Pastor, how many times must I forgive my son and his friend? — So began a conversation the day I returned from dropping Amanda off at Hollins. It was almost a direct quote of Peter’s that we read today, so much so that I knew, before I had a chance to see last week’s readings that this reading was going to be assigned last week! This person in orbit of our parish wanted to know how many times she had to let her son and his best friend continue to make her mad. The answer that came quickly to my tongue was this passage. I asked her how many times Jesus instructed Peter and us that we must forgive those who sin against us. Bah, I KNEW you were going to say that. Why does He have to make it so hard? In truth, Jesus’ command about forgiveness and repentance is both incredibly hard and incredibly easy.
We sometimes like to look down on those societies which preceded us as rubes or ignorant or unsophisticated. While we can all admit we are technologically ahead of those societies which came before us, Peter’s question illustrates the truth of Ecclesiastes—nothing new under the sun!
After Jesus’ instructions on how to deal with unrepentant sin in the Church, Peter asks a serious question. Some commentators like to argue that Peter was attempting to elevate himself in the eyes of Jesus and the other disciples. Considering how quick Jesus was to rebuke Peter (and the other disciples) whenever they got a matter of the heart wrong, and the absence of such a rebuke here, I take Peter’s question as seriously as I did the lady in the office two Tuesday’s ago. It is a struggle to forgive. There is a natural tendency, I think, to seek to hurt those who hurt us. Certainly the Rabbis of Peter’s time and before had dealt with that tendency and Peter’s question. One of the accepted life rules, if you will, was that Jews had to forgive each other seven times. If somebody sinned again against you an 8th or 80th or 800th time, clearly they were not really repentant. Why was seven chosen? My guess is that it had something to do with completion. As those studying the Book of Revelation can now tell you, numbers sometimes serve a symbolic purpose. The number 3 figures prominently in the Scripture, as does the number 7 and the number 40. In the case of 7, it often is used to represent completeness. What happened in the first week in Genesis? God created the heavens and the earth, saw that it was good, and rested—the first week. Perhaps rabbis and others though that one might need as many as seven chances to repent for repentance to truly germinate in the heart. Maybe rabbis thought that seven false repentances completed the hardening of the heart. Maybe it was a combination of the two. That Peter offers the number and does not earn Jesus’ rebuke tells us that Peter’s question was sincere. Forgiving somebody seven times would be hard, indeed!
Jesus gives a huge answer in response to Peter’s suggestion. In truth, some of the ANE cultures were not as concerned with numbers as were other cultures. Cultures like the Phoenicians and the Arabs would do well in our eyes as they were pretty particular in how they accounted for numbers. Other cultures, such as the Jews, had their focus on things other than algebra or other mathematical sciences. What Jesus answers could really be 77 times, but it could also be 490 times. I rather liked Robin’s illustration today of 7 to the 70th power. I think it captures Jesus’ meaning, but not His words.
Can you imagine the shock? The lady who entered my office and asked this question knew the answer. She knew I would give it to her. Still, she felt compelled to ask. How many times must I forgive? Part of the reason for the question, I think, is that we get tired of the hurt. The more accurate question I think that Peter and this lady were asking is how many chances do I have to give somebody to hurt me? Jesus’ answer seems, rightly so, without end.
We talk a lot in the Church conflating words and the meaning. A great example would be in the parable that accompanied Jesus’ instruction. We speak often of grace and mercy, as if the two are the same word. In reality, both words are very different. The parable that Jesus uses to illustrate His point involves debt. A man appears before his king with a debt of some 10,000 talents. The amount involved would have been unfathomable to Jesus’ audience. It would be nearly no so to us. A talent was worth approximately 6000 denarii. Yes, you heard me correctly. A talent was equal to a laborer’s compensation over nearly 20 years! To put that figure in modern minimum wage salaries, a talent would be worth about $2 million. Imagine owing 10,000 of those! Even credit card companies won’t let us get into a couple billion dollars worth of debt! And this man has the audacity to tell his king that all he needs is a little bit of time to pay his debt in full.
The king, Jesus tells us, is moved by the man’s plight. The king understands the reality. The king shows mercy by not giving to the man what he deserves—being sold with his wife and children into slavery to satisfy a small portion of the debt. The king goes one extra though. The king shows grace by giving the man something he does not not deserve—he writes off the debt! Think of the gift given the man in question. The equivalent debt of a couple hundred years of labor is wiped clean! And how does he respond?
