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Archive for September, 2011

Forgiveness. . .For Whom?

“Lord. . .how often should I forgive?. . .Seven times? Not seven times,. . .but seventy times seven.”

How ironic it is that the subject of forgiveness lands on the Sunday lectionary today. Life changed for you and me ten years ago today. In a matter of hours on a beautiful fall morning, the actions of a few people bent on destruction and terror forever changed the lives of not only Americans, but millions around the world. Forgiveness. Is there forgiveness for a terrorist? Is there forgiveness for evil? Perhaps that kind of forgiveness is something beyond human answers. For the moment, I invite you to leave those difficult–if not impossible–questions, turning to consider today’s gospel. What does Jesus have to say about God’s forgiveness?

In this part of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is teaching the disciples—and the community of faith that forms after Jesus’ death and resurrection—how people should live together in Christian community. Today, Peter approaches Jesus to ask about forgiveness. It helps to understand that in the first century, “most rabbinical teaching. . .stated you must forgive another Jew three times for an infraction. Peter’s statement of seven times was twice the standard plus one for good measure. Seven was also the word for wholeness. . .”[1] Peter probably thinks he is being generous. But Jesus’ response is startling. “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” And in some ancient translations, Jesus does not say “seventy-seven times” but “seven times seventy” or 490. Peter’s number is a finite one. Jesus’ number implies an infinite one. “It implies wholeness times Godliness.”[2]

To make his point, Jesus uses hyperbole with a parable. A king wants to settle accounts, and one of his slaves owes him ten thousand talents. The king demands his money but the slave cannot pay the debt. Of course he can’t. “A single talent was worth more than fifteen years’ worth of typical daily wages.”[3] As Tom Long, a well-known preacher has noted, “An Egyptian pharaoh couldn’t come up with ten thousand talents, much less a slave. The situation is something like our saying that a lowly mail-room clerk owed the CEO of IBM a ‘bazillion dollars.’ It was hard to know who was more foolish—the slave, for getting into that size debt, or the king, for extending that sort of credit line to a slave. In any case, the king, realizing that repayment was out of the question, attempts at least to cut his losses by ordering the slave to be sold, along with the slave’s family and all his worldly goods.”[4]

The slave begs for mercy, and the king—amazingly enough—forgives this unpayable debt. What is the slave’s response? Does he gratefully rejoice that he and his family have been spared imprisonment or being sold? Does he pay this incredible generosity forward to others? No. Instead, he finds a fellow slave who owes him money—just one hundred denarii, the amount of money someone could earn in one day. He grabs the other slave by the throat and demands his money. It seems that he has not forgiven his debts as his have been forgiven. But the community calls him to accountability. The other slaves tell this story to the king and the king becomes so furious that he sentences the first slave to be tortured. Jesus ends the story with this: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Forgive. From your heart. Many times, you and I say “I’m sorry,” yet we no more mean that than we can fly. We just say it because it sounds good and makes us look righteous. In our hearts, we may just be biding our time until we can get even. We may come to church and pray the Lord’s Prayer. Yet the truth is that when we get to that part about forgiveness, we don’t dwell too long on that part. We pray (often quickly) “forgiveusourtrespassesasweforgivethosewhotrespassagainstus.” Which misses the point, because the literal translation is this: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” In ancient times, a common image for forgiveness was—literally—to release someone from debt. The debt was marked “paid in full.” That was forgiveness.

Do we really forgive someone else in the same way that God forgives us? Real forgiveness is not about mouthing the words “I’m sorry.” True forgiveness is about relationships being made whole. It means we are willing to work towards true reconciliation with someone else. As someone has said, “forgiveness has nothing to do with forgetting.” It is not a feeling. It is an action.[5] An act done with intentionality and compassion. The kind of act demonstrated by God. I do not believe that God sits on the throne in heaven doing arithmetic. God is not having accountants run daily balance sheets, making a list, checking it twice to see who’s naughty and nice. God forgives us by marking the ledger “paid in full” because of Jesus’ sacrificial and self-giving love. To forgive someone, we must be willing to give up power and become vulnerable.

God knows this better than we do. God sent God’s own Son to be a vulnerable human being. To live with us and teach us new ways of living and loving. Then what? Jesus was willing to give up his life, to die on a cross for love of us. What was one of the final things Jesus said in this life? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus taught us that forgiveness is neither easy nor cheap. To forgive someone, we must be willing to give up being right in order to be in relationship. Sometimes we feel justified by our need to be right. In the past ten years, this kind of thinking has been national, and to some extent, global. “Well, those people need to be taught a lesson. The United States is not going to stand by and let terrorists win. We never forget.” But often, this kind of thinking is more personal. “I’m not going to forgive her. Not after what she said to me. Or “he was so rude to me and my family. I’m not going to stand for that.” Or “she took my husband away from me. I’ll never forgive her.”

Jesus never said that we should be doormats, to be abused by others. In fact, in today’s gospel, notice that the community called the first slave to accountability. Those who are abused–like women in domestic violence situations–need the voices of others to call attention to their abuse and to demand justice–and too seldom do they get that kind of support.

Jesus also never said that forgiving someone else would be easy. Forgiveness is about being more willing to be in relationship than to be right. We’re not always willing to do that. Truth be told, we must admit that if God forgives us in the same way that we forgive others, we can never pray the Lord’s Prayer again. Not one of us is capable of forgiving someone else that much. What we can do is to admit that and ask God to help us. We can pray, “Lord, you know my heart. When I cannot forgive like you do, will you please fill in the gaps? Because there are a lot of gaps here.” Then as Christians, we must have just a tiny bit of faith that this will happen. Because God is faithful, even when we are not. With God’s help, we give up our control. We stop putting energy into blame or rationalizations. We stop de-personalizing one person or an entire group of people into faceless objects by calling them “those people.”

Forgiveness. Is there forgiveness for a terrorist? I don’t know the answer to that. I know three things. First, evil is beyond human comprehension. Forgiveness, or redemption through acts of evil, is God’s business, not ours. Second, I know that my holding a grudge against someone never hurts them. It only embitters and destroys me. Forgiving someone—even when undeserved—sets me free. Third, at the end of time, when I face my Creator, I will be answerable for only one person: myself. Just as you will be accountable only for yourself. How, then, will we measure up? I know that for me, I’m already praying that God will not forgive me the way I have forgiven others. I pray that like the king in Jesus’ story, God will forgive me extravagantly, with mercy and love that is deep and broad and beyond my human comprehension or asking. On that, all my hope on God is founded. Amen.

© The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton

Pictures accessed through Google images,


[1] Jerry Goebel, “Released Him and Forgave Him” from http://onefamilyoutreach.com, 2005.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Thomas G. Long, Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 211.

[4] Ibid, 211.

[5] The Rev. Dr. Edward Kryder, Adjunct Professor at Virginia Seminary. From Rosemary Beales’ class notes.

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