I don’t remember which comic it was that I heard it from, but I clearly the joke that they stated they had psychic abilities. But their abilities were very specific. Their psychic powers only worked when they were driving, and the knowledge that was revealed to them was limited to if a fellow driver on the road’s parents had been married when they were conceived or not. The comic was of course referring to their extraordinary ability to use a plethora of colorful names for the other drivers on the road, and I think the joke was so well received because we can relate to the uncharitable thoughts or perhaps the unkind words we mutter under our breath when we encounter those who don’t seem to have the same mastery of automobile use as we do. Not that I find it relatable at all.
Driving is a great example of the ways in which we expect others to be far more superhuman than we expect of ourselves. When we do something and make a mistake, we often shrug and say, “well, I’m only human. We all make mistakes.” But when that so-and-so in that shiny dumb car changed lanes for the third time without a blinker…well…we tend not to shrug and say, “well, they’re only human.” Or perhaps we might have heard from our parents or said to children that mind boggling phrase, “Do as I say, not as I do.”
Somehow it seems to be a common trait of humanity to hold a different set of standards for the world around us, or at least offer ourselves more mercy when we don’t meet the standards we set. Popular television shows us that we also seem to enjoy watching other people receive their just desserts for messing up in Hell’s Kitchen or being judged on any number of activities from pottery making to whether they can renovate a home. The reality that this country seems unable to value life enough to end the use of execution – state sanctioned murder – is among the darker sides of this same craving for punishment.
So it is no surprise that right after Jesus explains how to handle the situation when someone has wronged you as we heard in last week’s Gospel lesson, that Peter chimes in to ask exactly how many times we’re supposed to forgive someone. Thank you Peter, always there to ask the questions that we know we shouldn’t ask! A question that seems to be a matter of importance as the disciples jockey to figure out which one of them is greater, asking how to deal with those who wrong you, and see Jesus’ ministry begin to take shape and the sort of following he is attracting.
Last week’s Gospel message was, in my opinion, where we start to pick up speed in the Gospel of Matthew. Now we are getting deeper into Jesus’ ministry and starting to handle harder and harder teachings and parables. For the majority of what remains in this Season after Pentecost, we will hear a lot of Jesus’ parables and reflect on difficult and sometimes even rather confusing teachings about the Kingdom of God and our life as followers of Christ.
Today is no different. This passage is one that historically has been both difficult but also rather universally understood. Difficult in terms of its application to our lives. Difficult to put into practice and difficult to find the subtleties and nuance of forgiveness. Universally understood though as well, because historically speaking, whether your translation says ‘seventy- seven’ or ‘seventy times seven’ we all know that it means a number ludicrously large and that God forgives completely so he calls the body of Christ to do the same.
The parable is best seen in three parts. The first part is the servant is brought before the king to whom they owe an outrageous debt. This is a debt that just could never be paid back. The amount of money owed is equal to roughly one hundred million days of labor or two hundred seventy nine thousand nine hundred seventy two and half years of labor. How this servant comes to owe this much money to the king is always a fun speculation, but the important thing here is that it’s immense. The king threatens to sell the servant and his family to satisfy some of the debt. The servant, full of fear, begs for mercy.
This is echoing the idea that our debt to God is more than we can ever expect to repay, and likewise he stands ready to mete out punishment for that debt, or sin. That is in many ways the basis of the Law of Moses. The many ways the Law expects people to live, the sacrifices to make, the observances that are required, are all in hopes of paying off some of that debt. Most traditional interpretations will also emphasize that the king or God never fully intends such harsh punishment, but that without facing the drastic measures the servant will never repent or see the weight of their debt. It is often thought that without acknowledging the full weight of our sin, we cannot fully grasp the enormity of God’s mercy. You see this especially in Calvinist teachings.
There is no need for despair though, because the king has a quick willingness to forgive the servant who has faced the enormity of their debt and begged for forgiveness. The second part quickly follows as this newly forgiven servant leaves and immediately encounters someone who owes them a miniscule amount…a day’s labor worth of wages. Witnesses watch in indignation as the servant has the person who owes them this small sum thrown in a debtor’s prison even after he begged for forgiveness, just like the servant did to the king.
Which brings us to the third and final part of the parable. The King, upon being told of what had occurred, had the servant brought back before him, and sentenced to be tortured until his entire debt was repaid, which we already know is impossible. In examining this parable, Kathryn Blanchard writes, “God, it seems, does not take kindly to notions of “cheap grace”; moreover, God is responsive when fellow servants cry foul. Those who truly understand the magnitude of God’s mercy must pay it forward to their debtors. Faith in God, Martin Luther insists, naturally brings forth acts of love towards neighbor. The servant’s unwillingness to forgive reveals his lack of gratitude, which brings him crashing back into his own debt.”
But we also know that forgiveness is a tricky road. We can see over and over passages like this that are used to justify forcing victims of abuse to stay with their abusers. We can see it used to justify any number of great wrongs. That is not the intent here, and we must find a nuanced approach to understanding how forgiveness works in our lives. We must also acknowledge that we are never going to be as good at forgiveness as God is, so we must continually seek his forgiveness for failing to achieve it.
Presbyterian minister and author Marjorie Thompson writes, “To forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair such punishment may seem…. Forgiveness involves excusing persons from the punitive consequences they deserve because of their behavior. The behavior remains condemned, but the offender is released from its effects as far as the forgiver is concerned. Forgiveness means the power of the original wound's power to hold us trapped is broken.”
It’s not easy to forgive, especially when we justifiably hurt. But I wonder if we really notice that every single week when we come to this altar, we are asking God’s help in doing just that. Do we notice that when we pray the Lord’s prayer, invited with the words “As our savior Christ taught us, we are bold to say” that we ask God to, “forgive us our trespasses, debts, sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” Do we really want to God to forgive us as much as we forgive others? Or do we mean that we want to be as good at forgiving as God is?
There’s an old story that comes from the church council records in Sixteenth-century Switzerland where when asked to recite the Lord’s Prayer, a man pretended he didn’t know it because he knew that if he said it he would have to forgive the merchant who cheated him – and that was something he had no intention of doing.
Author Annie Dillard writes, ““On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ”
Forgiveness is not something that is achievable instantly. It takes work, and it takes God’s grace to help us to find ways in which we forgive those who have hurt us the most and to repair relationships. It is not forgetting. God does not forget our sins when they are forgiven, but our acknowledgment of them is a step for us to find forgiveness. Do not confuse the limitless forgiveness God calls us to with an unhealthy toleration of hurtful behavior. Christ asks us to look at ourselves and be more worried about the speck in our own eye than the log in our neighbors’. Finally, be careful what you ask of God, when you pray to forgive us as we forgive others. It is part of our work as followers of Christ, but it is also holding that very same mirror to ourselves and sometimes that reflection is hard to gaze upon.