Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Tedious Business of Forgiving People Over and Over Again

Matthew 18:21-35
September 14, 2014
William G. Carter

How many times?
How many times?
How many times must I forgive?

That’s the question Peter asks Jesus one day. He has been listening to the Master speak of life in the Christian community. In the church, children are the greatest and humility is honored. In the church, we do not trip other people with stumbling blocks nor permit any distraction to lead us away from the fullness of Christ’s life within us. We chase after those who wander astray and rejoice when we can bring them back. We work together to restore one another, affirming that Jesus lives where two or three agree.

And then Peter, who has a hard time sitting on his hands, shoots up his arm and says, “Ooh, how many times must I forgive somebody in the church who hurts me?” How many times?

I am assuming it’s not a hypothetical question. Hypothetical questions can be pretty empty when you are talking about real people. I wonder about the circumstances. Did James and John push him out of line on the day Jesus was doing all the healings? Did Matthew charge him too much when he prepared his tax return? Did Simon the Zealot intimidate him with his hidden dagger? Did Judas Iscariot stick a fork in his hand when he reached for an extra piece of fish?

How many times must I forgive – not just anybody, but a brother or sister in the family of God? It sounds like he’s been hurt more than once.

You know, that is one of the problems of living with other people. They bump into you. Disagreements are inevitable. Differences bubble up. Maybe you have seen the bumper sticker: CONFLICT HAPPENS. There is no truer word. As a minister who spends some of my time among birds with ruffled feathers, I know all about the hurts, both real and perceived. It is hard work to live with other people.

We know that if we have been called to the gift of marriage. Marriage is the smallest form of community. Two people share a life. Sooner or later they bump into one another. It goes with the territory. Marriage is a laboratory for forgiveness. You get to practice it, perhaps seventy-seven times a day.

How many times must we forgive? Is there a limit, so that if I forgive that many times, I don’t have to do it any more? That is Peter’s question. It’s a good question, a practical question.

In the collections of sermons that we call the book of Amos, God begins by saying repeatedly, “Three times there is a transgression, the fourth time I will punish.” (1:3 and following). It was the four-strikes-and-you’re-out law. After Amos, the rabbis continued talking about this. Peter picks up on this, doubles the word of God in Amos, and adds one more: “What about seven times? Is that the limit of forgiveness? Seven strikes and you’re out?”

As you know, Jesus responds with an extraordinary number: “Not seven times, but seven-seven times.” Or if you saw the footnote, you can translate the number “seventy times seven.” That is outrageous! And before Peter can sputter, “That’s impossible!” Jesus tells an even more impossible story.

There is this king, he says, who is unlike any other king you have ever heard. He had a lot of money. He lives in a stone palace, while his servants live in straw huts. He is driven around in a gold carriage, while his servants drag their mules through the mud. Every evening the king eats caviar and roast pheasant on hand-crafted china plates, while most of his servants think it’s a good night if they have cold sausages and a crust of bread. He is the king, after all, and they are not.

But this is a generous king. He is willing to lend his wealth to them for a while. He extends himself, and provides them with loans. He doesn’t care if this is a questionable business practice. His servants have a better life because of their borrowed generosity.

Then the day comes when the king settles accounts. He asks the chamberlain to pull out that thick, old ledger book. It has everybody’s name and address, and all the sums of money that each one owes. The moment comes to call them in. The debtors are summoned. They line up at the palace door to prepare for the day of reckoning. At the very beginning of the line is this man who owes a whole lot of money. We know he’s at the beginning of the line because Matthew mentions him first. 

With perfect clarity, the king opens his ledger, turns to the precise page, finds the correct name, announces his debt, and says, “Pay what you owe.” He is the king. The man before him has been living on borrowed money.

Well, we know what happens. The servant cannot pay so the king calls for his auctioneer. The servant cries out for patience, and for no rational reason, the king releases the entire debt. He is free and clear. He does not owe a cent.

Now that is an extraordinary story. No one has ever heard of a king like that. No other king would float that much credit to a servant. No other king would ever write off the loss. The debtor was free. 

Debt is a heavy obligation. Some people ring up their credit card balances. Sometimes the balances go so high that they take out a cash advance to pay the minimum balance. Once they fall behind, they can’t even dream of staying even, much less ever paying it off. The debt is too heavy, and it’s keeping them down. 

Just consider this poor slave: he owns ten thousand talents. Did you see the footnote in your pew Bible? A talent was a sum of money worth 15 years’ salary. So this servant owed a hundred fifty thousand years of salary to the king. That was the size of his debt. Whatever did he need that much money for? Did he build a cedar deck on the back of his hovel, buy himself a nice fishing boat, and put four gold horseshoes on his mule? (Don’t miss the point – Jesus is making a joke here!) Ten thousand talents? He could never repay that.

