Seventy-seven times. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t carry a book around with me to note how many times I have forgiven certain people. I can’t say:
“Great Job Thelma! You’ve only needed to be forgiven twice! Uh oh Thaddeus! Forgiven 76 times already. Just one more strike, and like in baseball, you’re out!”
It would be a pretty strange thing for anyone to count forgiveness like that. So maybe, Jesus wasn’t asking for us to literally do this in today’s gospel. Maybe Jesus in his answer was suggesting that forgiveness should come as a limitless supply.
The gospel for last week immediately precedes what we read today. As we learned about the church’s call to bind and loose, we acknowledged that the task was wrapped up in the law of love. That binding and loosing is to be done in the context of community founded and focused on loving the neighbor and stranger. We recognized how easy it is to take that task of binding and loosing individually and as a result bind and loose that which serves us before any other.
Peter in asking Jesus how many times begins by saying seven times. In contrast to Jesus’ answer of seventy-seven, Pater’s suggestion seems small or insignificant. But think about forgiveness in our own lives. Second chances as exceedingly rare, so Peter’s suggestion of seven times is actually quite hyperbolic. I wonder if he was intentionally giving an answer that was clearly ridiculous and that Jesus would quickly dismiss as being grandiose.
But Jesus, in his way of confounding our human expectations suggests that peter’s answer of seven is not enough. He suggests that we must forgive seventy-seven times!
Jesus then goes on to tell a parable that is often referred to as the parable of the unforgiving servant/slave.
In this parable we encounter a king who has a servant that owes him the unfathomable amount of 10,000 talents. Now, the math on this is tricky, but would equal approximately 60 million times a person’s daily wage of one denarius. So it would take a single person, 164 thousand years to earn what the slave owed as a debt.
As the parable goes, the slave could not pay that enormous sum, and hoping to recoup some of the loss, the frank businessman that the king was, planned on selling the slave and his family.
Recognizing that he was about to loose his family, the slave begged for more time to pay and received something that was completely unexpected: the full forgiveness of all his debts.
Now, there are two interesting aspects to this forgiveness of his debts.
First, this is the same exact language we use in the lord’s prayer when we say “forgive us our trespasses.” Even though trespasses can sound like we are talking about forgive us for our actions, or our sins, the Greek word literally relates to these same financial debts the slave had.
Second, even though the translation we heard today said that “out of pity” the king forgave the debt, it could also have been translated as “moved by compassion” using the same Greek word–splangchnizomai– used to describe Jesus before he fed the five thousand. It was a gut feeling that brought the king to forgive the slaves’ debts, and we don’t know where that feeling came from, but only that it moved him to this enormous act of grace.
Back to the parable, the slave who had just been freed of that massive financial debt had a whole new set of possibilities before him. But quickly, he made a transition from slave to lord, from debtor to creditor. Compared with his forgiven debt, the debt his fellow slave owed him was nothing. Sure, it was about 1/3 of a year’s wages, but compared to 164,000 years of wages, it was essentially nothing. And despite using the exact same words as the the slave who had his debts forgiven by the king, his debts were not forgiven. He was even thrown into jail.
Upon hearing about this, the king in his anger demanded that the unforgiving slave be tortured until he could pay his full debt, a debt we can all agree would never be paid.
Jesus then wraps up this short story by emphasizing the importance of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not optional. Because of God’s unlimited forgiveness towards us, our human relationships should be guided by a similar unending grace.
Something that you might not know about me is that I am a rule follower. Though I would be the first to admit that I didn’t always listen when I was younger, I have generally assumed rules were in place for good reasons. So when driving, I stick to the speed limit (+5 on highways). When there are guide ropes and stanchions at a mall or airport, and there is no one in them, I will still walk all the way through rather than ducking below and going to the back of the line. And when I cook, which is often, I follow the recipe as closely as I can and try to avoid (AT ALL COSTS) having to substitute something else in.
In the parable when thinking of the kind and the unjust slave, one of the people follows the rules and another–with seemingly little reason–does not. It is the unjust slave that sticks with the law of the land when it benefits him and makes sure that the other slave receives his due–ending up in jail. The king–Who would have only been able to be a king because of following the laws and rules of the land–decided to forgive the slave, going against the very procedure that would have made him powerful.
Dear people, it is easy to get caught up in the rules and regulations that humanity has put into place. Like the unjust slave, we can forget the forgiveness that has been given to us and neglect our neighbor for the sake of law and order. Like Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 6, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial.”
As followers of Christ, we are called to remember, like Joseph, that we are not in the place of God. We are called to forgive and not take a place of judgement that does not belong to us. This is the work of the whole church. And like binding and loosing, forgiveness can be abused, especially by individuals. So in Jesus’ insistence on forgiveness, this doesn’t mean embracing violence that has been done to us, nor does it mean giving free reign to those who might do us harm.
The forgiveness that we are called to is a gift of God–a reflection of God’s love for the least among us.
Now, this forgiveness we are called to, it is not something that we have to DO to be reconciled to God, it is not something necessary for salvation. But just as good works are product of faith like fruit to a tree, so forgiveness is another product of our faith in Christ.
As followers of Christ, having been so graciously and abundantly forgiven ourselves, we have been freed to abundantly forgive following the example of God in Christ.
As we go through our day forgiving as we have first been forgiven, I doubt any of us will bring a notebook to track incidents of forgiveness. I know I won’t. But in those moments where we find ourselves forgiving others, I do hope we will make a mental note of it, recognizing that when we forgive others, our faith is made manifest and we are embodying Jesus’ call to discipleship.