Lesson: Matthew 18:21-35
“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” Lewis B. Smedes
Every single Sunday we pray together, “And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” We used to pray debts and debtors; many traditions pray trespasses rather than sins; but it all means the same thing. We are praying that God will forgive us, which Scripture says God does, freely, again and again, and we are praying for the ability and the will to forgive others – which does not come as naturally to us as it does to God and that’s why we need to pray it, week after week after week.
Forgiveness is hard. It’s not only hard; it’s complicated. And preaching about forgiveness is hard and complicated because it feels downright arrogant to tell people to forgive when my own experiences of forgiveness have been limited. I haven’t survived the traumas that many people have had to survive. And even so, even with my limited experience, even I know that forgiveness is hard. Forgiveness for the petty or not so petty slights we all face is hard. Forgiveness for the small-to-medium-sized injustices we all face is hard.
Peter is probably thinking about how hard it is when he asks Jesus about forgiveness in the Matthew passage. He asks how wide our forgiveness should be, how many times must I be slighted before I say “enough.” Peter offers what we might consider a rather high bar of forgiveness. Should I forgive someone as many as seven times? That seems generous, right?
Jesus surprises Peter by saying we should forgive each other seventy-seven times. In some translations, seventy times seven. In case you don’t have your calculator out, that’s four hundred ninety times. But getting out your calculator is exactly what Jesus does not want, as he tries to explain in the parable. A king is settling debts with his slaves, one of whom carries a massive debt. A single talent was about 130 pounds of silver and was the equivalent of about fifteen years of a laborer’s wages. This means that the man owed the king about 150,000 years of labor. In other words, he would never, ever, not in a million years, be able to pay it back. The king decrees that the debtor and his family will be sold in order to satisfy the debt. At least he’ll get a bit of his money back that way. The debtor begs for more time, more patience, although everyone knows he could never come up with all the money. Instead of more time he receives a surprise: a wholesale remission of his debts. We don’t know why the king takes pity on the man, but he does.
The newly released slave, however, learns nothing from the king’s example of compassion. One of his fellow slaves owes him a hundred denarii – worth about a hundred days of labor – no small debt, but minor in comparison to his own that was just forgiven. The first servant demands full payment right now and when he doesn’t get it, he ignores the pleas of the second servant and has him thrown in jail. Once the king hears of this callous reaction, he revokes his mercy and Jesus ends with an ominous threat that that’s what will happen to us, too, if we don’t forgive with the same generosity that God has forgiven us.
Now, I’ll come back to that threat in a bit, but how on earth could the first servant, the forgiven servant, be so unforgiving? His huge debt to his master has been wiped clean, but he is obsessed with the tally on the ledger of debts owed to him. It’s this ledger, this keeping account of wrongs that Jesus sees looming in Peter’s heart and mind when Peter asks Jesus for a number. Jesus turns Peter’s question on its head by replying with a ridiculous, even impossible, reply. “You want to play the numbers game?” Jesus more or less asks, “okay, how about this giant number?” It’s not that Jesus wants Peter to get a bigger ledger. It’s that he wants him to stop counting altogether.
And this is because forgiveness, like love, is inherently and intimately relational rather than legal, and therefore cannot be counted. If Peter had asked Jesus how many times he should love his neighbor, we’d get it. We’d think, “Oh; Peter just doesn’t understand love.” Obviously, love can’t be quantified or counted. But Peter asks about forgiveness and so we miss his mistake.
Why? This is part of what makes forgiveness so complicated. We tend to treat forgiveness as a rule to follow, a law to obey. If I am hurt or wronged then I can either “obey the rule” and forgive, or “break the rule” and seek revenge or hold a grudge. But I’m not sure that legal approach is helpful. Forgiveness, like love, is about relationship. When Jesus talks about love, he says loving God and loving our neighbors are the two most important laws, right? But they aren’t laws in the sense that you can force anyone to do them. You can’t force people to love someone else; and if you tried, you would not be happy with the results. Forgiveness is like that. Ultimately, it isn’t about regulating behavior but rather about maintaining and nurturing our relationships. The context is important here. Jesus has just been talking about how to build and maintain the beloved community of disciples. God wants to draw us into community, into relationship; God calls us into relationship with God and each other and we cannot be in relationship without forgiving people and being forgiven. Everybody, everybody, needs forgiveness at one time or another.
Now, saying it’s about relationship only makes things more complicated. Because even in relationship there is a place for law and rules, a place for saying “enough,” because God calls us to relationships that are just and mutual; God calls us to relationships in which we regard not only others but also ourselves as valued people worthy of dignity and love. And so sometimes the most loving thing we can do in a relationship, not only for ourselves but for the other person, as well, is say, “Enough,” and stop putting up with hurtful or abusive behavior. Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness could well be misused, and we know they have been. It’s what happens when we take the legal approach instead of the relational approach to forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean allowing people to treat us badly. The recent high profile cases of domestic violence in the news brought to our attention that one in four women in the United States will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Forgiveness may or may not be part of the healing process for victims of abuse but before there can be either healing or forgiveness, the abuse has to stop.
Forgiveness is also complicated by the fact that it doesn’t necessarily look the same to everybody. Some people equate forgiveness with reconciliation and certainly, reconciliation is probably not possible without forgiveness. But perhaps you can forgive without reconciling. And maybe some people can forgive in one fell swoop while others need to forgive in bits and pieces, over time. I believe that forgiveness is part of a larger healing process after people have been hurt. You can’t rush healing. And as a colleague of mine says, “You can’t microwave grief.” Often, people just need to be further along in the process of healing from whatever happened to them, and of grieving the loss, feeling the real sadness of that real loss before they can forgive. But depending on the situation, anger and hatred just might be part of that process.
