21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if my brother or sister 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, the 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.”
Forgiving others turns out to be a very difficult concept that stirs up all kinds of visceral reactions. The world has any number of obviously selfish exploitive people who do intentional harm—and we have no protection from them. We can be vigilant. We can be careful. We can even arm ourselves but all of us are vulnerable to malicious gossip, lies, betrayal, hacking, and drunk drivers—to name a very few. Many times we have done nothing to deserve such treatment but, nonetheless, reputations are damaged, money is lost and bodies are broken. What does it mean to forgive such behaviors? And why would we even consider it? I know our scripture reads we should forgive “seventy seven” (or seventy times seven depending upon your translation). Once is a big ask, much less forgiving for multiple offenses or worse, the same offense multiple times.
I’ll start with the big frame of our faith and then try to address some of the real life implications of such a faith.
First, forgiveness begins with our being forgiven. In this parable, the first slave had a debt beyond any capacity to repay. That debt was forgiven. He had a fresh start—a do over. But instead of recognizing the gift and responding with gratitude, he acts as if the world should be fair and insists that he be repaid what he was owed. He neglects to notice that it was not fair that his own debt was forgiven. That unfairness was ok with him because he benefitted. When it did not benefit him, he complained that he had been wronged and demanded justice. This is not new. Lately, each election cycle has been filled with accusations of fraud. But it is a one way street. If I lost, there must be fraud. I win, no need to look. It is as it should be.
Two things are revealed when he fails to forgive. First, he did not actually receive the gift that was offered and second he reverted to secular values based upon his own self interest. It turns out he received the forgiveness of his debt as a fabulous windfall that allowed him to continue life as he knew it. He might have thought of himself as lucky, cunning or perhaps deserving. He might have been grateful but he was not transformed. He was absolutely within his rights to demand payment, insisting upon that view. protected him from the responsibility of discernment and mercy. The unforgiving servant appealed to the rules and his ‘rights’ without regard to the fact that he was the recipient of someone else’s breaking the rules he was trying to enforce. His appeal to ‘rights’ was self-serving and simply maintained his status quo. What was offered was a new way to live. He missed that completely.
The end of today’s scripture very sharply suggests that if we live by the sword, we will die by the sword. If we are going to insist that all debts are due on demand, the same will apply to us. But insisting upon such a ‘rules are rules mentality’ means we will be doomed to a score keeping, eye for an eye existence. The alternative is a world in which there are exceptions, where there is discernment—where there is mercy. That is the way God loves. It is the harder way but it is the loving way.
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” There are countless injustices ins life. In real life, that is a very narrow gate to walk through when we or someone we love has been harmed. We know that the way of retaliation ultimately fails. We live in the hope that forgiveness and reconciliation—though very costly—provides a new way. Again quoting Paul: ”17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; look, new things have come into being.” Unfortunately such a new creation requires us to face the harshness of this world and look for new ways to respond. That is what Jesus did on the cross.
Second, in order to find new ways to respond, we need to see the world as it is—broken. Usually we become trapped in the immediacy of our pain. We lose context because it hurts so bad. But at least some of the time we need to put our pain into perspective. Innocents have been injured, raped and killed for all of time. To stare into the eyes of such truth hurts. As much as we know the world is not fair, we are still indignant when innocents suffer (as we should be if there is any hope for a better world). But we are particularly devastated when we are that innocent. We ask ‘why?’. We ask ‘why me?’
We can despair. We can rage. We can question why God would allow such things but we remain stuck with this harsh reality—any of us can be, and probably will be, harmed. Most of us will know betrayal. We will be lied to. We will suffer physically—sometimes disabling, sometimes fatal. People we love will be harmed and we will be unable to protect them. I keep repeating this because these hardships are hard enough to endure without adding to the pain by thinking they ‘should not be’. All we really know is we don’t like them. This is the broken world we live in.
That said,if Jesus, the only man we call innocent, can be betrayed, humiliated, tortured and killed, it has to be pretty clear that all of us are equally vulnerable. We do not have the promise that we will be relieved of such suffering. We do have the promise that God has known such pain and shares ours with us. This knowledge leads to deep grief. But there is hope on the other side of grief. There is only circular despair and anger when we insist the world should be more to our liking.
Now some practical problems as we seek God’s kingdom. Forgiveness, received and offered is a fundamental part of God’s Kingdom. The sign of forgiveness received is forgiveness offered but that doesn’t mean we will be able to do so and even less likely able to do so consistently. In FIRL, people repeatedly found their hearts and minds kept returning to past injury. They could not ‘just forgive’ and be done with it. That is the point of Jesus’ words that we should forgive over and over. It is a process and something that, in real life, does not come naturally. But the process matters—even if we never complete the task.
Practically speaking, the act of forgiveness benefits us whether or not it is received. There is a high cost to holding onto our grievances. We can not make anyone see our truth no matter how obvious it might be. Dwelling upon such attempts will exhaust you, remind you of your helplessness and will fail to bring the desired changes. I have worked with a number men and women who had been molested as children. In almost every case the question is raised: “Should I confront my abuser?” The answer is: Confront only when it does not matter how the abuser responds. If you are speaking to give voice to your truth, that has to be enough. If you are looking for an apology or recognition of the pain that has been inflicted, you will very likely be injured yet again. Realizing what is possible (changing yourself) and what is impossible (changing another person) frees us to live with what is.
Forgiveness gives us a way to move on. It does not mean what happened was ok nor does it mean we can not be hurt again. It does not mean there will be reconciliation. In fact sometimes forgiveness helps us be more vigilant and careful. An interview question for potential summer counselors was what do you do if you find one of the camp kids chasing a cat with a hatchet. The back story is that a troubled child had become fiercely loyal to her camp counselor. The cabin had adopted a stray cat but the camp counselor was extremely allergic. The child was going to solve the problem by killing the cat. The back story is important. We can understand the child. We can forgive the child. But the answer to the question is the first thing you do is get control of the hatchet. All of us should recognize danger and be careful when that danger is present. Some people will dismiss us no matter how authentically we share our feelings. We should never let forgiveness mean we should ignore such pain.
Forgiveness does mean we stay aware that we are not morally superior. We often, in a different form, are committing the same sin we complain about. I am seeing a couple in which the wife is quite angry that her husband is too selfish and does not share her sense of how a family should work. She makes the case repeatedly that any good husband would act differently. Ironically, he is usually willing to comply when she says: “It is important to me.” but delays and refuses if she insists upon what he ‘should’ do. There are many issues here for therapy but neither saw they were each doing the same thing. It looked different but each of them was ‘insisting’ on their own way. They remained stalemated because they could not see that they each caused harm. (Of course each of them had ‘good’ arguments to prove their way was the best way.) They will be unable to reconcile until they can recognize the harm they caused before they judge their partner.
Offering forgiveness transforms us. It is a hallmark of God’s kingdom. It calls for self awareness, confession and courage. It must be repeated over and over. But this is the way of God’s kingdom.
Let it be so.