Yesterday afternoon, as I was struggling to write this sermon, I accidently opened my ipad and facebook came up. In big, bold letters, dominating the screen, was a quotation from Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “No one is incapable of forgiving and no one is unforgiveable.” Tutu was Archbishop of the Anglican Church of South Africa during the height of apartheid, and after it ended, he chaired the nation’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” that attempted to deal with the violence, injustice, and oppression of that nation’s past. Like a bolt from the blue, well actually, the quotation’s background was violet, that little phrase gets to both the power and the difficulty of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a significant part of our worship experience. In the Confession of Sin, we ask God’s forgiveness for our sins—things done and left undone and each Sunday, each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask, “forgive us our sins (debts) as we forgive those who sin against us.” For many of us, the need to ask God’s forgiveness of our sins, and the experience of that forgiveness, is a central element in our lives as Christians.
Still, forgiveness is hard. It’s often hard to forgive ourselves, and it’s equally difficult to forgive others. Sometimes, we rather enjoy holding grudges, nursing those slights we have experienced from another person.
Peter’s question in today’s gospel: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” may strike us as somewhat odd—even overly pedantic. Is there a limit to forgiveness? Why seven? Well, given that “seven” serves as something of a perfect number in the Hebrew Bible, it may be that Peter is asking not about limits or the extent of forgiveness, but about its meaning and significance. His question comes after last week’s gospel reading when Jesus offered instruction in what to do in case of conflict within the church—but both there and here, we’re given a translation of “member of the church” rather than the more intimate and relational “brother.” No doubt the translation’s editors wanted to offer a more gender-neutral rendering, but as they did so, they downplayed the importance of the relationship between the individual and the offender, or the sinner, and the one sinned against.
Still, Jesus’ response blows Peter’s question out of the water in its hyperbole. Whether one translates as 77 or 70 times 7 (the Greek is unclear) Jesus seems to be saying that there is no limit to forgiveness. And that’s something that is challenging to us when we think of it, not in the context of God’s forgiveness of us, but of our forgiveness of someone else.
And so, we are given this parable of a king or lord’s severity and mercy, and a slave’s experience of forgiveness and apparently petty retribution. I think it’s helpful to place this parable in the context of the first-century economy. The amounts mentioned, for example. We’re told the slave owed 10,000 talents. Now a talent was an enormously large amount. A denarius was roughly a day’s wages; a talent represented the value of many years of work, so 10,000 talents was astronomical.
It’s important to keep in mind how the ancient economy worked. Money, wealth flowed up from the bottom and as it flowed, those inhabiting the intermediate stages tried to extract a little extra for themselves. It’s likely the first slave was relatively high on that flow chart, serving as something like a steward for his master. Still, the debt he owed was beyond belief, beyond any possibility of repayment. And just as unlikely the possibility that he could ever repay it was the unlikelihood that a king or master would forgive such a huge amount.
As in so many parables, there’s an element of extravagance here, over the top-ness of it all, which makes the slave’s behavior toward the slave who is in his debt seem even more cruel, more evil. Our sympathies, which may have originally been with the slave, now turn. We want to see him treated as he treated the slave who owed him. And that’s what happens. But then, Jesus turns on us. “If we behave like the slave we will be treated similarly: So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
It’s hard not to hear this passage and imagine a calculus of forgiveness, that there’s some formula that will provide the answer to the question that underlies Peter’s question—Are there limits to forgiveness? The parable, and its use to elucidate forgiveness seems to force us to imagine God as the King. And our own desire or experience of forgiveness may encourage us in that direction. God can forgive anything—unimaginable debt, unimaginable sin. But there’s another side—the Lord who responds in mercilessness at the first instance of the slave’s death, then compounding that mercilessness when he learns of that slave’s treatment of the one who owed him.
The parable, Jesus’ response to Peter’s question point to the limitlessness of forgiveness. We are to forgive as God forgives us. Now, don’t mistake me. I know forgiveness is hard; sometimes it may even be unwarranted. I’m mindful of how this passage can be used, has been used, in damaging and dangerous ways. It’s completely inappropriate, for example, to speak of limitless forgiveness to someone who is in an abusive relationship. We should keep in mind the previous verses, which lay out a communal process , that includes naming the sin, the repentance of the sinner, and when necessary, communal support for the victim. It’s an image of a community of forgiveness and accountability that may be far removed from our own experience of Christian community.
. In the Lord’s prayer, we ask, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” I wonder if you’ve thought about how that is formulated. We come to church to ask God’s forgiveness for our sins, to experience the grace of God’s forgiveness but that petition in the Lord’s Prayer seems to reflect a similar dynamic to the parable we’re exploring. Our experience of God’s mercy and forgiveness may be dependent on the extent and depth of our forgiveness of others. If we harbor grudges, if we allow the wounds of sin to fester, if we refuse to forgive, we may not experience the full extent of God’s forgiveness. To do that hard work, to forgive, is to open ourselves to the immensity of God’s mercy.
But it’s also important to remember that all of this is said in the context, not of individuals but of community. It’s not just about us individually and God, it’s about our brothers and sisters as well—it’s about life in the body of Christ. And it may be here that our most powerful witness and experience may play itself out.
Imagine being a community of forgiveness. Imagine being a community where our relationships are so deep, the ties that bind us together so strong, that we experience conflict, disagreement, not as something to be won or lost, but as a threat to the body of Christ. Imagine being a community where we model forgiveness in a world in which retribution and retaliation are the norms. Imagine being a community where we not only ask for, and receive forgiveness from God, but offer and give forgiveness to those who sin against us, and ask, and receive forgiveness from those against whom we’ve sinned.
Today, as you ask God’s forgiveness of your sins in the Confession of Sin, as you pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” reflect on your experience as you say those words And as you experience God’s mercy and forgiveness, ask yourself whether your word of forgiveness, whether your asking someone to forgive you, might bring that same experience of God’s mercy and forgiveness to them.