the unforgiving servant.
Matthew 1821Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
23“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him;25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.
28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.
31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.
35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Peter comes to Jesus with a complaint. Someone in the community has caused a real upset. It happens. So, how many times shall we forgive the whiner, the gossip, the embezzler, the adulterer, the woman who doesn’t recycle? Seven seems a lofty number. What do you think Jesus? Seven times? And of course without blinking an eye Jesus says, “Seventy-seven!” Seventy-seven times we are to forgive. That’s a lot of forgiveness.
A crucial expression of our obedience to Jesus’ teachings is not to judge ourselves superior to others. The parable of the weeds, another parable unique to Matthew, shows us that he believed the present time is a time of grace in which God allows weeds and wheat to grow together and it is God’s task to judge which is which, not ours. So we are not to judge one another. And just as important is the presence of forgiveness in our lives as an important criterion on which our obedience will be judged– when the time comes. We are called to stop every so often and take stock of our own sins and then extend the same forgiveness we have received to others.
One graphic image that translates the Greek word for sin is that of an archer “missing the mark” — not hitting the target. So what does it mean, “to forgive”? The Greek word we translate as forgive literally means “to send away” or “to make apart”. Forgiveness is “removing” or “taking away” all the errant arrows that missed the mark. They have been “sent away” — “removed”. In terms of reconciliation, we might say that forgiveness “sends away” whatever keeps people apart. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that the people will reconcile. One may keep holding a grudge — keeping up the barrier that separates. And since we too are part of the community of faith as well, the need to forgive our selves shouldn’t be overlooked. To be forgiven is to be released from whatever keeps you “bound”. Anger or feelings of vengeance are “sent away.” By forgiving, one is no longer under the control of that past sinful act we suffered, no longer allowing past sinful behaviors, whether my own or what was done to me, determine how I will act and feel in the present.
In addition, there is a sense that the promise of forgiveness is needed before to repentance. If we assume that we will be punished for making mistakes we are much less likely to admit to the “punisher” that we’ve done so. We will hide them. We will find ways to spin a positive slant to our actions — or just lie about them. The only time Paul uses “repentance” in Romans, it has the order of kindness preceding repentance: “Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”
Forgiveness implies that someone has sinned. Someone has failed another in some way. It might be disobedience. It might be hurting one’s feelings. It might be little failures, like forgetting a special day or the assigned ushers and greeters failing to show up at worship. Whether it’s something big or tiny, the need for forgiveness means somebody has done something wrong. It also requires our willingness to forgive.
It would be great if Jesus had just said: “Forgive because it’s the right thing to do.” But no, in Matthew’s hands the parable includes pointing out the consequences of not forgiving for the one who refuses to forgive. Matthew must have thought that people needed a warning label affixed to parables, a warning of the consequences of merely doing religious lip service, of being hearers but not doers. In his 13th chapter weeds get thrown into a furnace of fire; in chapter 20 the laborer who dared to complain about his wages is sent packing; in the next chapter the son who didn’t go to the fields is eventually excluded from the kingdom and in Matthew 25 those who could not see Jesus in the most needy are sent away into eternal punishment. And in this parable the unforgiving servant ends up being tortured in a dungeon. And that makes today all that more difficult because even a decade later the wound is still raw, and the preferred question for many us is, “Lord, if someone or some group, causes destruction and death to my loved ones, my fellow citizens, in my backyard, why do I even need to forgive once?”
Brian Stoffregen says that Peter’s conversation with Jesus about how many times we are to forgive ends as the parable begins. And what follows certainly doesn’t feel like it’s about forgiving seventy-seven times. First there are the exaggerations in the story meant to underscore the harshness and mercilessness of the king. This king demands that the debtor’s family be enslaved, and sold! Such a sentence contradicts Jewish law which stipulates that only the debtor be enslaved, not that his family be enslaved or sold. Then there is the exageration of the massive amount the servant owed, ten thousand talents. One talent was equal to 15 to 20 years of wages. At that time, King Herod’s total take in taxes from all his territories amounted to less that 900 talents. The amount in the parable highlights how tremendously grateful the first servant should be for the forgiveness of such a massive debt. And, of course, the mind boogling amount owed by the first servant is intentionally contrasted with the relatively modest amount that the second servant owes the first servant, an amount that could be repaid in a timely fashion.
But those don’t hold a candle to the questions raised by a more straight forward interpretation of the parable. Is it true that, like the king, God’s first instinct is to sell us off to another king or god if we cannot pay God back? And, if so, can we really talk the God of the universe out of his judgment by making some kind of flimsy promise to be good? If this is a parable about forgiving people seventy seven times, then why is it that the king only forgave the slave once then the next time he slipped up sent him off to be tortured? That feels like it’s about seventy six short of what Jesus tells us to do. And seriously, would God hand us over to be tortured if we too do not also forgive those who sin against us? I guess what I’m suggesting is that what Jesus portrays in the parable isn’t the Kingdom of God. That’s what Jesus proclaims in his initial response to Peter. The parable describes a world without mercy and forgiveness. No one, not the king, not the first servant nor the second are benefit from the tangled affair.
It is truly hard for us to forgive people who have sinned against us when our hearts are filled with rage and indignation rather than forgiveness and mercy. Yet that is the conclusion of the passage—we are called to forgive—from our heart.
The 10th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attack reminds us that as a people we have, in a profound and unforgettable way, been sinned against. We recall Jesus forgiving those who in ignorance were participants in his crucifixion. We’ve come to embrace the idea of sin being an unintentional miss spent arrow and can justify forgiveness. But today we wrestle with a skillfully carried out intentional plan of attack on a civilian population. And our text on forgiveness gives us the perfect opportunity to speak a little truth about what is really in our hearts. Nadia Bolz-Weber says that the hardest question is this: From where will we attain this forgiveness for those who have caused us harm? She goes on to say what just maybe you are feeling too—“I tell you one thing for sure.” She said: “ It ain’t in my heart. No sir. It’s kinda dark in there.”
I have good news for you. The one who teaches us this lesson on forgiveness is Jesus, one who has promised to be with us to the end of the age. And the good news is that we are not asked to summon forgiveness apart from the presence of Christ in our lives and in our hearts. In 1st John 4:18 we learn that perfect love casts out fear. Such perfect love also offers mercy and forgiveness. Christ is the only source of such love. To demand of ourselves or another that we must simply forgive simply can’t happen. It’s just not in us to do it, not in us anyway if Christ is not in us. It won’t come naturally or easily, but summon it we must.