15 Pentecost, Proper 19 – September 13, 2020
“How many times do I need to forgive my brother or sister?” That’s the question which prompts the parable of the unmerciful servant that we hear today.
This passage follows on last week’s reading, which Jesus concluded by assuring us that wherever two or three are gathered in his name, there he is, in our midst. Peter,…..well he doesn’t allow us to linger in that moment. He knows that such concord and communion will not be a constant state among Christ’s followers. We’re human, after all. And so Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
The Jewish rabbis at the time taught that forgiving someone more than three times was not necessary. So, Peter, probably wishing to appear especially forgiving and benevolent, asked Jesus if forgiveness was to be offered seven times. This was more than double what was the law stated and 7 represented the number of perfection.
So, when Jesus responded that forgiveness should be offered not, seven, but seventy-seven times, far beyond what Peter was proposing, it must have stunned the disciples who were listening. Even though they had been with Jesus for some time, they were still thinking in the limited terms of the law, rather than in the unlimited terms of grace.
And then Jesus tells a parable about forgiveness that only intensifies his response to Peter. The parable turns on the contrast between just how much one person is forgiven and how little that same person is asked to – and refuses to – forgive, and this time the translation – from ancient currency to modern – matters in order to draw out Jesus’ point. A talent was about 130 lbs. of silver and would take a laborer about fifteen years to earn. Which means that the servant owed the king about 150,000 years of labor! In other words, he would never, ever be able to pay this debt back. A denarius, by comparison, was worth about a day’s wage, which meant that the second servant owed the first about a hundred days of labor – no small debt. But still…and everyone who hears this parable gets it…how could he possibly not overlook that (relatively) minor debt when he had just been forgiven an impossibly huge one? The parable closes ominously, as the unforgiving servant is handed over for punishment until he pays and Jesus warns that we, too, must forgive others or face the consequences.
Let’s look more closely at forgiveness. The Greek word for forgiveness means “to send away” or, quite literally, “to let go.” That suggests that forgiveness is a choice. It is not something that simply happens over time; it doesn’t just go away if we ignore the pain. Forgiveness is a conscious decision on the part of the offended person to let it go. This is important to under – there may never be a reconciliation between the parties, there may not be a miraculous reunion of hugs and tears. In fact, the person you choose to forgive may not ever know that you have done so; they may not even be living any more. But you will know. You will feel the weight of 10,000 talents lifted from your shoulders when you choose not to carry it around anymore. You don’t forgive them for their benefit; you forgive them for your own.
Let’s look at the ending of our gospel again….it says “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Jan Richardson shares about this passage: “It seems a harsh turn in the tale, with Jesus invoking an image of God as a torturer. Yet the truth is that it doesn’t take God to inflict pain on us for our refusal to forgive; suffering is a natural effect. The context of the parable makes sense, with its images of servitude, imprisonment, torture, and complex tiers of power. By what we refuse to forgive, we place ourselves in bondage.
Now, refusing to forgive someone who has harmed us often holds deep appeal because it is, in part, a path that seems to offer us a measure of control. [and don’t we humans like control?] This becomes particularly true in situations where the hurt has come from someone who has more overt power than we do. Our refusal to forgive may seem like the only way we can have any power. Yet, as in the parable, our lack of forgiveness can eventually become a prison that not only holds the other person, but our own selves.
Jesus never claims that forgiveness compels us to accept the behavior of one who has caused harm. He never tells us that forgiveness means saying that everything is okay or remaining with someone who persists in wounding us. In challenging us to forgive, he acknowledges that we may not be able to change the behavior of another, or to alter what they have done, but that we have power over how we will respond. To offer forgiveness means that we refuse to allow another’s sin to control us, to hold us, to bind us.
Jesus’ words remind us how important it is to persist in practicing the art of forgiveness, to work to keep my heart clear, to refuse to allow the destructiveness of another to colonize my soul. Forgiveness is an act that I can’t always conjure on my own. It instead requires a curious combination of work and grace. For my part, I have to cultivate an openness to the possibility. Sometimes it means asking to want to forgive, long before I actually do it, because I can’t always summon even the desire to forgive. But the forgiveness itself, that ability to release, to let go, to loose the bindings: that is purely the graceful work of God who does the same for me.
During this week as yourself some questions…what might God be challenging you to loose your hold of? Is there pain, resentment, or anger occupying precious terrain in your heart? Is there any harm you are holding onto? Where is God in that for you? How might God be wanting to hold that for you, and to begin to release its hold on you?”
Forgiveness restores and frees the one who forgives. Forgiveness creates possibility, keeps the future open, offers paths forward that were formerly not imaginable, and breaks the cosmic law of relentless cause-and-effect to create something new. Forgiveness is life.
Which is why Jesus doesn’t just stretch Peter’s imagination about forgiveness, but breaks it wide open. “Seven times?,” Peter asks. “Try seventy times, Jesus responds. Jesus is saying, way more than you thought, Peter. Way more than you imagined, way more than seems possible, way more – and this is probably what matters most – way more than you can actually count and keep track of. God forgives you that much, more than you can keep track of. Forgiveness is life. God loves you with an everlasting love. Amen.