Forgiveness is an extraordinary gift to offer and receive; it is life-changing and provides hope beyond anything that can be imagined. It is a response which Jesus’ followers are invited to share abundantly.
Jesus tells a story in Matthew’s Gospel (18:21-35) called the Unmerciful Servant, where the main characters, a king and his slaves are dealing with debt. The amount of debt a slave owes to the king is so ridiculous, we understand Jesus was pushing the story’s limits to make some really important points with his disciples and with us. This story about forgiveness and the unmerciful slave is unique in the way it is presented in Matthew’s Gospel.
Peter starts the story with a question to Jesus about the extent to which someone should be forgiven. Peter suggests seven times – this was more than was expected by the prophets. Amos had suggested three times, with the fourth time incurring punishment. Seven times was seen as more than generous. Yet Jesus ups the ante and responds with seventy-seven times.
The numbers seven and seventy-seven may have their roots in Genesis 4. There God pronounces sevenfold vengeance on anyone who kills Cain (v.15), and Lamech expands it to seventy-seven-fold for anyone who might kill Lamech (v.24). If the numbers seven and seventy-seven in Matthew 18 are derived from Genesis 4, Jesus is clearly being ironic as the numbers refer to vengeance. For in Matthew, the numbers refer to forgiveness.
Regardless, Jesus is not inviting us to keep careful records, but is setting a standard showing record-keeping about forgiveness is impractical. He is not giving us an arithmetic lesson, but a grace lesson. Who can truly forgive seventy-seven times while still keeping track?
Who can forget the other person’s sins while putting chalk marks on the wall? To keep track of an offence is not to forgive but is rather to record progress toward the day when we can stop forgiving. A person keeping records of forgiveness is like a banker whose motive is foreclosure.
Jesus is not expecting naivety in forgiveness either. Matt.18:15-20 speaks about the process for resolving conflict and reconciling. It also provides for repentance and restoration in God’s kingdom. If reconciliation is not possible, the one who refuses is once more outside the community and the process of restoring a relationship begins again.
In Jesus’ story, the king demands repayment from his slave as he wished to settle his accounts. The 10,000 talents owed is a ridiculous figure. Josephus, a Jewish writer of the time said the Judean taxes for a year only raised 600 talents.
The slave begs for time to repay and to prevent he and his family from being sold. In response, the King is overwhelmingly generous and changes the life of the slave for ever.
He released him and forgave him the debt. (Matt.18:27)
The slave leaves the king with relief, but immediately bumps into another slave who owes him 100 denarii. He demands his money back and when this is not forthcoming, has him thrown into prison until he can pay. The words used between king and slave, and between slave and slave, of release and imprisonment, speak to the experience of being in debt spiritually, emotionally and physically.
As we reflect on debt and its crushing burden today, we notice the prisons are full of people who haven’t repaid debts, predominantly Aboriginal people and women who have fallen foul of the welfare system. A system which is stacked against them.
All of us know how hard it is to pay off credit cards, our modern debt system. People now are scared of losing their homes and businesses because they can no longer pay the mortgage and rents. Welfare payments, previously seen as too generous for those who were crudely labelled as dole bludgers and lazy when our country was doing well, are suddenly found to be impossible to survive on when innocent people have fallen victim to the world’s harsh circumstances created by the pandemic. Now we can no longer live with a convenient belief its your own fault if you’re unemployed; the whole structure and system has suddenly becomes untenable and cruel as we look with fresh eyes and understanding, like the King’s pity for the slave.
Jesus as Messiah witnessed to the proclamation of the Jubilee age where sins are forgiven and debts released, at the start of his ministry. He reminded his listeners what he came to do for humanity. (Luke 4:18-19)
In response, we are followers of Jesus, not simply admirers of Jesus. Admirers praise those who hold our attention and imagination, but followers concentrate on learning and copying Jesus’ behaviour, continuing his mission to make the kingdom of God a reality for everyone who seeks.
As followers of Jesus, we must organise our values according to the principles in the Gospels: justice, peace, healing and reconciliation.
This parable of the unmerciful servant makes this point about reconciliation from a different perspective to the one found in Matthew 6:12: ‘Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors’. The focus here is on what will happen to those who do not show mercy, who do not forgive, who are not agents of reconciliation.
The king’s understanding of human weakness and his mercy do not override personal responsibility. The servant is held responsible for what he does because the king’s mercy does not diminish or remove the responsibility of the servant in the same circumstances. God’s mercy does not erase or wipe out our personal responsibility for our own actions and repentance demands we work towards restoration as part of our reconciliation.
Reconciliation is not a formality with surface politeness, but must be from the heart, where we act with integrity.
It may be hard for some to hear the demand to forgive, especially if this is misunderstood as accepting bad behaviour. Those who seek genuine reconciliation will need to understand and recognise we will go on having to deal with people who will continue to behave badly. Forgiving seventy-seven times. The passage asks us to be more forgiving of others and of ourselves as well.
How can we manage to forgive, especially when we have suffered a grievous injury at the hands of an offender? Forgiveness from the heart is possible only by the grace of God. First, we need to understand at a deep level how God has forgiven us. Second, we need to pray for God to fill us with grace so we can forgive the person who has sinned against us.
• If we forgive our brother or sister from our heart, how can we keep tabs to justify getting even later?
• If we forgive our brother or sister from the heart, how can we claim to forgive but not forget?
• If we forgive our brother or sister from the heart, how can we demand repayment for what we have forgiven?
• If we forgive our brother or sister from the heart, how can we do anything other than love them and find pleasure in the reconciliation our forgiveness has made possible?
The very personal challenge presented by Jesus here is the one asking us all to consider our own gratitude in response to the blessings given to us.
Economics aside, each of us has been the recipient of God’s constant favour and forgiveness. Each of us has known God’s steadfast love in the face of our regular betrayal. As a matter of personal faith and response, this parable asks us to consider the quality of abundance and the generous nature of our own forgiveness towards others as a reflection and understanding of God’s favour to us.
Failure to forgive creates a massive gulf between us and God. The parable asks us to forgive others, and to forgive ourselves, as the consequences for not doing so are appalling as we can see all around us today. Jesus asks his disciples to be ‘forgiving people’, and understand we are a community of forgiveness. The deeper demand of the story is to forgive others as a way of showing our acceptance of God’s forgiveness for us.
God’s forgiveness is not dependent upon our forgiving others, rather it is by showing our forgiveness of others we demonstrate our acceptance of God’s forgiveness of us. Without out the acting out of forgiveness how can we enjoy the gift we have been given? Enjoying a gift as a true gift means sharing the gift with others.
Let us share God’s gift of forgiveness each and every day.
The Lord be with