The collect and readings for today, the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19A, may be found here. The appointed gospel is Matthew 18:21-35.
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
“How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered Peter, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Forgiveness, for Jesus, is not a quantifiable event. It is a quality; a way of being, a way of living, a way of loving, a way of relating, a way of thinking and seeing. It is nothing less than the way of Christ. If we are to follow Christ then it must become our way as well. “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
Does that mean the drunk driver? Yes. The cheating spouse? Yes. The lying businessman? Yes. The racist? Yes. The rapist? Yes. The bully? Yes. The abusive parent? Yes. The greedy corporation? Yes. Even the terrorists of 9/11? Yes.
Today we stand at a difficult, seemingly impossible, place. We stand at the intersection of the tenth anniversary of the September 11 tragedy and today’s gospel. The memories, the images, the anger, the fear, the pain and losses all intersect with Jesus’s teaching on forgiveness. Both are real. Both are true. The deeper truth, however, is that we would still be standing at the same intersection even if September 11 had never occurred. We stand at that place every day of our life. Look at the history of the world and you will see the Holocaust, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, racial discrimination, economic oppression, wars and torture in Afghanistan and Iraq. Look at your own lives and you will find broken promises, hurt feelings, betrayals, harsh words, physical and emotional wounds. Every one of us could tell stories of being hurt or victimized by another. Beneath the pain, the wounds, the losses, and the memories lies the question of forgiveness.
Everyone, I suspect, is in favor of forgiveness, at least in principle. “Every one,” C.S. Lewis writes, “says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until there is something to forgive” (Mere Christianity, p.115). What do we do then? What do we do when there is something to forgive?
Some will strike back seeking revenge. Some will run away from life and relationships. Some will let the darkness paralyze them. I don’t say that out of criticism or judgment of someone else but out of my own experience. I’ve done them all. I know how hard forgiveness can be. Like you I too struggle with it and often avoid it. I also know that none of those answers are the way of Christ. All of them leave us stuck in the past, tied to the evil of another, and bereft of the future God wants to give us.
Forgiveness is the only way forward. That does not mean we forget, condone, or approve of what was done. It does not mean we ignore or excuse cruelty or injustice. It means we are released from them. We let go of the thoughts and fantasies of revenge. We look to the future rather than the past. We try to see and love as God sees and loves. Forgiveness is a way in which we align our life with God’s life. To withhold forgiveness is to put ourselves in the place of God, the ultimate judge to whom all are accountable (Ro. 14:10, 12).
God’s forgiveness and human forgiveness are integrally related. That is more than apparent in today’s parable. The king forgives his slave an extraordinary amount. Ten thousand talents is about 3000 years of work at the ordinary daily wage. It seems there is no debt too large to be forgiven. This man, this debtor, was forgiven. That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like. That’s how our God is. This slave, however, refused to forgive his fellow slave 100 denarii, about three months of work at the ordinary daily wage. Too often that’s what our world is like. Frequently, it is how we are. In that refusal the forgiven slave lost his own forgiveness.
This should not be news to us. We know it well. We acknowledge and pray it every Sunday and I’ll bet most of you pray it everyday. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We pray those words with ease and familiarity but do we live our prayer? Do our actions support our request? “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
That’s a lot of forgiveness but the pain of the world, our nation, and individuals is great. We need to forgive as much, maybe more, for ourselves as for the one we forgive. Forgiving those who trespass against us is the salve that begins to heal our wounds. It may not change the one who hurt you but I promise you this. Your life will be more alive, more grace-filled, more whole, more God-like for having forgiven another.
Forgiveness creates space for new life. Forgiveness is an act of hopefulness and resurrection for the one who forgives. It is the healing of our soul and life. Forgiveness takes us out of darkness into light, from death to life. It disentangles us from the evil of another. It is the refusal to let our future be determined by the past. It is the letting go of the thoughts, the hatred, the fear that fill us so that we might live and love again.
So how do we begin to forgive? There is no easy road to forgiveness. Don’t let anyone tell you, “Just give it up to God. Forgive and forget.” Simplistic trite answers only demean those who suffer and pick at the wound. Forgiving another takes time and work. It is something we must practice every day. It begins with recognition and thanksgiving that we have been forgiven. We are the beneficiaries of the crucified one. Hanging between two thieves he prayed, “Father, forgive them” (Lk. 23:34). That is the cry of infinite forgiveness, a cry we are to echo in our own lives, in our families, our work places, our parishes, our day to day life.
Forgiveness does not originate in us. It begins with God. That’s what the slave who refused to forgive didn’t understand. It was not about him. It’s about God. We do not choose to forgive. We only choose to share the forgiveness we have already received. Then we chose again, and then again, and then yet again. For most of us forgiveness is a process that we live into. Sometimes, however, we just can’t. The pain is too much, the wound too raw, the memories too real. On those days we chose to want to forgive. Somedays we chose to want to want to forgive. Then there are those days that all we can do is choose to want to want to want to forgive. But we choose because that’s the choice Christ made.
How many times must we choose to forgive? Tell me this. How many times have you been hurt and suffered by the actions or words of another? How many times has anger or fear controlled you? How many times has the thought of revenge filled you? How many times have you shuddered at the sight, the name, or the memory of another? How many times have you replayed in your head the argument with another? That’s how many times you choose. With each choosing we move a step closer to forgiveness. Then one day, God willing, we will meet, victims and perpetrators, as happy thieves in the Paradise of God, the Father of us all.
“Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”