September 17, 2017, How Much Forgiveness Is Enough? – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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The gospel today begins with Peter’s question: “How many times do I have to forgive my brother if he keeps on sinning against me?” Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” But like Peter, there are times when we think that surely, there is some kind of statute of limitation. Surely, there is a point at which we can say “enough” and stop having to try to forgive. When are we off the hook? That’s what Peter wanted to know. At a certain point, haven’t we earned the right to hate, or to bear a grudge, or to harbor resentment – or if not us, then at least some people, who have suffered beyond what anyone should suffer at the hands of their fellow man.
Because sometimes people do very bad things that don’t seem to deserve forgiveness. How do you forgive the drunk driver that killed your child? How do you forgive a priest who molested you over and over during your childhood? How do you forgive a parent who abused you? How many times does God really expect you to forgive, when even the memory of the trespasses is like a fresh wound day after day and year after year?
The traditional teaching of the Rabbis was that you must forgive your brother three times, no matter what. So Peter, who knew Jesus as well as anyone, and knew that forgiveness was something Jesus took seriously, tried to be generous when he asked his question about forgiveness. “How many times should I forgive, Lord? As many as seven times?” But Jesus answered him, “No, I wouldn’t say seven times. Rather, I would say seventy-seven times.” Technically, the phrase for seventy-seven can also be translated seventy TIMES seven, but the real meaning of the phrase is to express the idea of LOTS of times, more times than you could count. We might use the word “zillion” to get the same idea across, so that Jesus might say to Peter, “No, you don’t have to forgive your brother seven times; you have to forgive him a zillion times.” It wasn’t about the number; Jesus was saying that there just isn’t any “enough” point when it comes to forgiveness. There is no maximum effort we have to make that finally lets us off the hook.
And then Jesus told a story, a parable, to help Peter, and the disciples, and us, understand why it is that the Kingdom of heaven, which is a place of grace and life and compassion and love, is so harshly inflexible on this one issue of forgiveness. The gates of heaven are open wide to tax collectors and prostitutes and murderers and thieves and adulteresses. But it would seem that there is no place in the kingdom for unforgiveness. And how can that be, when an unforgiving person is often just the victim of somebody else’s sin?
In the parable, a king is going over the books and notices that one of his slaves owes him a lot of money, a ridiculously huge amount of money – just to give you an idea, ten thousand talents is two hundred thousand years’ wages for the average laborer. Parables are not realistic stories; Jesus is making this parable deliberately outrageous to make his point, which is that there is no way this slave could ever pay his debt. Even if the king sold him and his whole family into slavery it wouldn’t begin to pay a debt that enormous. His only hope is to throw himself on the mercy of the king. He begs the king, he grovels at his feet; he makes absurd promises that he would pay the whole debt if the king would just be patient. And the king, who knows perfectly well that the slave would never be able to do what he was promising, chooses to have pity on him. He forgives him his debt – just wipes the slate clean and sets him free.
And then this slave, who has just been forgiven his astronomical debt, goes and finds one of his co-workers who owes him three or four months’ worth of wages – a substantial amount, but nothing compared to the debt that has just been forgiven him. But he grabs this man and chokes him and demands that he pay him. And when the man begs for mercy like he just begged the king for mercy, instead of having pity like the king had on him, he has that poor man locked up in prison until the whole debt is paid.
And in the parable this ungrateful, unforgiving slave comes to a very bad end. When the king finds out what happened he hands that slave over to the torturers until his whole debt is paid off – which would be never. And Jesus ends his story with these words: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” It’s non-negotiable. There’s no “enough” – not three times, not seven times. According to this parable, unforgiveness is simply not an option.
Parables are stories that paint a picture of some big idea; they aren’t intended to be analyzed bit by bit so much as to give people a flash of insight. A parable is like one of those impressionist paintings that look like nothing but confusing dots and swirls of color if you stand too close, but when you stand back you see a whole scene like fields of golden-ripe grain and horses and wagons and men busy with the harvest. And when we stand back and look at the parable of the unforgiving servant the first big-picture thing we see is that the one who refuses to forgive ends up in a whole world of pain as they say.
Our brothers and sisters in AA have a very wise saying about the issue of forgiveness. It goes something like, “Refusing to forgive the person that hurt you is like drinking rat poison and expecting the rat to die.” Because one of the things so clearly illustrated by this parable is that unforgiveness and hatred and bitterness are deadly poisons. There are studies that prove the physical effects of holding onto anger and resentment – it can raise your blood pressure and put stress on your heart – it literally shortens your life. Unforgiveness leaves us in the hands of the torturers, as we relive our pain and nourish our hatred. Unforgiveness can kill us.
Forgiveness has nothing to do with minimizing the size of the debt that is owed to us or the reality of the wrong that was done to us. People suffer terrible things at the hands of parents and husbands and wives and pastors and strangers and friends. Most of the time our wounds are real, not imaginary. Like the slave whose co-worker owed him thousands of dollars, we might truly have a right to be repaid. But when the debt can’t be paid, or won’t be paid, we only torture ourselves if we refuse to let it go, if we refuse to forgive our brother from our heart.
Forgiving, though, isn’t a simple one-off choice that we just do and move on. Everyone here who has ever had to forgive someone for a real injury knows that forgiving is hard. It is usually a process, sometimes one step forward and two steps back. It takes prayer. It takes patience with ourselves as we release our anger and our resentment time and time again, only to have it creep back in again or sometimes even fall back on us like a ton of bricks. It can take years to forgive someone who has wronged us. But the work of forgiveness is the life-giving way of the kingdom. Even if we have to forgive a zillion times, even if it is the hardest work we ever do – and it often is the hardest work we do – forgiveness is the way – the only way – of life and health and peace. Only God and you know how you have been hurt by another person. Only God and you know what is in your heart towards your brother. But there is hardly anything else in all of Scripture that God says more directly than this – that we have to forgive those who sin against us.
But there is an even bigger picture that we get from this parable, and that is this: that God makes the first move. The king in the parable establishes the rule and pattern of his kingdom by first having compassion on the slave who owed him a debt too great to ever be paid. He heard the man’s cry for help, and he set him free. He didn’t allow the slave to pay his debt off little by little, or to pay as much as he could. The grace of the king was as outrageous as the debt of the slave. And that is really the big picture for us. “We love God,” John wrote, “because he first loved us.” And Paul wrote, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
The great scandal of this parable is that the slave, who had been given such an immense gift by the king when he threw himself on the king’s mercy, despised the grace he had been given by refusing to offer grace to the man who begged him for mercy. God’s love and mercy set us free, even if the debt of our sin was so great we could never pay it, not in a zillion years. But unforgiveness makes us blind and deaf and insensible to the immeasurable, outrageous love that God has poured out on us. Unforgiveness torments us by cutting us off from the grace of God that is our very life. The biggest big picture of the parable of the unforgiving servant is this: that the kingdom of heaven is a kingdom where no debt is too big to be forgiven, and where all slaves who are forgiven are called to become like their master, merciful and gracious, forgiving others as we have been forgiven.
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