Scripture for Sunday: Matthew 18: 21-35
21 Then 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?” 22 Jesus 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. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, 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. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But 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.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Notes on the Text:
I grew up in a part of the world where revenge was enshrined as a high cultural value. The thinking goes something like this: If you kill someone in my family, I will kill someone in your family and then you have to kill someone in my family and then there is no end to bloodshed. I knew firsthand how awful it is to live with that kind of mentality of tit for tat. Wars were fought between families, neighbors, and nations over old grudges and hurts in that part of the world. This awareness makes what Jesus taught about forgiveness in Matthew 18 even more radical for me. The context of holding grudges and seeking revenge for generations helps us see why Peter’s question to Jesus about forgiveness was potent. Peter had just heard Jesus’ teachings about dealing with conflict in the community of faith, and as usual, you can count on Peter to push the envelope and to ask for clarifications. He tries to put a specific number on how many times we should forgive those who offend or hurt us. Peter asked Jesus if forgiving someone seven times was enough. Seven is a number that represented wholeness, a fullness of a cycle like the story of creation or the Sabbatical year. He was not only being generous, but also radical in his offer. Yet, I believe that Jesus’ response was not about numbers alone. It was about a radical way of life and forgiveness.
First the number “seventy-seven” or seventy times seven is a very precise number. This number is found only one other time in the Bible in Genesis 4:23-24 and the story of Cain, the murderer, and Lamech. Cain gets revenge seven times and Lamech gets revenge “seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven.” When Jesus uses this number, he is addressing this way of revenge and calling for a major change. The story of Lamech symbolizes the cycle of hate, revenge and murder. Jesus breaks that cycle of hate and revenge. The number seven symbolized perfection in Jesus’ time. So, this is a call for absolute and perfect forgiveness.
The second radical element of this invitation to forgiveness is the parable Jesus told. We can read the parable and easily miss its shocking nature which Jesus intended to reverse the people’s understanding of forgiveness. The parable is shocking because the king would have been the symbol of corruption and power in Jesus’ time. Also, we have here the unjust system of slavery when people couldn’t pay their debts, they became slaves. And the amount of money that the slave owed to the king was so tremendous. A single talent is equivalent to 15 years of wages. 10,000 talents would be the equivalent of 150,000 year of labor, while the amount that the servant was owed by his friend was only 100 denarii which equaled 100 days’ wages. So, to see this kind of forgiveness coming from a king must have shocked the listeners. The contrast between the two debts was so sharp to help people really get the message. Not only the amount was so incredible, but also the person who forgave was not a person who normally would forgive others their financial debts. These people were his slaves. He owned them because they couldn’t pay their debts. So, by forgiving the debt, the king was basically setting the slave free. The king must have been crazy. The listeners would have thought, “A king would never do such a thing!” They would have been shocked to even imagine such forgiveness. Jesus here is shocking his listeners with the use of this image to show them that God’s forgiveness was limitless, even absurd, and their image of a vengeful God was to be transformed. Jesus was telling them that if even a corrupt king could be so forgiving, then how much more did need to be! That is the shock of the values of the kingdom of God. They turn our “normal” expectations upside down.
As we ponder the teachings of Jesus about forgiveness, I know that we have a tough time truly believing or practicing them because the work of forgiveness is hard, and it requires a lot of emotional resilience out of us. But forgiveness is always possible because it is ultimately about us allowing God’s love to heal our past hurts and pain. It is about letting go of the emotional baggage of the past. It is not about condoning or excusing those who hurt us. One of the best statements I have heard about why forgiveness is so hard comes from Berne Brown quoting her pastor Rev. Joe Reynolds who said, “In order for forgiveness to happen, something has to die.” We can’t go back to how the relationship was before the hurt. We must make peace with the fact that the person we forgive and reconcile with has the capacity to hurt us again. Here is a list of the things that must die which Berne Brown has discovered in her work on forgiveness:
- The idea that those who love me will never hurt me.
- The idea that I will always be able to avoid hurting others.
- The idea that people who hurt me are always wrong.
- The idea that if they do hurt me, they must not love/like me.
- The idea that anyone who hurts me is against me and is out to get me and must be my enemy.
- The idea that anyone who hurts me is doing it deliberately (it must be personal).
This list shows us some of the reasons why forgiveness can be so difficult, because it requires a lot of change in our thinking and perception of reality.
South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho Tutu wrote a great book last year called, The Book of Forgiving. Both are no strangers to conflict or deep hurts. He was the head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and they both knew firsthand the struggles of apartheid in South Africa. But both have come to realize the importance of the practice of forgiveness for God’s vision of peace and justice to become a reality in our world. Here is a short but powerful quote from it, “Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us… Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, they will hold the keys to our happiness, they will be our jailor.” In this book, the authors offer us a fourfold process of forgiveness. This is important because forgiveness is a process and not just something that we can take lightly, especially when the feelings are deep. Here is the process:
- Tell the Story: When we tell the story, we tell the facts of what happened to us to someone who is empathetic and safe. We may need to tell the story many times before we are ready to let it go.
- Name the Hurt: Naming the hurt means to say what specifically happened to us emotionally. It means owning our emotional reactions and the way we have ached, felt confused, or whatever it was we felt. No feeling is wrong.
- Grant Forgiveness: Forgiveness is a choice. Forgiving is how we move from victim to hero in our story. We know we are healing when we are able to tell a new story. Granting forgiveness means to get to the place where we see the perpetrator’s “shared humanity.” We can forgive when we can see the other person’s pain and confusion and release any need for retribution.
- Renew or Release the Relationship: This means to either let the person go if needs be (for safety or another compelling reason), or ideally, to renew the relationship. Renewing the relationship can be making a new relationship out of the old one, perhaps re-defining the roles and boundaries.
I invite you to think about forgiveness in your heart. How does the parable of the absurdly forgiving king speak to your life right now? What freedom do you long for in places of conflict and hurt? What holds you hostage to the past? Maybe the person you need to forgive is yourself.
Prayer by John Philip Newell:
I seek your presence, O God,
not because I have managed to see clearly
or been true in all things this day,
not because I have succeeded in loving
or in reverencing those around me,
but because I want to see with clarity,
because I long to be true
and desire to love as I have been loved.
renew my inner sight,
make fresh my longings to be true
and grant me the grace of loving this night that I may end the day as I had hoped to live it,
that I may end this day restored to my deepest yearnings,
that I may end this day as I intend to live tomorrow, as I intend to live tomorrow. Amen.