I like Anne Lamott’s definition: “Forgiveness means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back. You’re done. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to have lunch with the person. If you keep hitting back, you stay trapped in the nightmare… .” The phrase I use with people is, “Quit renting him a room in your head. He’s taking up too much space in your head. Evict him.”
I like this, because forgiveness is ultimately a decision about the past – the decision to accept both that you cannot change the past and also that the past does not have to hold you captive. Forgiveness is a decision about the past that ultimately determines the future. When you forgive, you release the past and enter into an open future. When you cannot forgive, you remain captive to that past – trapped in the nightmare, locked in a state of victimhood, almost dependent on the perpetrator. Forgiveness, in this sense, is freedom, freedom from the past, freedom for the future, the kind of freedom God wants for each of us.
This means refusing to forgive is its own punishment, and I believe that is exactly the punishment Jesus describes at the end of the parable. Rather than inflicting some new punishment on the unforgiving servant, the king is actually only describing the condition his servant already lives in. That is, he’s already a slave to the world of counting and calculating and reckoning everything according to the law and therefore he’ll remain a slave, until he dies from the slow poison of resentment … or when he can forgive others, whichever comes first. In describing how hard it is to forgive, Brené Brown writes, “The combination of self-righteous anger, blame, and resentment is one of my favorites. Umm. Umm. Umm. Drink it up! Unfortunately, I think it’s toxic and eats you alive from the inside. It might go down like a milkshake, but it burns up your insides like battery acid.” Life without forgiveness is its own punishment.
This morning, I will not stand here and tell you, “It’s time for you to forgive that awful thing that happened to you, now. Do it today.” Instead, I’ll tell you a story that points to practicing forgiveness. As Anne Lamott also says, forgiving might be the hardest part of being a Christian and we’re all here in Forgiveness School. A college professor named Leslie Srajek blogs that, “like Dustin Hoffman in ‘Rain Man,’” she’s “stuck in this compulsive habit of keeping a little psychic notebook of ‘offenses against Leslie Srajek,’ and it gets longer and longer each day.” She goes on to say she’s going through some really tough stuff, needing major forgiveness, but she’s taken Lamott’s advice: “If we really want to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo.” Start with an “Enemy Lite,” not with someone who’s ruined your life. Srajek writes, “I have a … woman in my office who has treated me not so well for, say…5 years, give or take. Technically, my job ‘status’ is higher than hers, but paradoxically more ambiguous, because she is a civil servant and will either retire at 50 or be carted out on her deathbed (i.e., she will never, ever, ever get fired, and [she’ll] receive health benefits until she is 127). My point is that in terms of who has more real ‘power,’ it’s [she]. The ‘superficial’ power belongs to me, but means less than nothing.”
She continues, “At the end of last year, things came to a head, and I couldn’t avoid talking with her. Luckily, she has a truly wonderful and gifted supervisor who chatted with me first about the issues, and this helped me to see things I never would have seen otherwise. For example, I realized that there was a big similarity between us, despite the radical differences in our positions: she felt insecure because she wasn’t a dean or a professor, and I felt insecure that I wasn’t an engineer, and was always one step below everyone else… .”
“So I started our conversation by saying that I often felt confused and insecure, compared to all the other deans and professors who had way more experience than [I], and that I really needed her help to be successful. In her area, she was the expert, and I needed her knowledge to do a good job for our students. One of the best aspects of my office is that we all care about students’ welfare. When I said this to her, it was like our entire 5 year relationship changed in that moment. She offered me any help that I would ever need, and we looked at each other … with respect and appreciation. And it’s lasted. I forgave her the pettiness she spread about me throughout the office, and she forgave me the superiority game she thought I was playing with her.” “This was a small, unpleasant experience, but it turned out well. It’s nothing compared to the other feelings of betrayal and hurt that have happened to me lately,” Srajek qualifies, “and that, ultimately, have made my life incredibly painful. But it’s given me the invaluable glimpse … that we’re all just broken people, with our own pain, our own fears, and our own very deep need to be loved. As my mom has said to me repeatedly in the last few weeks, ‘You never go wrong taking the high road.’”
I believe that Jesus is telling Peter we need to keep on practicing forgiveness just like we need to practice loving our neighbors. Keep on going to Forgiveness School, where calculators and slide rules and ledgers are not allowed. Forgiveness, like love, cannot be commanded or forced. But we can practice it, starting with an “Enemy Lite,” and chucking that psychic notebook of offenses out the window. And we can pray for it. We can pray for the ability to forgive those – alive or dead – who have hurt us, even if we have distanced ourselves from them for good reason. And we can pray that we are able to ask for and accept the forgiveness of others – to be vulnerable enough to admit we are not perfect; we all do things that hurt people, intentionally or unintentionally. And we can pray that we forgive ourselves some of our own regrets, mistakes, and hurts, and even the inability to forgive others.
In my experience, this is how prayer works best: Sometimes it seems as though forgiveness isn’t humanly possible but as Lamott puts it, “You can avail yourself of the Holy Spirit working in our lives who can get the plates of the earth to shift and let in some fresh air and sunlight, which is what I mean by grace, into a previously very stuck, small, tight package. … [F]orgiveness tends to be about making the picture bigger. If it’s bigger, then maybe there’s a little bit more fresh air there.”
May it be so, for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2014 all rights reserved.
 Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), p. 47.
 Lose, ibid.
 Lose, ibid.
 Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999), p. 128.
 Leslie Srajek, http://heartlandwriting.wordpress.com/2011/01/11/best-not-to-start-with-the-gestapo/.
 Lose, ibid.