On his way out, Jesus tells us, the man encounters another slave who owes him 100 denarii, merely a 100 days labor. Compared to the debt that has been forgiven for the first man, this seems a paltry sum indeed. How does the slave who has been shown mercy and grace by the king respond? He withholds mercy. He gives the second slave what he deserves. He tosses the fellow slave into prison until the debt is paid. Talk about ungrateful.
The fellow slaves, not surprisingly, are upset at the behavior. They complain to the king about what has happened. And the king has the first slave brought before him again. The king rebukes the first slave for showing neither mercy note grace to the second slave. Better still, he determines that the man will be tortured until the debt is paid. Given the size of the debt, all in the audience knew that the first slave would experience torture until the day he died.
Jesus’ use of the parable is illustrative of the superficial attitude many of us Christians have toward forgiveness. We will tell people that we have been forgiven our sins and talk about how free we are, but then we turn around and show an utter lack of compassion to others. The world around us notes this superficial attitude and calls it hypocrisy or two-faced. Those who have not internalized the mercy and grace offered by our Lord are quick to reap the benefits. We will tell others the church to which we belong if it helps our social or economic prospects. We will act like the Pharisees and Sadducees and make a big deal out of our attendance or offering or some other aspect of worship we deem important or esteemed. In reality, though, the person who has not internalized the mercy and grace of God will reflect that hardened heart in their treatment of others. Jesus’ parable ought to remind us that each one of us stands in danger of being the first slave in this story. What cost can you pay for your life? What cost could you pay for your eternal soul? In reality, none of us could begin to pay God what they are worth.
God has offered each one of us mercy; He has withheld the condemnation we have each earned through our countless sins. But, rather than free us simply from the chains of death, our Lord has shown us amazing grace through the offer of adoption. The grace that we have been shown is that now, not only can we be forgiven our sins, we can be empowered by His Holy Spirit and charged as His sons and daughters on earth to represent Him. WE can pray on Healing Sunday and expect God to act. WE can pray for provision certain that He will provide what we need. WE can face even death, confident that He has the power even to overcome the grave. Best of all, God has attached Himself to us in such a way that if we are mocked, ridiculed, besmirched, treated with contempt, or any other such behavior, He will know and He will act as if such actions were done to Him! Think about that grace for a second. Though we do not deserve it, God treats a sin against us as a sin against Him.
As we as disciples walk in faith the mercy and grace given us by our Lord begins to transform our hearts. The slights and pangs and dishonors of this world come to be less and less important to us. We can act merciful and gracefully countless times to others because we know our debt to God was infinitely greater than any debt owed by others to us and because we know that He has bound Himself to us for all eternity. We can begin to show in our lives, and not only say with our lips, the peace that passes all understanding. We simply become heralds of grace and trumpeters of His mercy trusting that, in the end, justice and vengeance are His. If the neighbor sins against us 7000 times and seeks forgiveness each time, we have no reason to withhold. Still our debt to Him was greater. Still He showed us how we were to treat and love others in His name.
Perhaps sitting here this week, you find yourself a bit unnerved. Maybe, as you read the story again and reflect on your life and attitude, you find yourself described in the actions of the first slave. Maybe the Holy Spirited has prompted you to see that you are too focused on what has been done to you by others. Is there hope? Of course. So long as one draws breath, there is always hope that he or she will return to God. We have danced around the mercy and grace offered us by God a bit this morning. Though God could have rightly and justly let us wallow in our lives or in our prisons trying vainly to work our way out of His debt, He chose to give us a narrow path out. He sent His Son, who lived a sinful life. Our Lord Christ laid down that life, shedding His blood for our sakes, that all our debts to God might be repaid. The cost of our salvation was horrendous. Someone, indeed, had to die the death we each earned. But for His obedience and faithfulness, He was raised again from the dead as the firstborn of the Kingdom. And in His infinite grace, He promised that all who believed in that Son shall live forever in His presence. Brothers and sisters, if you find you are well described by the first slave, there is still time to repent. There is still time to ask God to forgive you, still time to ask Him to circumsize your heart, still time to ask Him for the privilege of ushering others into His kingdom and presence by demonstrating mercy and grace to others, still time to ask Him to wash away the hypocrisy we have exhibited in our lives, to experience the true joy of forgiveness, still time to ask Him to help you focus less on what has been done to you and more upon what He has done for you! There is still time to call upon His name and grasp the glory that He offers. It will not be easy, but then He described it as cross-bearing. But in the end, we know, we absolutely know, just as our debts owed to Him dwarf any owed to us, so will His blessings overcome by orders of magnitude our debts for all eternity!