September 13, 2020, How Much Is Enough? Matthew 18:21-35 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Peter asks: “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 there has to be 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 deserve forgiveness. How do you forgive the drunk driver that killed your child? How do you forgive a priest who molested you as a child? 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 trespass 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. Peter knew Jesus as well as anyone, and he knew that forgiveness was something Jesus took seriously. So he 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. As far as I can figure, it would be something like 8 billion dollars. Parables are not realistic stories; Jesus makes the amount ridiculously huge 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 the entire 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 co-worker begs for mercy, instead of the man showing pity like the king had shown to 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 systematic theology. They aren’t intended to be analyzed bit by bit. Parables are intended to give people a flash of insight. A parable is like one of those impressionist paintings that look like nothing but 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 big-picture thing we see is that the one who refuses to forgive ends up in a whole world of pain.
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 scientific 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 you.
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. In the Old Testament reading today, Joseph had been thrown into a pit by his own brothers when he was only seventeen years old, and sold to slave traders. He had languished in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Joseph had every right to to hold onto his resentment. He certainly had every right to refuse to forgive his brothers. What they had taken from him couldn’t ever be repaid. But if we hold onto our rights, if we absolutely refuse to forgive the unforgiveable, we end up torturing ourselves.
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 if we take one more step back from this parable, suddenly there is an even bigger picture that we see, and that is this: that it is God who makes the first move. The king in the parable heard the man’s cry for help, and he set him free. He didn’t demand that the slave pay his debt off little by little, or pay as much as he could. The forgiveness of the king was as outrageous as the debt of the slave. And that is really the true big picture for us. “We love God,” John wrote, “because he first loved us.” “God shows his love for us,” wrote Paul, “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 though 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. In the end, the big picture of the parable of the unforgiving servant is this: that the kingdom of heaven is a place 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.