I don’t think any of us come to worship God in this place with the idea of becoming less like Jesus as our goal. We’re all in it to become more like Jesus. Sometimes, it’s hard, though, isn’t it? Sometimes we’d like Jesus to let us off the hook a little bit, tell us what we are doing is good enough, pat us on the head and let us get on with being a little less like him. Right?
But it never seems to work that way. Jesus always calls us gently toward greater perfection. Christ sets the barre high for us, as his followers. Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook, because we’re all he’s got. Christ depends on us, as he reaches into this troubled, broken world of ours, to show people what it means to follow him into the Kingdom of God. We matter. And what we do, how we treat one another, matters. How else will people who are in pain, who need God, see the difference that following Christ can make in their lives? How else will they know that they matter to God?
In today’s passage, we pick up the conversation between Jesus and his disciples from the point where we left off last week. Jesus has been teaching us how to live in the Kingdom of God, and he has urged us to be reconciled to those who have wronged us. Last week, we learned a process for resolving conflict between two believers, and in the UMC we call that process the Rule of Christ. It outlines a series of steps for confronting a brother or sister in disagreement. We must first examine our own contribution to the problem, then go directly to the one who has hurt us and tell that person what is wrong. If they don’t listen, or won’t be reconciled to us, then we must bring in another believer to act as mediator or advocate, and if the other party still will not listen, we are to call upon the resources of the whole church. Once we’ve tried everything, and there is still no resolution, we are to treat the other person as a Gentile and a tax collector – in other words, as an outsider. While many traditions interpret this to mean we are to exclude, or shun, the person, a look at the way Jesus himself treated Gentiles and tax collectors may indicate that what we are really supposed to do is work even more diligently at finding ways to live in community with the offender, offering the same invitation to discipleship that we would offer any other outsider we would win to Christ.
The “three strikes and you’re out” that Jesus gives – go directly to the offender, then take one or two witnesses, then take it to the church, if all else fails, treat the offender as an outsider – line up nicely with the common practice of first century Jews. It was understood that three pardons were enough – a fourth offense did not need to be forgiven. If I forgave you three times, and you wronged me again, I could hold a grudge and still claim to be righteous.
As the disciples listened to Jesus teach about conflict resolution, they may have interpreted his words in this way. But Peter knew better. He knew that with Jesus, it was never that simple. With Jesus, the old order of things was never good enough. So, to clarify things, he asked a question, hoping that – for once – he had guessed the right answer in advance.
Hear the word of the Lord as given to us in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 18, verses 21-35:
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 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.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 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. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Peter thought that surely , if the standard was forgiving up to three times, seven ought to be more than enough to satisfy Jesus. Seven was a perfect number, after all. When Jesus says, “Not seven. Seventy-seven” or maybe even “seventy times seven,” depending on how you read it, he’s asking Peter to go deeper in his understanding of forgiveness. And Jesus invites us to go deeper, too.
You see, the issue isn’t a number at all. And Jesus makes this clear in the parable he tells to explain his point. Here we have a king and his slave. The slave owes the king an enormous amount of money. It’s possible he became a slave in order to pay off a debt he owed to someone else. We don’t know, and how he came to be a slave, or came to owe the king so much money doesn’t really matter in this story. The important thing is that this debt is so huge, he will never be able to pay it. A talent was equal to about 130 pounds of silver, or about 15 years of wages for a laborer. At 10,000 times that amount, it would take the slave 150,000 years of work to pay off the debt. Impossible.
Yet, when the slave begged for more time, the king had pity on him, and not only withdrew the sentence, but actually forgave the entire fortune the slave owed. The king showed mercy.
But what does the slave do after receiving such generosity from his master? On his way out of the king’s presence, he runs into a fellow slave who owes him the equivalent of 100 days of wages. Not 150,000 years, but 100 days. A manageable sum. A realistic debt. You would think that the first slave would be feeling generous, having just received a very sweet deal from his master, but instead, he grabs his fellow slave by the throat and demands payment. The second slave falls into the very same posture of humility, and uses the very same words the first slave used to beg for a little more time. But this time there is no mercy. There is no pity. There is no generosity.
