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?”Matthew 18:21-23
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….
This is a difficult word, as it so often seems to be. How many times should we forgive? It’s a good question. Seven times, Peter suggests. It’s not hard to imagine doing that. To forgive someone every day of the week seems possible, though challenging. But Jesus, as ever, ups the ante. Not seven times, but seventy seven times! Which is to say: keep on forgiving. Not only that, he says, but we are to forgive, or else we won’t be forgiven ourselves.
I’ll be honest: this feels a bit like a contradiction of the message of grace in the rest of scripture. So much else seems forgivable – but not this.
What are we to make of this stark demand by Jesus? And how do we reconcile it with last week’s reading which focused so much on the consequences for sin that it seemed to exclude forgiveness altogether?
What does Jesus mean when he says that if we don’t forgive, we ourselves cannot hope to be forgiven?
Let’s start by looking at the passage. The first rogue owed money to the big man. Not just a little bit of money: astonishing amounts. One talent was worth six thousand denarii, and one denarius was a day’s wage for a labourer. Ten thousand talents is thus sixty million day’s labour. That’s more than the taxes of Judea, Phoenicia, Samaria, and Syria at the time.
Or, converting it into some rough modern equivalence, the minimum wage is about $20 an hour, so the equivalent amount is about 9.6 billion dollars.
It’s like you were the Governor of the province and, instead of remitting the taxes to Rome, you had blown the lot on new palaces and fabulous parties.
But even to do the sums like that, interesting as it is from a sort of geeky perspective, is to miss the point.
Ten thousand talents is a fantastic, incalculable amount.
Jesus is essentially saying: imagined you owed all the money. Far more than you could even imagine, let alone hope to repay.
You would indeed fall on your knees and beg to be let off – because what other option did you have?
And the Emperor says: yes, I will forgive you the debt. Don’t even worry about it. Get up off the floor, dust yourself off, and get back to work.
However, as you walk back out of the palace you see someone who owes you money. Nothing like as much as you owed the emperor like five minutes ago. But a substantial amount nonetheless. Thousands of dollars, rather than billions.
You, for good reasons or bad, want your money. But she doesn’t have it.
And, instead of releasing her from the debt, you pursue her through the courts, and picket her house, and shop her to A Current Affair, and do everything you can to extract the money from her – even though she clearly doesn’t have the cash.
The Emperor gets to hear about it, and, understandably, is angry with you, and you wind up having to pay this impossible debt.
Before I go any further, I just want to address the final verse in the story, where Jesus 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.”
Without wanting to blunt the power of Jesus’ words, I think it’s important to remember that Jesus isn’t concerned to give us a kind of Lonely Planet guide to the afterlife. He is describing an extremely serious outcome, but I don’t think we should therefore imagine that the loving God who raised Jesus from the dead tortures people.
But we do need to consider the extreme seriousness of what he’s saying. At the risk of making it a lot less vivid, he appears to be saying that if you don’t forgive, then you cut yourself off from God’s forgiveness. Precisely as it says in the Lord’s Prayer – forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
It’s important. But what does forgiveness actually mean?
Let’s start here: it doesn’t mean merely accepting someone’s excuse.
Here’s an example. Years ago, before we had mobile phones, Anne and I agreed to meet at the entrance to Holland Park in London after work. I was there at the appointed time, and waited. And waited. And waited. Eventually, after exchanging messages through my long-suffering boss via pay-phones, it turned out that she had been waiting at the other entrance. Explanations, rather than apologies, were in order. And the following week we bought mobile phones to try to prevent future confusion.
There was no need for forgiveness – neither of us had intended anything wrong. It was a simple misunderstanding.
But what if I had forgotten our date? Apologies, and forgiveness would have definitely been required.
Forgiveness could be defined as the gap between a reasonable explanation and the restoration of relationship.
Which is, of course, easy to say. It can be very hard to achieve. Apart from anything else, there are (at least) two people involved, and infinite ramifications about who did what to whom and how justified or otherwise it was. Whether one person is prepared to accept fault, and therefore to be forgiven. And so on, and on, and on.
The bottom line, however, is simple. We need to be people who are defined by our bias toward forgiveness.
However, this isn’t the same as there being no consequences for behaviour. We saw in the reading about conflict resolution last week that there need to be boundaries in community.
For instance, a very senior cleric of my acquaintance told me that she had been sexually harassed in every single one of her placements. Is that acceptable? Should she have been told to just forgive and that’s it?
Consider the situation of people trapped in situations of domestic violence. The church has a very long, and very unfortunate, history of telling women being beaten by their husbands to forgive, to accept him back, to put up with the horrible situation they are in.
So, in interpreting this difficult text, that seems like good place to start. It is not a bullies’ charter.
Even in less difficult circumstances, forgiveness is costly. To seek to repair a relationship with someone who has hurt or betrayed you, to give up on a strongly felt right to do unto others precisely as they did unto you – to apply the other Biblical maxim of “an eye for an eye” – costs us something.
This profound truth is at the heart of a traditional understanding of Jesus’ crucifixion. When Jesus prayed for his executioners, saying “forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” he was bearing the weight of their sins on his shoulders.
Indeed, he was bearing the weight of all of our sins on his shoulders.
And that, perhaps, is the key to why forgiveness is both such a big deal in the Gospel, and so hard to actually do. Because it means taking the weight of what has been done, and bearing it as suffering, rather than passing it on
If salvation is participation with God’s work in the world, then how can we do that if we are just passing on the damage we receive to other people? If we are allowing our lives to be defined by resentment and pain, if we are holding onto our grudges, then how can we possibly be open to the flow of God’s love?
In the movie Invictus Nelson Mandela has become president of South Africa after many years in prison. He has to make a choice – to repay his captors for what they did to him and his people? Or to unify that divided nation? The film revolves around his choice to take national rugby team, the symbol of White South Africa, and make it into a unifying symbol of the new country he sees is needed.
It is, ultimately, a film about forgiveness.
In the parable Jesus tells, the emphasis for me is on freedom. If the emperor was going to insist on being repaid, then it would make sense for the rogue to press his debtor for his money. But, given that he had been set free of the debt, then he didn’t need the money.
We are ourselves forgiven. Our own resentment and the rest of our sin, our participation in all that makes for death, has been taken up and defeated by Jesus in his cross and resurrection. As people who place our trust in the action that God has taken through Jesus, we know both the importance, and the cost of forgiveness.
We are forgiven people. We understand that forgiveness brings freedom. Because we ourselves are being set free from the slavery of sin – our resentment, our envy, our misdirected anger and all those things which can turn us in on ourselves- we not only know how important it is to be forgiving people, we are increasingly set free to forgive.
Because, in the end, we are made to be in loving community with one another, and with the God who is Community itself. In our own freedom, we are able to set others free, which, in turn, makes us more free, and more able to both give and receive love – both from God, and from one another.
Who wouldn’t want to be someone with that sort of freedom?
A sermon preached for Preston High Stree UCA on 9/9/20 on Matthew 18:21-35 for Proper 19 (24) – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost Year A
 Matthew 18:35
 Remember them?