Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Number of Forgiveness

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 should 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 should 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.’ – Matthew 18:21-35

Jesus was a good teacher but his lessons weren’t always easy ones to follow. This lesson begins with Peter asking the question about how often he should forgive someone who does something to him. It’s easy to remember that Jesus told him to do it seventy-seven times, eleven times more than Peter had suggested in his question.  Jesus then tells the story of the creditor and debtor. That could be a straight-forward story but Jesus adds the twist of the former debtor also being a creditor to someone else, someone who does not receive the mercy his creditor had received from his master.

The word debt these days is such a common one, and the situation in which the slave finds himself, owing money he can’t repay immediately and asking to make installment payments,  is a very common thing to do for us. People get into debt for all kinds of reasons, some or most of which is their own fault, but sometimes the result of misfortune such as reductions in force at work, catastrophic illness, or death of the primary breadwinner. Sometimes people are able to work with their creditors to pay back at least some of what is owed with the creditor forgiving the rest but at other times that doesn’t work at all, and so the next step is bankruptcy, a punishment for those who have to go through it.

The story doesn’t always have to be about money, though. The loaning and paying back of money makes a good metaphor for other situations that come up in life and that result in breaches between people, whether they’re friends, acquaintances, business/investment partners, or even strangers. How often does a person get hurt financially, physically, or emotionally by someone else who never acknowledges the damage? Here’s where Jesus’ lesson gets really hard. How do you forgive someone who has sinned against you, hurt or damaged you in some way, but who goes on their way as if nothing happened? We understand that when someone confesses or apologizes to us, we’re supposed to be gracious and forgive them, just as we expect to be forgiven if we need to apologize or confess or even repay a debt to another person. It’s like a cycle: damage or hurt, apology or restitution, forgiveness. If that second step in the cycle is not present, how we move from number one to number three, hurt to forgiveness? Jesus doesn’t say how, he just says we have to do it if we are his followers.

When Jesus told Peter to forgive seventy-seven times, he wasn't just pulling the figure out of the air. Seven is a number indicating completeness, like seven days in the week for creation. Peter asked if forgiving seven times would be enough but Jesus asked for more than ten times that plus yet another seven, a number that adds rather than multiplies which is the usual translation in most Bibles (seventy times seven). In short, forgiveness should be offered so many times that the person loses count of them. It is a complete and total forgiveness, not dependent on how many times it must be requested or granted to be effective.

I have been both debtor and creditor, had debts forgiven and forgiven them as well. I’ve been hurt and also hurt others. I’ve been forgiven sometimes and sometimes not, just as I have forgiven sometimes and not others. Why didn’t I go all the way with it and forgive everybody seventy plus seven times? I think I have usually tried to, but I still don’t always forget the hurt or the damage. I think that’s part of the lesson; if I am in a relationship with someone, I run the risk of hurt or damage and I also have to risk forgiving completely. It’s the cost of relationship. It’s God's way that even though I know that when I mess up, sin, miss the mark or any other possible euphemism for it, I am forgiven and the relationship continues. God forgives, and, I hope, forgets a lot better than I am able to do. 

I think I'm counting on that forgiving and forgetting seventy-seven times' worth. The trick now is to learn to do it myself and more importantly, to be willing to do it. It won't be an overnight cure, that's for sure. 

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 23, 2013.


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