Reading: Matthew 18:21-35
Two little boys had quarrelled. But the next morning, Johnny took his cap and headed for Bobby’s house again. Surprised, an older member of the family said teasingly, “What! Going to play with him again? I thought you quarrelled only last evening and were never going to have anything more to do with each other. Funny memory you have.” Johnny looked a little sheepish, dug his toe into the carpet for a moment, then flashed a satisfied smile as he hurried away. “Oh, Bobby and me’s good forgetters.”
These young boys have learned that unforgiveness can get in the way of fun – perhaps that’s a lesson we could all take to heart. Forgiveness doesn’t often come naturally to us. When looking for justification for treating his younger sister cruelty, the brother quickly points out to his parents how cruel his sister was to him the day before. When asked to stay late after work hours, the employee finds an excuse not to help as he thinks of how his boss criticized his work in front of the entire staff earlier that day. Once I visited a sick parishioner that I knew had endured hardship at the hands of her ex-husband. Though many years had passed, laying on what would, it turns out, be her deathbed, she looked up at me and with all sincerity asked: “How do I forgive?”
How Do I Forgive?
I don’t think I said anything very profound. Forgiveness is hard. It goes against our nature. I’d rather nurse my grudges, silently brooding over them. I’d rather fantasize about how to get the person back that hurt me: going over biting quips I wished I’d said, imagining myself winning an ensuing fight.
But, like my friend, deep down we know we must forgive, and not just because we’ve heard preachers espouse its virtues for as long as we can remember. I think we know that limiting forgiveness, or refusing to forgive altogether, brings its own kind of torture upon the human soul. I think this is one of the reasonable interpretations of the parable Jesus tells his disciples of the ‘Unforgiving Servant’. We might read its conclusion at face value: that God will dole out punishment on those who refuse to forgive others. Or we might see it as providing a colourful interpretation as to why the unforgiven find themselves trapped in their own prisons of bitterness and regret.
How Many Times Must One Forgive?
Jesus is provoked into telling this story when his right-hand disciple, Peter, asks him how many times one must forgive a brother who sins repeatedly? Seven times seems like a reasonable, if not even somewhat generous amount. I’m not sure I’d be willing to wait for the seventh punch in my shoulder before striking back at someone provoking me! But as Jesus is so often prone to do, he goes beyond the reasonable and practical and offers the staggering number of 77 times.
Jesus’ number is not drawn from the air. It mirrors the boast of Cain’s descendant, Lamech, in Genesis 4:23-24, who brags that the mortal vengeance he has extracted against a young man who hurt him far exceeds God’s promise of seven-fold punishment against anyone who might kill Cain. Jesus is calling his community of disciples to participate in undoing the curse of Cain and Lamech that has kept their offspring trapped in spasms of envy, hatred, violence, and retribution across the generations to this day.
Forgiveness Unsettles Power Dynamics
The parable of the unforgiving servant serves as a sharp warning — to those who might think forgiveness is possible on limited terms. It shows how difficult it is to forgive in society where the powerful stay in power by treading on the vulnerable; our world is too often a world of Cain and Lamech, where ‘tit for tat’ exchanges and vengeful retribution are the norm.
Parables are best read as simple stories meant to provoke critical reflection and remove the blinders from our eyes. While the characters in this parable are exaggerated, as so often in parables, the king and his slave follow scripts that would have been familiar to ancient Mediterranean audiences. Kings used agents like the “unmerciful servant” to organize lower levels of agents, from tax-farmers to torturers (Matthew 18:34).
Servant as CFO
The unforgiving servant is apparently a manager of the highest level, effectively a CFO, with control over the movement of vast wealth. The astronomical “debt” or “loan” he owes may represent the income he is responsible for producing from those lower on the pyramid of patronage. In the Mediterranean economy, the goal was to pass a steady, acceptable flow of wealth further up the pyramid, while retaining as much as one could get away with for oneself, to be used to grease one’s own way further up the pyramid.
This slave, who works near or at the very top of the pyramid, may have taken too large a share for himself. And now, he was going to lose everything: his position, his ability to make a living, his family, his very life. He had no recourse but to beg for mercy – he had dug himself a hole that he couldn’t get out of on his own. He was desperate, with nowhere else to turn, with no hope other than in the king’s benevolence. And the king forgives his debt and restores his slave’s life.
Forgiveness Ought to Beget Forgiveness
But how does the servant react to the incredible benevolence of his master? He’s no sooner out the door than he’s terrorizing a slave beneath him, insisting on the relatively small debt owed to him be paid immediately. We are rightly struck by the ingratitude of the ‘unforgiving servant’ in his dealings with his fellow servant – but we might not be if we read his response to the king carefully. Do we hear the slave thank the king for restoring his life? Does he rejoice at the miracle? Is he moved to extend the generosity he has received to others? No, he bullies the first one he comes across that owes him money.
I don’t think the servant truly understood the gift he’d been given. I don’t think the forgiveness truly reached him. He kept living as one bound to a system of extraction and violence. Maybe he didn’t really believe in the king’s forgiveness – maybe he thought he’d better get as much money as he could as quickly as he could in case the king changed his mind. Maybe he was too caught up in self-preservation that the good news proclaimed to him was prevented from transforming his entire way of life.
“How do I forgive?” my dying friend asked.
Forgiveness Starts with Being Forgiven
Forgiving others starts with being forgiven. It is rooted in a profound appreciation for God’s grace and forgiveness that is bestowed upon us, each and every day. We confess our sins each time we gather and worship – I’m sure many of us think of things we’ve done wrong that week. Perhaps there are times when our minds become flooded with memories of terrible things we’ve done in our lives, things we’ve asked God for forgiveness for over and over again. Are we not, so much of the time, like the servant in the parable? Do we truly believe the words of forgiveness being bestowed upon us? If we truly believe we are forgiven, from the depths of our very being, why do we confess the same sins over and over again? And why is it so hard for us to forgive those who have wronged us?
My friends, we need to know, truly, deeply, that we are forgiven. We need to know it not only in our minds, but in our hearts. We should rise upon hearing Christ’s words of forgiveness pronounced in the absolution, with burdens lifted and hearts full of gratitude and peace. And with hearts full, we come to forgive ourselves, and we use a measure of the forgiveness we’ve received to forgive others.
Let us join with the Psalmist in declaring joyfully the goodness of God and liberty we know due to God’s staggering forgiveness: “God does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is God’s steadfast love…as far as the east is from the west, so far God removes our transgressions from us.” Thanks be to God!