16 Pentecost, Proper 19 – September 17, 2023
“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. And 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 understand – 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.
Okay. If forgiveness is not denial, or a shortcut, or a reconciliation, or an easy process, then what is it? What exactly is Jesus asking of us when he tells us to forgive each other again and again and again and again?
In her popular memoir, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott writes that withholding forgiveness is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die. Nora Gallagher writes, “Forgiveness is a way to unburden oneself from the constant pressure of rewriting the past.” Henri Nouwen writes, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly, and so we need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. Forgiveness is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.”
If these writers are correct, then perhaps forgiveness is choosing to prioritize love instead of resentment. If I’m consumed with my own pain, if I’ve made injury my identity, if I insist on weaponizing my well-deserved anger in every interaction I have with people who hurt me, then I’m drinking poison, and the poison will kill me long before it does anything to my abusers. To choose forgiveness is to release myself from the tyranny of my bitterness. To trust that my frenzied longing for vindication and justice is known to God. To cast my hunger for healing deep into Christ’s heart, because healing belongs to him, and he’s the only one powerful enough to secure it. To offer forgiveness means that we refuse to allow another’s sin to control us, to hold us, to bind us.
Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber, after describing mistreatment as a chain that binds us, writes stunningly about the power of forgiveness to free us for the work of justice and transformation. I share her words, because they speak so powerfully:
“Maybe retaliation or holding onto anger about the harm done to me doesn’t actually combat evil. Maybe it feeds it. Because in the end, if we’re not careful, we can actually absorb the worst of our enemy, and at some level, start to become them. So what if forgiveness, rather than being a pansy way to say, ‘It’s okay,’ is actually a way of wielding bolt-cutters, and snapping the chains that link us? What if it’s saying, ‘What you did was so not okay, I refuse to be connected to it anymore.’? Forgiveness is about being a freedom fighter. And free people are dangerous people. Free people aren’t controlled by the past. Free people laugh more than others. Free people see beauty where others do not. Free people are not easily offended. Free people are unafraid to speak truth to stupid. Free people are not chained to resentments. And that’s worth fighting for.”
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-seven 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.