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.”
Forgiveness. Is there anything in the whole world people want more but want to need any less? I don’t know about you—you probably don’t replay conversations back in your head a hundred times after you have them—but it seems like I reflect upon what I have said over the course of a day and continually seem to find myself speaking the most unkind things, the most ridiculous things. It seems like I constantly do things that I should know better than to do, things which seem to be born of some pain deep within myself that comes out sometimes, that manifests itself by my making an unkind remark, or an unfair comment, or not treating someone with the respect due them as someone made in the image of God.
I don’t mean to be self-hating here, because I suspect I’m not alone in this. To be human is to need forgiveness, because it is the case that what God calls us to is love, in all circumstances, no matter what, and yet what we frequently deliver is love, in some circumstances, provided that it’s not too inconvenient. I don’t think it’s worth flagellating ourselves over. I don’t think you’ve got to wear the hair shirt like John the Baptist did, or to splay yourself on the altar or whatever, but even if we need not get stuck on our sin, even if we don’t get totally hung up on the things for which we need forgiveness, we do need to acknowledge that sin. We need to acknowledge that we are built for community, for loving God and loving one another without limits, and that even when we encounter forgiveness that ought to move us to love without limits, that ought to spur us to love without limits, so often, we still manage to miss the mark.
Instead of clothing our entire lives in forgiveness, we ask the same question Peter asks in this morning’s scripture lesson. How often should we forgive? And I guess, it’s a legitimate question, because just like I screw up pretty frequently, I sometimes find myself on the receiving end of somebody else’s sin, somebody else’s screw up, and I need to offer forgiveness, too. And it’s the case that while forgiveness is what we’re obviously called to offer in the face of that kind of thing, that kind of broken relationship, it is also true that it’s not easy! It is not easy to forgive, and it’s not always immediately possible. We sometimes downplay the serious abuse some people have experienced and say, just forgive and move on, as if it were that easy. It’s not, and besides, for as insidious as resentment is, as hard as it is to live with, resentment is actually a lot more fun than forgiveness in many ways, because it takes us and the other person at equal levels and raises us up, so that the person who has sinned against us has to wallow a bit, as if those of us up here are the ones who have it all together and the person who has committed something against us needs to really feel it before we’re willing to forgive.
And so it is this dynamic that makes this morning’s Bible story so interesting, I think. Peter asks Jesus, so, how often should we forgive? How many times do we have to play the fool before we wise up and get past this need to forgive? As many as seven times, seven, which was a holy number to the Jews that at that time, and which represents, at least to me anyway, a pretty reasonable attempt at creating reconciliation? And Jesus gathers the disciples and says, not just seven, but seventy-seven, which is not a literal response but a command to forgive and forgive and forgive and forgive and to never stop forgiving.
And if this weren’t difficult enough, Jesus then tells a story that isn’t technically true in terms of whether it happened, but which carries so much truth in it that it rings true to me today. I suspect it will ring true for you as well. What I mean to say is, this is a fictional story that Jesus tells about someone he makes up, but I know this guy. I know lots of this guy. I suspect you do, too.
It’s the story of a king and a guy who owes the king ten thousand talents, and while we can’t put an exact figure on it in terms of modern equivalency, some sources think that 10,000 talents means that this guy hero owes the king something like the kinds of wages you’d earn working every day for 90,000 years. It’s silly, that amount of money, and so the point isn’t the number, but the fact that you could never, ever, ever pay that kind of money off. It’s the kind of debt that would make Bernie Madoff look like Santa Claus. And the king’s calling in his debts, and he calls this guy in and says, pay me what you owe, but of course the guy doesn’t have the money, I don’t think there would be enough money in the whole world to pay that kind of debt, and so the king says, fine, we’ll sell you, we’ll sell your family, we’ll sell everything you own, and that will at least make up for some of the money you’ve squandered.
And the guy with the debt gets down on his knees and begs, and says, look, I know it’s a lot, but just give me some time, and I’ll pay you, I promise. And the king does something pretty remarkable, which is to say that without so much as breaking the guy’s knee, the king sends him on his way and forgives the man’s debt.
I don’t know if you’ve borne witness to that kind of forgiveness, but it can change a person—should change a person--should put its mark upon your heart and never let you go. I was reading a story this week about two twenty-year-old young women, Meagan Napier and Lisa Dickson, who were hit by a drunk driver, Eric Smallridge. The women were killed instantly. The drunk driver walked away form the accident. I can’t imagine the grief their parents felt, what that must have felt like, but somehow, and I wish I knew how, somehow they managed to channel their grief into advocacy, starting a foundation and working with Mothers Against Drunk Driving to teach teenagers about the dangers of drinking and driving. And amazingly, the parents of those young women invited Eric Smallridge, the man who had killed them, to go around with them as they spoke, and judge agreed to grant him temporary release. The grace and the forgiveness that must’ve been involved in being in the same room as the person who killed your child, I can’t even imagine. And then to use that grace to help save the lives of other people’s children, I mean, that’s the power of forgiveness. In fact, when Eric Smallridge had the occasion to petition the judge for early release, the parents of these young women wrote letters to the judge in support of his release.
This is what forgiveness does. It unbinds everybody. It certainly unbinds the person who has received forgiveness, and in the case of Eric Smallridge, it helped him help others by sharing his story, by being honest and forthright about the choices he had made the devastation he had caused. But when you find yourself in the position to forgive somebody, don’t think the only person who needs unbinding is the person you are forgiving. Forgiveness also unbinds the forgiver. Resentment may be secretly fun—it may feel nice to feel better than somebody else, even if that’s small comfort in the scheme of things—but resentment ultimately degrades a person, callouses a heart, pokes holes in the soul.
