Preached on March 15, 2020 at PC of Chestertown
This passage makes me think about the evolution of how we understand forgiveness. As children, a parent or a teacher makes us apologize. Right? If I did something mean to my sister, she would tell my dad and he would bring us together and tell me to apologize to her. Sometimes I would look at the ground pouting and refuse to open my mouth because either I didn’t want to admit that I had been wrong or I really believed that I didn’t need to forgive her. Other times I would blurt out “SORRY!” in a truly inauthentic tone because I didn’t mean it. I wasn’t really sorry, I just wanted to get it over with.
There are two parts to an apology though because the offended has to forgive you. After I finally mumbled some form of an apology, my sister would have to say, “I forgive you.” There’s a transaction involved here. I cause harm. I apologize. You forgive. And now we’re even.
I don’t think much about this interaction changes as we get older. Except that no one makes us say “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.” No one forces us to admit that we’ve hurt one another and that we owe someone an apology or forgiveness. And yet, there is still a quantifying of our relationships. We hold grudges if someone hurts us. Sometimes we are bold enough to request an apology from someone or plead for another’s forgiveness. We want to settle accounts.
Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who has wronged him. He probably thinks that he is being generous by offering forgiveness as many as seven times. Already we see Peter caught up in the counting game. “I’ll forgive you seven times, but no more than that.” I imagine Jesus taking a deep breath and looking at Peter, shaking his head yet smiling gently, as he tells Peter: “No, you’ve got to forgive way more than seven times.”
Which leads into the parable or story of a king and some servants with debt. The first servant comes to the king, owing ten thousand talents. This is about 150,000 years’ worth of income. So, this is a debt that simply cannot be repaid.
We don’t know why, but the king decides to erase the debt. The servant apologizes for not taking care of it yet and asks for more time. But instead of allowing that debt to continue to grow and weigh on the servant, the king forgives the debt.
Soon after, this same servant passes by a fellow servant, who owes him an insignificant amount of money in comparison. The Message says that the second servant’s debt is ten dollars; now, this is still a reasonable amount of money at the time of Jesus’ teaching, but it’s not nearly as substantial as the first servant’s debt to the king. But there is no mercy, no forgiveness extended when this second servant apologizes. Oh, how quickly the first servant has forgotten the extravagant forgiveness extended to him.
The king was not happy when he found out and he was shocked that the first servant did not extend mercy, that he did not “pay it forward.” And the text says that in his anger, he chose to torture that servant after-all, until his debt was repaid. In other words, for the rest of his life.
Forgiveness is hard for us, for many reasons which I won’t be able to address in this sermon. My focus this morning is that forgiveness can be challenging for us when we view our relationships as transactional. If we treat relationships like contracts, like business deals, we have created a situation where our apology or our extension of grace has strings attached. We create unequal relationships, where someone has power over another. And we run the risk of constantly being in debt to another. If someone hurts us, we expect an apology. And they expect our forgiveness.
But what happens when we don’t apologize? Or we don’t forgive?
Peter wanted to put a number, a limit, on how often he should forgive someone who sins against him. Maybe he saw this as a way of developing boundaries for himself. But this means that the energy he puts into that relationship would always be focused on what he and another owe each other. He would be measuring the quality of their relationship in a way that leaves little, if any, room for extravagant grace.
Jesus wants us to know that the kingdom of God is not like this.
Perhaps the king in the parable understood this. The servant owed him a debt that he knew could never be repaid. No matter what, that servant would always be in debt to him. So, it seemed best to erase it, to let it go, to forgive with no strings attached, with no expectation of something in return.
This is a challenging concept for us. It’s difficult to practice and implement in our own relationships when we are used to measuring and tracking how many times we’ve hurt someone or have been hurt by someone. We remember those experiences. They define the quality of our relationships. We struggle to forgive before someone apologizes. We struggle to forgive even if someone apologizes, particularly if we feel that someone is not deserving of our forgiveness.
Friends, this is not how God chooses to exist in relationship with us. God forgives us over and over and over again. Psalm 130 exclaims: “If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?” None of us. We do seek to apologize to God. We confess our brokenness, together, every Sunday in worship and I am hopeful that all of us do this is in our personal times of prayer with God. But God doesn’t sit around waiting for us to apologize, dangling mercy in front of us. God’s love is not conditional. As we declare each and every Sunday, we are already forgiven.
We are challenged to extend this same, radical grace to one another. Our relationships should be built on, should be rooted in, God’s deep, abiding, relentless love. With God’s help and wisdom, of course.
But Peter’s question to Jesus is valid – I mean, do we just keep forgiving someone over and over and over again? I think we can all agree that there are situations where this can become dangerous and unhealthy. It doesn’t seem to me that Jesus is encouraging us to forgive someone or cause someone pain relentlessly if it is dangerous to do so.
Jesus’ parable points to something much deeper than the tit-for-tat pattern of apology and forgiveness. Jesus is inviting us to cultivate healthy, faithful relationships with one another. He is challenging us to recognize that God’s kingdom is a state of being where we refrain from causing one another pain. Where we admit when we’re wrong. And even if someone doesn’t own it, we forgive them because God forgives them. We forgive them because we recognize our own brokenness and imperfection. We forgive them by refusing to allow the pain they have inflicted to influence our way of relating to them and to others. We aren’t condoning someone’s wrongdoing, but we are refusing to keep count. To keep track. Perhaps if we can adamantly live with one another this way, there will no longer be unhealthy, dangerous, relationships and communities.
This parable isn’t just about forgiveness. It’s about how we relate to each other. Deep down, we can’t keep squaring up accounts. Jesus isn’t telling Peter to increase his forgiveness quota. He just wants him to stop counting and keeping track. Jesus encourages Peter to stop relating to people in a transactional way. Forgiveness, much like love, is relational rather than legal. It’s deep and unending, not limited and conditional.
As Jesus moves closer to Jerusalem, we are reminded that he had every reason in the world to withhold mercy. He will be treated unfairly. He will be unjustly condemned and killed. But he will not hold a grudge. He will not ask for an apology. He will forgive. He will implore God to forgive those who have caused him pain and suffering, including you and I.
I struggled for some time with the king. At the end of the parable, after the king makes the decision to torture the servant for the rest of his life, Jesus declares that this is how God will treat us if we act without mercy.
I wondered: Is God going to torture us if we fail to be merciful to all people in all situations, no matter what? Obviously, none of us can say for sure. We aren’t God.
But given the context of the parable, it seems possible that the first servant is living in an ongoing situation of mental and emotional and spiritual torment, a situation which he already finds himself in because of how he has chosen to count and calculate his relationship with his fellow servant. He will be a slave to this way of thinking and relating until he understands and believes that this is not how God deals with us and this is not how God calls us to deal with one another. God deals with us as the king did at the beginning, by offering extravagant mercy beyond our wildest imagination, regardless of what we can or will offer in return.
Is it possible that we could engage in relationships with one another which are not based on what we owe one another? Can we be mindful of not hurting each other, but willingly admit when we do and seek forgiveness as a movement towards healing rather than an attempt to even out the playing field? Can we forgive ourselves and others, even without an apology or reconciliation?
The depth of our humanity, the profound brokenness of our nature, is central during the season of Lent. It is revealed to us on the cross. Knowing this, may we be gentle with ourselves and with another. O God, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Amen.