And then the king, who was foolish to loan that kind of money to a servant, cancels the entire debt. So the king writes off the whole thing. He dismisses the entire burden. This is how he treats the very first debtor in line. Imagine the buzz down the rest of the line! When you see incalculable forgiveness like that, you simply can’t keep it a secret.

Can you see who else is in that line? There is a washer woman who owes twenty thousand talents to the king. Behind her is a teenage boy who owes seven and a half thousand talents. These are people so deeply in debt. Maybe the king will be generous enough to cut them a break as well. This is, after all, a very generous king.

But as the story goes, that fortunate guy who had his entire debt cancelled went whistling out the door. Suddenly he sees a neighbor who owed him thirty bucks. Even though his debt was cancelled, or perhaps his debt was cancelled, he decided to reclaim some money that he had loaned out, money that presumably he had first borrowed from the king. So he grabbed his neighbor by the neck, shook him a good bit and said, “Pay what you owe!” When the neighbor couldn’t come up with what was an infinitely smaller sum, the lender had him thrown into debtor’s prison. With that, the news rustled back up all the way to the front of the line. And the king was overheard to say, “Is that so?”

In a flash the king’s soldiers grabbed that man by both of his ears, dragged him to the front of the line, stood on his feet long enough for him to hear the king’s condemnation, and then they tossed him into the torture chamber until he paid off the entire debt, all one hundred fifty thousand years of it. Last anybody checked, he was still there… 

That’s what his kingdom is like, say Jesus. And he lets us draw the necessary parallels.

What are we going to do with this story? A lot of people like the first half – it’s about forgiveness. We like to hear about this servant who was in debt up to his eyeballs and then gets forgiven. Whew! Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live way beyond your means, and just when the whole thing comes due, we are let off the hook? What a relief that would be!

Just imagine if you tempted the providence of God and went down to the casino. Presbyterians don’t gamble, of course, because they don’t believe in chance. But imagine you went to the Super Duper Casino. In the roll of the dice, you hit it big. You hit it really big. In fact, you hit it so big that they have to close down the casino permanently and give you all the money. Even all the gangsters who have a “business interest” in the establishment have to empty out their bank accounts and give it all to you. Count it up: the sum is ten thousand talents!

Just imagine how you are feeling – your heart is racing, your eyes are circling in opposite directions – you’ve hit big. You don’t walk out of there, you float on air. And imagine, on the way out to the parking lot, as people are cheering, you see the next door neighbor who owes you twenty bucks.  Are you going to slam down your feet, seize him by the throat, and say, “Pay what you owe”? Of course not! You’ll say, “Forget about it. Twenty bucks, that’s nothing.”

Do you see the problem with the man in the parable? He hits it big and it brings out the worst in him. He scores an unexpected sum and refuses to pass it along. He is totally unchanged by the generosity shown to him. He is unmoved by the mercy that set him free. He has been forgiven – but in turn, he will not forgive.

Peter asks, “How many times must I forgive?” If you have truly received the forgiveness of God, do you have to ask the question? Jesus reminds, “Forgive the neighbor seventy-seven times.” We could take him literally, and think of what that would do to us. If you forgive somebody seventy-seven times, forgiveness will become a habit, in the name of the God who first forgives you.

And what about that alternate translation? Jesus says, “Forgive the neighbor seventy times seven.” He pushes forgiveness beyond bookkeeping. Mercy is a matter of multiplication. Mercy multiplies. The more we forgive, the more it expands. Not merely to “forebear” somebody else, to give them room to exist, but to forgive them – to cancel the debt, to release the hurt, to stop picking at the wound. To declare the damage is finished and a new day has begun.

This can be hard to do. This can be easy to do. I don’t know how it is for you. I think the Anne Lamott tells the truth. If you don’t forgive somebody, she says, “it’s like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”[1] How much better it would feel to let it go! To stop fussing about it. To cease clinging to it. To let it go.

I believe that is the King’s intent. He lets go of what he hasn’t received, what the indebted servant could never pay back. He wishes to create a chain reaction of graciousness. When it doesn’t happen, when the forgiven slave refuses to extend the forgiveness he has received, the mercy of the king comes unraveled. That’s why the king won’t let him loose on the streets.

So theologian Miroslav Volf says about this parable:

Our failure to forgive undoes God’s forgiveness. God takes back that which is given if we don’t give as God gives. God’s forgiveness is here conditional on our performance. Though we couldn’t earn God’s forgiveness, we could, so to speak, un-earn it.[2]

Then he brings it home, and says: 

If I am united with Christ in faith, I’ll have forgiveness and Christ will live in me, forgiving through me those who offend me as he has forgiven me.[3]

When the dust settles, it really comes down to this. Have we truly received the Word that our sins are forgiven? That God does not remember them because of the grace of Jesus Christ? Do we trust that everything that we’ve done wrong has been scrubbed clean? The best evidence will be in our readiness to forgive other people.

One day they asked Jesus how to pray. He said, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive others.”   

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Pantheon, 1999) 134.
[2] Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005) 155.
[3] ibid, 156.

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