“Seventy Times Seven” Rev. Brent Gundlah
“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” We’ve all read and said and heard these words countless times both here in church and elsewhere. But let’s be honest: How often do we really stop and think about what they mean?
And this is kind of strange — not only because forgiving our debtors is the one thing that the prayer we all know by heart actually calls upon us to do (all the rest seem to be God’s responsibility), but also because forgiveness so integral to our life together.
The eighteenth chapter of Matthew, the source of the gospel reading you just heard (and last week’s as well), is known as the Community Discourse; it’s where Jesus teaches his disciples about how people should treat one another.
At the beginning of it the disciples ask Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And Jesus’s answer shows that he believes the disciples are asking a misguided question; he calls over a child and explains that whoever becomes humble like that child will be the greatest.
Now, the very idea of the humble being the greatest had to be a strange thing for those disciples to hear — after all, that’s not the way it generally works in our world — but it really shouldn’t have been all that surprising.
I mean, ever since Jesus went up that mountain and talked about the poor in spirit and meek and pure in heart and persecuted being blessed and inheriting the kingdom of heaven, he’s been challenging our expectations about the way things are and should be, he’s been calling into question all of the preconceived notions that we accept as truth.
In today’s reading, from the end of the Community Discourse, Jesus is faced with another question, this time from Peter, regarding the limits of forgiveness. “How many times am I expected to forgive the brother who sins against me… up to seven times?” Peter asks. Jesus answers: “seventy seven times” or “seventy times seven times” (it’s hard to know exactly which he means). Either way, in the ancient world this basically meant an infinite number of times.
Okay, Jesus, so how many times do I need to forgive? Just tell me and I’ll make sure I do it.
Come on, Peter, you really can’t quantify that kind of thing.
Jesus is saying that Peter’s question, when viewed through God’s eyes, is simply preposterous. And Jesus’s response to Peter, when viewed through the eyes of this world, is also preposterous. But this absurd exchange is also a really important one.
Jesus’s whole point is that God’s willingness to forgive us is unlimited. And as believers in God and disciples of Christ, we should strive to show that same boundless forgiveness toward everyone. But we’re human, so we often fail to live into what God calls us to do. We try to put limits on everything — including, but not limited to, forgiveness.
We might say that we’re grateful for the grace that God has shown us, but we dependably fail to show that same kind of grace to the rest of God’s children;
we might say that we’re concerned for others, but all too often put our own needs and thoughts and feelings first;
we might pray that God’s reign may come and that God’s will be done here on earth as it is in heaven, but we sure don’t act like we care about too much these things a lot of the time.
In the parable of the unforgiving slave that follows his initial exchange with Peter, Jesus expounds upon the basic problem of our seemingly limited capacity for forgiveness, and the way in which he goes about it is worth thinking about: Peter asks Jesus for a rule to follow, but Jesus chooses to share with Peter a parable.
Parables are often hard to understand but that’s what makes them so compelling; they can convey complexity, contradiction, nuance and uncertainty in ways that lists of rules simply cannot. And so Jesus’s use of a parable here makes a lot of sense, because forgiveness, as we all know, can be a complicated thing — both to give and to receive.
The need for it in our world is obvious, but the practice of it in our everyday lives can be really challenging. Jesus understands that this is the case, but he wants his disciples to think about why this is the case.
The first part of the parable, about the slave who cannot pay an almost inconceivable debt and the gracious king who eventually forgives it, seems straightforward enough — at least at first, anyway. Jesus invites us to think of ourselves as the slave and God as the king, to consider the value of the grace that we have received from God in our own lives, a gift that we’ve done nothing to deserve.
But is it ever that simple when Jesus tells as story? I mean there’s so much that we just don’t know. For example, this slave borrowed an amount of money well beyond his means to repay it, but why? Was he spending it selfishly and wantonly, or was he using it to tend to the needs of his family or his community? And why on earth would a king make such an exorbitant loan to a servant? For the record: ten thousand denari wasn’t exactly pocket change; it was more like a billion dollars in today’s terms.
Might the king be in need of some forgiveness here too — for his own reckless behavior that contributed to the servant’s situation, or for even having a slave in the first place. We’re simply not in a position to understand the whole story from the few details we’re given; we need to use our imagination to work through the possibilities.
At first the king seems all too ready to exact retribution upon the slave, but what happens next is pretty incredible: the slave tells his story and the king actually listens to him. And, after listening to him, the king feels compelled to forgive him. This probably didn’t happen too often in the ancient world (frankly, it doesn’t happen too much in the modern world either).
We’re not ever told what motivates the king’s change of heart, what leads him to do what he does. But his willingness to meet the slave in that place — the one where the slave can say, “Please… hear me out” — and then be heard and forgiven — is remarkable. But the king’s acts of mercy and grace — the listening and the forgiving — are only the first part of the story.
But the second part of the story goes a bit differently, doesn’t it? The forgiven slave, tables now turned, refuses to show the same kind of mercy and grace to another who finds himself in similar straits — despite the fact that the amount of money involved is a whole smaller. Then again, it’s not really about the money.
Jesus is trying to make his disciples understand that forgiveness is a really complex thing. Why is that some people can ask for forgiveness for themselves, but then choose not to grant it when it is asked of them? Why is it that some people can freely grant forgiveness to others without acknowledging their own need to be forgiven? Is it pride? Is it selfishness? Is it fear?
But forgiveness — both given and received — is a basic human need. And when forgiveness goes missing, everything just falls apart. This is what the end of Jesus’s parable shows.
The slave who was forgiven, and yet refuses to forgive, brings us right back to where we started. He ends up being punished for his own unwillingness to forgive by the very king who initially forgave him. The unforgiving slave seems, at least per the logic of our world, to get exactly what he deserves; and yet, by the end of the story, nothing has changed for the better for anyone.
One could look at all of this and jump to the conclusion that the king, as a stand-in for God, brings down the hammer as he should. And thus we should be afraid because God will do the very same to us. But this is not the point.
The point is that forgiveness is not only difficult and complicated, but also incredibly fragile and in need of constant care. Jesus want us to understand the importance of preserving that sacred space in which true understanding and forgiveness take place, wherever and whenever and however we can.
Because in our very human world, where forgiveness is so crucial to our individual and collective well-being, the conditions necessary for it to take root and thrive can disappear in an instant.
Forgiving is often not an easy thing to do — but whoever said that it would be? The Hebrew Scriptures remind us that it was even challenging for God sometimes. Even God understands that the wrong often seems too great and the pain inflicted too much for us to bear, that forgiveness — sought or given — can seem like a bridge too far.
But God’s willingness to forgive us our debts should inspire us to go and forgive our debtors. It is inevitable that there will be moments in our lives where we will fail or forget to forgive — or to ask that we ourselves be forgiven. In God’s reign, forgiveness is the default position; the rule, rather than the exception; the underlying assumption that makes it all work and holds it all together.
And this is a good thing because would we really want God to forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors? I kinda doubt it.
Thankfully, though, God chooses to follow a different set of rules.