Scripture can be found here...
Almost all of us have the stories. The best friend who said something cruel. The parent who favored the other child until it broke a heart. The one who lied and lost our trust. These seem to be the stuff of life: the normal hurts and harms and betrayals that seem to signify the very heart of what it is to be fallibly human. Some, without a doubt, are worse than others. The parents who weren’t merely neglectful, but were abusive, or entirely absent. The sibling who stole from the family. The heart-friend who abruptly, inexplicably, turned away, went silent, and disappeared from our lives.
And, to turn this thing entirely on its head, I suspect we all have the other stories, too, although these are stories we don’t share so often or so openly. Of the times we were the one who disappeared when we should have stayed, or the times when we did not live up to our promises, vows, and compacts. The times when we weren’t there for our children, turned hard-hearted towards a friend or relative. Maybe some of us have even had the experience of asking for forgiveness, and hearing, if not “no,” then a stony silence that told us… the hurt was still too deep, or too fresh, not something they could forgive.
And so, Jesus has a story to tell us, about being the forgiver and being the forgiven. Beginning today, and throughout Lent, we will be reading parables of Jesus—stories, sometimes brief, sometimes just a sentence or two, designed to help us to think and intuit more deeply about a problem or paradox. Parables are not allegories. It’s not always easy to identify who, in a parable, stands for God, for example. Sometimes it is the very last person we expect. Sometimes parables are framed as analogies: they begin, “the kingdom of heaven is like this…” and then we hear a story.
Sometimes parables are hilarious. Sometimes they are horrifying. Today’s is both, though the hilarity, we have to dig for, just a little, because we are not first century Palestinian Jews, and therefore, don’t necessarily catch all the nuance of the tale.
But before the parable, we need the setup. And today’s setup is a long one. It begins with the issue of conflict in the church. What do we do when someone in the church has harmed us? Jesus outlines an incredibly sensible and gentle path towards reconciliation and healing, a path churches still use to this day. At last, Peter raises a critical question. Lord, he asks, if a member of the church sins against me (actually, in the Greek, it’s “my brother,” but we understand it to be a church member by the context), how many times should I forgive him? How about seven?
Seven is a great number. Seven is a symbolic number in scripture, a number of fullness and completion—the six days of creation plus the day of rest. Perfect. Complete. It’s a brilliant suggestion.
No, Jesus says. Try seventy-seven. (That’s what it says in English.) Try seventy times seven. (That’s what it says in the original Greek.) In other words, there is no limit to how often we ought to forgive. None.
This is a hard teaching. I’m not going to sugar coat it. Being hurt—physically, emotionally, spiritually—affects us on so many levels. For one thing, it plays out deep in the reptilian brain where everything is about fighting or running away. For another thing, our conscious minds tell us the story of how it was supposed to be, and that can be hard to let go of. Someone has said, forgiveness is giving up on the idea that we can change the past.[i] Sometimes, we can’t seem to find our way to giving up on that.
And so Jesus tells a parable. There is a king, and there is a slave. And the slave owes the king ten thousand talents.
So, let’s stop right there. A talent was more than fifteen years of wages for a day laborer. This slave owes the king ten thousand talents. So… that’s 150,000 years’ worth of wages for a day laborer. The king orders the slave and his whole family to be sold for cash, but the slave begs him for time to repay. This is the hilarious part. The slave is planning to work so that he can come up with 150,000 years’ wages to pay his debt. The king has absolute discretion. The life of this man is in his hands. He can imprison him, or sell him, or do what he will to get his money back.
He forgives him. He forgives him this debt, which might as well be a gazillion dollars, or a kajillion dollars. A googolplex of dollars.[ii]
And then, the slave does something really unforgiveable: he refuses to forgive someone else’s debt. Another slave owes him 100 denarii—the denarius is one day’s wages for a day laborer. So, this is a debt that could be paid off in less than a year, theoretically. Instead, the forgiven one has his fellow slave thrown into prison.
Of course, the king finds out. And, it turns out, the king can forgive a debt of a googolplex of dollars. But he cannot—or will not—forgive a lack of forgiveness. Well, isn’t that ironic? The king sentences the slave to be tortured.
The parable uses forgiveness of financial debts, which is a relatively simple matter in one sense. The king evidently had the wealth or the magnanimity or both to forgive the ridiculously enormous debt of the slave; but that same slave could not or would not forgive a far more modest, even meager debt.
It’s not so simple when we remove numbers and money from the equation and start talking about the heart. As for me and my family, I come from a long line of Olympic-level grudge-holders. For a time, one of my relatives could have proudly told you her statistics in this area. She never forgot a wrong, and she never forgave one either. Until, she held a grudge against her own sister for a good dozen years. And then, when that sister’s husband became ill, the grudge was dropped, and all was forgiven. And the further truth is, that grudge had cost my relative. It was a little like being sentenced to jail to be tortured, except she kept the key to her cell on a chain around her own neck. It was time she never got back.
To err is human, to forgive is divine, we are told. So, it might not always be possible to forgive under our own steam. But what feels impossible to us might be possible if we were to enlist God’s help in the matter.
Elsewhere, Jesus tells us that we should pray for our enemies. One tiny step towards forgiveness might be this: to start praying for the person who has injured you. Notice, I didn’t say, “whom you want to forgive,” because sometimes, we don’t want to forgive, and so it’s hard to get started on any action that might lead us down that path. So, rather than thinking about forgiveness, we might think about praying for our enemies, and start there. It's a small thing. But it gives God something to work with.
Many of you know the story of the late Christian Dutch underground member Corrie ten Boom. She told a story of traveling in Germany after the war, bringing a message of forgiveness. The war had cost her family dearly. Though they’d hidden and saved countless refugees, Jews and Christians alike, they could not save some of their own. Corrie had watched her beloved sister, Betsie, die in Ravensbruck concentration camp. She writes,
“It was in a church in Munich that I saw him—a balding, heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear… And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!...
“Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’
“And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand…
“‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there…’
“‘But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out—’will you forgive me?’
“And I stood there…and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
“It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do…
“I knew [forgiveness] not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.
“And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’
“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’
“For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then.”[iii]
Forgiveness is not an emotion, and even the most faithful and courageous among us can find it a burden. And though she describes it as “an act of the will,” it was still, clearly, something that could not be conjured up by her will alone. Forgiveness was something she needed to receive as a gift from God. She couldn’t come up with it on her own. She had to ask for it.
Ten Boom suggests that those who were unable forgive the war crimes against them were unable to heal from their injuries. I’ve heard that phenomenon described in many ways, but this may be the best: To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and then discover that the prisoner was you.[iv]
Forgiveness is not easy, it is not automatic. With God, it is possible. It starts with asking God to help us to forgive. If we can’t do that, it starts with asking God to help us to want to forgive. If we can’t do that, it starts with asking God for help, to set this prisoner free. Thanks be to God. Amen.