September 13, 2020
The familiar words come easily, unthinkingly off our tongues and lips. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive the trespasses of others.” In the contemporary version of the Lord’s Prayer, it’s “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive the sins of others.” In another widely-known version, it’s “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
Earlier in the liturgy, we ask God’s forgiveness more directly, though in most instances, no more consciously, “For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us…”
Forgiveness is one of those concepts that is central to our experience of the Christian faith, and central to our lives as human beings bound up in relationships with other people. It’s also something we may struggle with in our personal lives, as we may struggle with forgiving ourselves for not living up to our ideals or expectations. If we can’t forgive ourselves, or others, we can’t move on; we can’t open ourselves to hope, or to change.
Forgiveness is hard. We know that. Like Peter, we are prone to wonder whether there are limits beyond which we need not forgive, and whether there are things that can’t be forgiven. There’s the spectacle, or demand, for forgiveness. We see that when grieving family members forgive a murderer. And in prominent, public cases, those rituals of forgiveness often help us avoid or forget the absolute horror of the crime, and the hatred or evil that led to it, as in the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
Forgiveness is hard—but there’s a sense that we may expect others, God, public victims, to forgive quickly and easily, to bring closure, as is said, to move on.
There’s something of an irony that today’s gospel reading comes so close to 9/11, when we remember the events of September 11, 2001. My social media feeds were full of memes and images with the motto “Never Forget.” But we do forget, or want to, what the events of that day unleashed; nineteen years of war now, countless lives lost or irreparably harmed; our nation changed forever by the fear and anger; by militarization, torture and a breakdown of our judicial system.
In today’s gospel, Peter asks a question that we might understand to be a follow-up to last week’s reading about how to resolve conflict in Christian community. Peter wonders how far the need to forgive goes—do we have to forgive a fellow believer seven times? Seven is a good number with lots of biblical resonances—seven days in the week, for example and we could imagine ourselves asking that question. After all, how often does someone get a second or third or fourth chance in life? Seven times seems quite magnanimous.
Peter is thinking in terms of a calculus of forgiveness, something we often do. Jesus’ response may seem to be in keeping with that calculus, but of course 70 times is on a completely different magnitude.
Continuing, Jesus tells the parable of an indebted slave. And here the calculus breaks down completely. It may be that he has become enslaved because of his debt. His master, the king, demands payment. It’s a stupendously large debt—10000 talents; a talent is roughly 6000 denarii, a denarius, the daily wages of a laborer. So one talent is upwards of 20 years of work. That’s an inconceivable amount, a debt that couldn’t be repaid, but 6000 talents?
The story continues. The slave pleads with his master. In doing so, he exhibits what we now call magical thinking: “Have patience with me, and I will repay everything.” A debt so large that we can’t imagine how big it is or how it was incurred, and a slave saying, “be patient, I’ll repay it.” But the master relents, having pity for him, and forgave his debt.
But then the slave, who had been the recipient of such great mercy and forgiveness, sees a slave who owes him 100 denarii, no small sum of course for either of them, and when he can’t repay, throws him in prison. When the first
slave’s master hears what happens, he becomes as angry as he had been merciful, handing the slave over to be tortured until he could repay—which of course means that he would be tortured for the rest of his life. Jesus, or Matthew, concludes, “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 so easy to draw a line back from the reference to “my heavenly Father” to the king in the parable to conclude that if we don’t forgive from our hearts, we will burn in hell for eternity. But I’m not sure that interpretation is particularly helpful for us. Let’s pause for a minute and reflect on the first slave’s experience. He begged forgiveness for an unimaginably large debt and received forgiveness and mercy equal to that debt. What might that feel like? In the realm of economics, when we hear about the 100000s of thousands of dollars in debt that students rack up in pursuit of college or professional degrees, and the likelihood that much of that debt can never be repaid, what might it be like to suddenly have that debt forgiven?
Or medical debt… Have you heard about the churches that are buying medical debt for pennies on the dollar and freeing people from the money they owe hospitals? Debt incurred through no fault of your own
To be free of that debt, after having lived under its burden for years or decades, what might that feel like?
Wouldn’t you want simply to enjoy the freedom of forgiveness? And perhaps be able to share that feeling of freedom with others, at no or little cost to yourself?
We are forgiven. God’s grace and mercy extend beyond our capacity to imagine or calculate. Many of us have experienced that forgiveness; many of us have had our lives transformed by that forgiveness. To extend that to others, to offer that freedom and joy to people weighed down with the burdens of sin and debt, and like God, to ask nothing in return.
In a few minutes, when I say the words of institution over the elements, as I raise the cup, I will say, “This is my blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
Jesus said those words to his disciples on the night that he would be betrayed, abandoned, and denied by them. He said those words, knowing what would happen, what they would do. He says them to us, knowing that we will fall short, that we will sin, that we will fail to love God and our neighbor adequately, when we don’t forgive our neighbor, our loved one, or our friend. But those words remind us that God never fails, that God is present, loving, forgiving, inviting us to receive mercy, and to extend mercy to others.