Jesus, how often should I forgive?

In our Gospel reading Peter thinks he’s being extremely generous—like, really, really generous—when he wonders if he should forgive up to seven times. After all, it was the rabbinical custom to forgive up to three times, and then if the individual were to sin a fourth time punishment would befall them. Peter not only doubles this expected number, but he adds one to it. Good ole’ Peter, always going that extra mile to please Jesus!

Of course, Jesus’ response to Peter’s question doesn’t really provide an answer but rather points out the misdirection of the question itself. The issue is not how much or how often we are asked to forgive or should forgive. The act of forgiveness is already a limitless, measureless act. Forgiveness is never not present in our lives and in our relationships. How many times has someone committed an infraction against us and we, “let it go.” We forgive all the time. Forgiveness is part and parcel of the kingdom of heaven. It’s a constant. It’s not optional. It’s not a choice. But we want it to be a choice — and that’s at the heart of Peter’s question.

To punctuate his point, Jesus invokes a “kingdom of heaven” analogy that shows how seriously we are to take the admonition to forgive. He tells the story of a king who is owed a debt by his slaves. At the moment when the king expects to be paid, one slave is not able to pay—and as a result is to be sold along with his wife and children. The man pleads with the king and asks to be given more time. The king has mercy on him and forgives the debt completely—but then the slave does not extend the same mercy to a fellow slave who owes him a debt. When the king finds out, he reinstates the original debt and has the slave tortured until he can repay it. Rough.

Ten thousand talents—the debt owed to the king– would be over four billion dollars today. Needless to say, Jesus used ten thousand talents in this parable as a ridiculously exaggerated sum of money to make a point. In contrast to the outrageous debt of the first servant, the fellow servant’s debt of a hundred denarii was a mere trifle. Its equivalent is four thousand dollars. And we should also note that the king in the parable is not God, in the sense that God does not intend to sell his servants as slaves; he does not throw people into prison and torture them. One must look for the truth of a parable in the impact of the story as a whole. In parables, we have to pay attention to unexpected things that are significant, to surprising details.

For instance, it is unimaginable that a king would let himself be moved by the mere plea of his servant to forgive such a large amount, with no questions asked. That is an incredible exaggeration—quite unbelievable; such a king is not reasonable.

But neither is God’s forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is not reasonable but is quite unbelievable, meaning that it flies in the face of common sense and is beyond all calculation.

In this parable, Jesus holds up a mirror to us each time we think we have to limit our forgiveness. “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow-servant just as I had on you?” That question of the king’s is also the question that Christ asks us. To refuse to forgive is, in one sense, illogical for someone who has come to know God’s excessive forgiveness in Jesus Christ. The cross is our mirror.

This story illustrates how seriously God takes forgiveness because forgiveness is an essential part of Christian communal life. Reluctance to forgive disrupts, distorts, and ultimately disempowers a community. We can certainly understand how when someone transgresses against us that it has a disruptive effect on the relationship. Over time the transgression can lead to hurt and increasingly negative feelings. But what’s at stake is not only a matter of debt and repayment. Ultimately, this is about the balance and integrity of community.

In the parable, forgiveness of the debt may not have enriched the king’s coffers, but it would have maintained the integrity of the community and it demonstrates that mercy is the thread that holds the kingdom together.

There is no magic formula to determine what forgiveness should look like or feel like. But one cannot do forgiveness in a vacuum—we cannot do it alone; we need Jesus to help us, because it does not come naturally to us. We need Jesus to help us in the discomfort and complexity of forgiving someone. Forgiveness is not easy; it is hard. For me, pondering forgiveness brings up memories of those people I was reluctant to forgive. It sets in motion thoughts of those waiting for my forgiveness. It sets in motion reminders of those whom I thought I could never forgive. But no matter how difficult it seems, Jesus is the one who can help us negotiate those relationships.

Perhaps we can begin with asking ourselves some questions and being honest with the answers. We can ask ourselves:

What is holding me back? What quid pro quo—or, tit-for-tat/eye-for-and-eye attitude– am I holding onto to make my forgiveness more palatable or possible? What limits do I set to my readiness to forgive? And, why do I set them? How can what is unbelievable and excessive about God’s forgiveness transform my attitude towards those who are unjust to me?

Asking these question, no matter how uncomfortable the answers may be, opens up the path to God’s transformation. Forgiveness is a process, a journey. When we begin to ask these questions it is like we are saying to God, “Okay, God, I do not know exactly how this will unfold, but I trust You are with me in it and will make the path more clear as we walk together.”

Jesus linked receiving forgiveness with offering forgiveness in a sort of law of reciprocity. After all, week-by-week in the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

We forgive because we’ve been extravagantly and radically forgiven. We can only long for ourselves what we lavish upon others.

So let us endeavor to move away from this false paradigm of quantification and the question of whether a person deserves so much forgiveness. If we are truly in relationship with God, a relationship built on love, then we will endeavor to forgive as God forgives, not as humans forgive; which is to say that humans usually forgive with conditions and a calculator. But, love doesn’t work that way!

As C.S. Lewis put it: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”

May our forgiveness be grounded in the love and forgiveness that God has shown towards us. Amen.

Proper 19, 15th Sunday After Pentecost
Year A
September 17, 2017
The Rev. Deborah A. Lee
Matthew 18:21-35

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