21Then 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?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, 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. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But 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.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
- Matthew 18:21-35
If you are an accountant then this week’s text was written for you. It is full of numbers and standards of measurement that are difficult to take in. So I thought we could start this morning by breaking down the numbers.
7- Peter’s generous offer of abounding forgiveness
77- which is actually more like 70x7 so let’s say, 490, give or take… 490 times is how many times Jesus tells Peter he should actually forgive!
Ten Thousand- the number of talents the slave owes his king, think in terms of silver- 130 lbs. Or in terms of labor 150,000 years of labor he owed the king.
100- Denari that a fellow slave owed the slave who had recently been forgiven his debt. That is about 100 days of labor.
So in summary, we are supposed to forgive a sister or brother up to 490 times not just seven. The slave owed the king 150,000 years of labor, and his debt was forgiven, but he could not find it in his heart to forgive his fellow slave for 100 days of labor.
Oh & let’s not forget the torture part… The king hands the stingy slave over to be tortured until he could pay his entire debt, so 150,000 years of torture. How’s that for math?
Are you following? Who is ready for the test?
The purpose of a parable is to catch our attention by the absurdity it presents in order to teach us an important truth. To try and keep track of our mistakes or the mistakes of the ones who have hurt us, is in fact, absurd. If I were to rewind my week and look back at all the times I missed the mark I would find myself with the same accounting issues that are listed in our scripture for today.
So at the heart of the matter is not numbers, nor is it ultimate judgment, although a literal interpretation might suggest as much. This scripture assures us that “grace is everything” and challenges us to wonder is forgiveness really possible?
Full disclosure I hate preaching this text. I would rather preach the most fire & brimstone parable you can find than preach about this. Forgiveness. I mean last week I preached on a silly issue between an acquaintance from over ten years ago, so while I believe in the concept of forgiveness, the truth is that I don’t know how good I am at it and I feel like a complete hypocrite to preach on the topic.
So preaching on forgiveness is worrisome because it makes me have to look in the mirror and wonder how many people and circumstances have I failed to forgive, but it is also scary because I don’t want to offer some cheap, one-size fits all story about forgiveness, and presume it would solve any situation.
The truth is that it is complicated. And most the clichés about it aren’t true like forgive and forget. It is more than an emotional response, like just verbally telling someone “I forgive you.” And lest we fear the judgment presented in this parable, surely it is not meant to be taken literally or else every single one of us would be doomed.
So today I don’t want to talk about like touchy-feely forgiveness. I don’t want to talk about whether or not we are doomed to hell for eternity because you didn’t forgive the person who cut you off on Scottsville road last week.
I want to consider forgiveness as a reality that Jesus took seriously and that he asked us to take seriously. I want us to consider, through a story, that forgiveness has the power to change our entire lives and the power to change the world.
I think my entire concept of forgiveness changed when I visited Bosnia and Herzegovina for the first time. The following story is from the forgiveness project, but I really could relate because I have heard many stories like it, first hand when living in Bosnia.
During the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Stanislav Krezic fought with Croatian Defence Council Forces against the Bosnian Army on the front lines around the divided town of Mostar. As in many other places, the conflict in this southern region was a brutal one, pitting neighbour against neighbour, tearing communities apart in places where Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks), Croats and Serbs had lived side by side for decades. Stanislav Krezic was taken prisoner and held for five months in his own village by men he knew.
Stanislav says for the first 5-6 days he was beaten, and “I don’t want to even talk about the other things that happened.” He, along with other prisoners, were required to carry heavy load up to the front lines, and dig trenches. Three of the men in his work group died in his arms. Another three detainees were shot by one of his captors who had previously been his neighbor.
Eventually Stanislav was released, but soon after reuniting with his family, he was fighting in the war again, since it was not yet over. He also opened a coffee bar. At this time, I felt the only way to get rid of my hatred for those who had made me suffer was to retaliate. For example, if clients came to my bar who were Bosniaks or Serbs, I refused to serve them. I never attacked anyone, thank God, but I looked them in the eyes and insulted them.
But deep down I knew this wasn’t right. And in the evenings, when I was alone, I didn’t feel good about myself. So I talked to priests and to doctors to try and find a way out of the mess I was in.
One day, I was invited to join a reconciliation project organised by the Catholic Relief Service and Caritas in Mostar. At first I didn’t really believe in it, but in fact, it was the best thing that could have happened to me because I realised there were others who had suffered much more than I had. When I heard the story of a man who said that Bosnian Croats – my people! – had raped his wife and daughter, it hurt me deeply. I realized then that retaliation was not the way.
So today I belong to an association of former detainees. It’s a kind of informal social club and support network through which we are trying to reach out to others, to help them think differently about what happened to them during the war, to try to stop the cycle of violence.
It is not enough simply to talk about it, what is important is to take action too. Now, with the war long over, I feel it is the Serbian community which is most in difficulty around here. There is an old Bosnian Serb couple, and two old Bosnian Serb ladies I call ‘Grandma’ who I look after. As human beings, I believe we know deep down whether our actions are good or bad. When we do something bad, we feel it. In the same way, when we have good intentions and act upon them we start to feel better.
Grace is everything in the Christian journey writes Bruce Epperly. How can we be so stingy with forgiveness when people like Stanislav have lived through so much and still found it within themselves to forgive?
I was talking to my spiritual director this week about my anxiety about speaking on this text and she said “Forgiveness is truth.” Which I thought was pretty profound because no matter what the situation is, it should never ignore the truth, like if someone cannot be trusted, they should not be repeatedly given the opportunity to do damage. But there is always room for compassion and forgiveness. It just may look different.
I think forgiveness is a concept that is a lot like prayer in Christian vocabulary. We know that we are supposed to do it, but often we lack the tools & knowledge to know how to do it. And while I can’t give you a formula for how to forgive, I think that it is safe to say that it takes discipline and work and energy. Like maybe we have to keep saying it or writing it in our prayers until we believe it. Or maybe we have to first sort out the damage that has been done before we can process it. Or maybe we have to sort out all the damage we have caused in other people’s lives before we can truly understand it. My favorite definition of forgiveness says that Human forgiveness is not doing something but discovering something- that I am more like those who have hurt me than different from them.
The truth, as Epperly reminds us is that grace is everything. And maybe what the parable prescribes is not that God will torture us if we don’t forgive, but maybe it is describing the suffering that each of us has lived through when we have failed to forgive. What I know is that genuine forgiveness has the power to set us free. One definition claims that forgiveness is letting go of the idea that the past can change. And don’t we all need that?
So today, my hope is that you will consider where forgiveness needs to show up in your story and start strategizing on how that may be possible. I think it is kind of like if you wanted to start a business or learn to play an instrument or any other goal you may have set for yourself. You have to create a plan and offer time and energy toward your faith to accomplish it. Not that forgiveness is about doing something, but our faith simply requires our time and our energy and our brains and our hearts.
So, if Stanislav can do it. And if the hundreds of people from the forgiveness project can find it in their hearts to forgive and be set free. Why not us? Why not now?