And the other slaves see how wrong this is. Even without benefit of Facebook or Twitter, the word gets back to the king that this slave he forgave will not forgive. The king is furious, and rightly so. Not only is this behavior wrong, it reflects badly on the king for one of his own slaves to behave so badly. It makes the king appear weak when he shows mercy to a scoundrel who apparently doesn’t get the concept of ‘paying it forward.’
So the king rescinds the original pardon, and the first slave suffers the consequences of his own lack of mercy to another. If he won’t forgive another, the king won’t forgive him.
I wonder why that slave would not show mercy, don’t you? Maybe he was just greedy. Now that his own debt was gone, any money he could force out of another would be free and clear cash in hand – he didn’t have to ‘borrow from Peter to pay Paul anymore.’ Or maybe he was so used to a cycle of violence and coercion that threatening the other slave was just force of habit for him. Whatever the reason, the slave who had been forgiven had not been transformed by the grace shown to him. The change in his circumstances did not bring about a change in his behavior, or his outlook on life. He suffered the consequences of his actions, and was thrown into prison.
And Jesus says, “This is what will happen to you if you don’t forgive from your heart.”
It isn’t the numbers that matter; it’s what we hold in our hearts that really counts. Seven or seventy-seven or seven times seventy doesn’t matter. 150,000 years of wages or 100 days of wages doesn’t matter. What matters is the stuff that goes on in the depths of our hearts. If we accept the forgiveness that God offers us through his Son’s death and resurrection, we become new people. We are changed. And if we are changed, our behavior changes. The way we look at life changes. The way we treat other people changes. Our capacity to forgive others changes. There is no room for holding grudges in a heart that has been touched by God’s unmerited favor.
This does not mean that we should allow others to abuse us or take advantage of us. Theologian David Lose writes, “If someone is repeatedly unkind or hurtful, let alone mean-spirited or violent, we may very well want to put some distance between us. But even that decision doesn’t completely define … our … relationship with the other person, only how we conduct that relationship. We may continue to love a child or sibling or friend who is abusive, but we don’t have to put up with the abusive behavior. Indeed, the most loving and forgiving thing to do may very well be to stop putting up with the behavior.”
Remember that this passage belongs to the one we heard last week about confronting one who has wronged us. Confrontation without forgiveness only serves to make a conflict worse, but confrontation is necessary in order for forgiveness to bring reconciliation and healing.
The point of Jesus’ parable isn’t to get us to increase our forgiveness quota. It’s to get us to stop counting altogether. Because forgiveness is part of love, and love can’t be counted. If Peter had asked Jesus “How many times should I love my neighbor?” we would think the question ridiculous. Love can’t be counted. Neither can forgiveness, because forgiveness is really a decision to accept what you can’t change in the past, so that the past no longer has power over you. When you cannot forgive, the past puts you in prison. Forgiveness is the freedom to let go of the past, and walk into the future.
And isn’t that good news? Isn’t it worth sharing the good news that forgiveness, like God’s love, is without limits? The only thing God can’t forgive is an unwillingness to be forgiven, and it isn’t because God refuses to offer forgiveness, but because we have to be willing to accept the offer for it to go into effect. And when we accept Christ’s offer of forgiveness, it changes us into people who offer forgiveness to others. Just like those servants who ratted out the ungrateful slave, others will spread the word, but this time, the news will be that we care, that we aren’t here to judge others, but to share God’s saving love with them. Instead of tattling on our wrongs, people will be talking about how forgiveness is so much a part of our DNA, it has changed our lives.
That’s how we reach others for Christ. We respond to God’s grace by offering grace. We answer God’s forgiveness by forgiving the people who have wronged us. And the word gets around.
Christ sets the barre high for us, as his followers. Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook, because we’re all he’s got. Christ depends on us, as he reaches into this troubled, broken world of ours, to show people what it means to follow him into the Kingdom of God. We matter. And what we do, how we treat one another, matters. How else will people who are in pain, who need God, see the difference that following Christ can make in their lives? How else will they know that they matter to God?