GOSPEL: Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35
When Peter asks about the limits of forgiveness, Jesus responds with a parable that suggests human forgiveness should mirror the unlimited mercy of God.
21Peter came and said to [Jesus], “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.”
In a parable full of ridiculous proportions, we are expected to be a bit aghast at the ending. This would never happen. The amounts of money are too staggeringly big and too insignificantly small. It would almost be like a bank that has been bailed out of billions of dollars worth of loans built on a failed scheme of sub-zero interest rates, turning around and foreclosing on a house that someone bought while taking advantage of those rates. I mean, seriously.
The violence is just too extreme – It would be like Christians, assuming forgiveness for a the church’s history that includes all manner of torture and heinous coercion, calling all Muslims “violent” because of the actions of a small portion of Islamic extremists. That never happens.
Jesus’ example just isn’t how humans treat each other, we have more compassion than that. It would be like a church member, having been forgiven by God of all manner of sinfulness, turning toward fellow member in all manner of anger and saying – I will never forgive you for that way you looked at me funny that one day.
C’mon, Jesus. This kind of stuff never happens! Why are you telling us this story?
Webster’s definition of forgive is “to give up resentment of, or claim to requital.” To let it go. To not expect anything more from that person. Jesus talked about it in terms of binding and loosing. One year I led an Everest-themed Vacation Bible School. I dressed as a sherpa each day, complete with fur lined hat and parka. It was hot. But the one day Ihad a big loop of climbing rope around my arm as I came out to greet the kids.
I asked for a volunteer and one eager kid quickly ran up. Don’t worry, I knew what I was doing….. As I talked about Jesus’ power to forgive, I slowly tied him up with my rope. Just wrapping it around his arms, pinning his arms gently of course to his sides, and in the process, getting it wrapped around my wrists too. It was quite a lot of rope and before we knew it, I told them we were tangled and stuck. We were bound up together, by this thing I had done. He was stuck, but so was I. Cause like things do, the rope got tangled and it got complicated.
When we are bound together in sin, we are stuck to one another in an unhealthy way. Powerless to move forward, powerless to overcome that tangled complicated rope of sin. The person who sinned still has a hold of the rope. If they choose they can do their best to apologize, to unbind, to make right – but sometimes the knots can only be loosed with Jesus’ power.
Jesus gives us the power to bind and to loose. When through his power alone we are able to loosen the rope around us, we let go of the power that person has over us, we let go of the hurt and the anger, and we let go of trying to untangle the rope. It falls around our feet and we can step away. That is forgiveness. Forgiving, then, is separate from loving the other, separate from liking the other, separate from restoring trust in relationship, and certainly separate from forgetting. Forgiveness is then just the beginning.
This is a hard teaching for people who have been oppressed, abused, and repeatedly wounded. Too often, I feel that we approach wounded people by insisting that they forgive those who have harmed them. That is biblical after all, right? But we also project unreal expectations on forgiveness. It’s not something that happens overnight – and its intention is not to make the sinner feel ok about what they did so that they can continue on. It is only the undoing of ties and knots and tangles – that might allow for a new healthy relationship to take place. Or not.
There is nothing about this passage that suggests the master forgives the debt and then offers the offensive servant unlimited access to his resources! There is nothing that suggests forgiveness is equal to allowing for perpetual cycles of abuse.
A Scriptural definition of forgiveness also allows for rebuke and requires the offender to be repentant. When translated, the original Greek from a parallel passage (Luke 17:3-4), speaks of the offender having a change of mind or purpose, and forgiveness is referred to as a sending away or leaving alone: “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”
Someone unwilling to recognize their own actions won’t understand the benefits of forgiveness because they are still holding onto that rope. still winding it round and round tighter and tighter, long after the other person has forgiven and walked away.
But its not just between two people. An often overlooked part of this story of debt and forgiveness in Matthews is the innocent bystanders. Sin doesn’t occur in a vacuum, there are far reaching consequences. The family and friends and coworkers that get caught in the crossfire of our sins. The first man who owed a huge debt to the king – his wife and kids were along for the ride. Had he not asked for forgiveness, had he not begged for forgiveness, his families life as they knew it was at stake.
The second man’s actions are even more disturbing when you realize that this was in full view of friends and probably families. Those who witnessed this attack and outright lack of humanity or mercy were grieved, saddened and outright offended. They took the only recourse they had, lest they also become entangled in this, to report what they had seen to the only person with the authority to deal with the situation. It is not only the debtor and lender who are affected by this entanglement – the whole community feels it.
Jesus says the kingdom of heaven may be compared to this vignette. Which we often read as “here’s a story of what heaven is like.” But that’s not what compare means, is it? We’re meant to lay out what we know about God and the kingdom, with the story Jesus gives us and see where the edges line up. And what that clarifies for us both about ourselves and the kingdom.
Does God expect us to forgive and go on forgiving, while God harshly punishes the unmerciful? How do communities of faith practice both mercy and justice and accountability? Perhaps this master says more about our kingdom than the kingdom of God when the two are compared. We live in a culture of payback and vengeance. I’ll always remember one night at seminary, going out to a little bar in the country for karaoke. There was a banner tacked up on the wall next to the stage. It was a commemorative banner, for 9/11, twin towers and American flags and all. Two lines. Never Forget. Never Forgive. As one training to preach a gospel of forgiveness, it gave me great pause and still does.
Forgiveness does not mean saying what you did was fine and I’m ok with it. Forgiveness is not a free pass, nor is it a restitution of a relationship. Forgiveness is simply allowing the spirit to help you let go of what you are bound and tangled in.