And so I wish the story that Jesus tells were more like this, that it involved the man with the insurmountable debt getting up upon the occasion of his forgiveness and skipping away, running with his arms outstretched to embrace the man who owed him, compared to what he’d been forgiven, a small pittance, but there wasn’t any of that. You’d hope for reconciliation, for the clouds to part and the sun to shine through and birds to sing, but that’s not what happened. What happened was that the man who’d been forgiven for a debt amounting to 90,000 years of work refused to forgive a debt owed to him equaling about a hundred days wages. That’s something 300,000 times smaller than the debt he’d just been forgiven, so you’d think it would all be water under the bridge, but no, no. He has the guy locked up, thrown in prison, tells the jailer to throw away the key.
But the story doesn’t end here. When his fellow workers saw what happened, they were incensed, understandably, and they went to the king and told him all that had gone on. And the king, also incensed, summoned the first guy and said, “I forgave you because you pleaded with me, and then you turn around and do this? You are offered the most unbelievable experience of forgiveness, and this is what comes of it?” And the king sent him away, to be tortured—tortured!—until his debt was repaid, which, of course, it never was.
And this, Jesus says, is what it’s like for God. God will do this to us unless we also forgive.
Now, I want to take a minute and acknowledge that this is really difficult, this idea of God callously sending away to be tortured. In fact, outside of a story that Jesus tells for dramatic effect, I don’t think it quite happens that way. It doesn’t match my understanding of the love ethic of Jesus, the ways he is portrayed in the rest of scripture. I don’t think God does actually does this sort of thing, and so I don’t have a great answer here as to what this is all about. But I do think there are three things we can say about it.
First, I think we can say that we need to confess. You know, here in a few minutes, when I finally get ready to sit down, we’re going to do something we don’t do every week, which is that we’re going to pray the prayer of confession. This is part of our heritage as United Methodists, and I wish we used it more often, so we’re going to do it today. We’re going to confess together that we need forgiveness, individually as people who sin, who break relationship, and as a community, as a church, as a people who haven’t always spoken up for justice, who haven’t always done the right thing, who have sometimes left important words unsaid and important work undone. We’re going to confess together, and I think that’s a fair expectation, because I think we can say that this story reminds us that we need to confess.
Second, I think we can say that we need to accept forgiveness. Sometimes this is easy, like when it means you don’t have to work for 90,000 years to repay a debt. But sometimes it’s not so easy, because we get to feeling guilty about all that we’ve done, and it can overwhelm a person. God doesn’t call us to be overwhelmed, to splay on the altar and never get up again. The message of Jesus Christ is that the work of forgiveness has already been done, if you will just accept it. So I don’t know what you need forgiving for today, but I hope you’ll ask God to forgive you and then move on, not in a way that keeps you from learning, but in a way that pulls you out from underneath its weight.
Third, I think we can say that once we accept that forgiveness, we need to turn around and forgive. Don’t be like the petty man in Jesus’s story. Don’t be that guy. The world is full of that guy already. Don’t be that guy. Recognize that the gift of forgiveness is most powerful when it is shared, and of course, this is one reason why we confess our need for forgiveness. Not so that we will feel better about ourselves. Not just because it’s some command from God. But because it is a reminder of God’s work in our lives, and because it is through the act of forgiveness, of accepting it and sharing it with others, it is through that act that we achieve peace. Now, you’ll see at the end of this liturgy, which is printed in your bulletin, we’re going to be passing the peace. Let me just say a word about that. Passing of the peace is not running across the sanctuary to hug somebody’s neck. It’s not about how’s your momma and them. Passing the peace is a profoundly theological act in which you shake someone’s hand in a sign of fellowship and offer a sign of peace and reconciliation, typically saying something like “the peace of the Lord be with you,” or “peace,” as you shake hands. It’s a reminder of God’s forgiveness, and it’s a sign of forgiveness towards one another. And so let me say that if you are here for the first time, it’s likely that nobody here has sinned against you yet. If you’ve been here for a while and you’re meeting somebody for the first time, it’s not likely that they’ve sinned against you either. But the passing of the peace is not just about individual acts of forgiveness, though those are important and if you stick around here long enough, you’ll feel the need. Passing the peace is not just about individual forgiveness, but it’s cosmic forgiveness, forgiveness on behalf of and in acknowledgement of those who have sinned against each of us and all of us, together. So when the time comes, I hope you’ll really exchange signs of peace with the people sitting near you. It’s a powerful thing when it is done in the name of reconciliation.
And, you know, it’s funny; the people I know who have been the slowest to offer forgiveness, to offer peace, who have not been able to bring themselves to forgive some long-ago slight, some festering sin, those people are the most miserable people I know. They, themselves, have the least peace. They don’t need God to torture them. They do it just fine all by themselves.
And so as we prepare to pray together, let me confess something. As I have lived with this story, as I have struggled with it, I find myself just a little bit giddy at the idea that the first guy, the one who was forgiven and then wouldn’t forgive, I’m just a little too happy that in the end, he gets his come-uppance. Is there a part of you that feels this way when you hear this story? Do you like that he ends up tortured? And if so, does that say anything about you and your own need to live a life of forgiveness?