“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Peter’s question comes on the heels of Jesus’ teaching from last week which gave a directive about conflict resolution. In it, he told his disciples that if a member of the church sins against you, you should speak to them in private about the matter to settle it. If they acknowledge their fault and you can reconcile well and good, but if they don’t, you are to go with two or three so that you will have witnesses and attempt to resolve the conflict. If that doesn’t work, you take it to the church … and if even that does not work, you are to treat the person as if they are a Gentile and a tax collector – in essence, treat them as utter strangers and walk away. Today we hear the follow up question related to conflict – what is the role of forgiveness?
The problem with Peter’s question is in his approach. Peter has bound up his understanding of forgiveness in terms of legalism, framing the question as a way to find out what he legally must do to cover his bases: “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” You know it’s, “Come on Jesus, just give me a number, tell me the rules, what hoops I need to jump through and I’m in the game.” Jesus’s ridiculous answer of “seventy-seven,” other translations say “seventy times seven,” tells us Peter isn’t asking the right question because forgiveness isn’t about quantity – it is a matter of quality. It’s not “how much?” but “how well?”
The parable that follows goes on to illustrate what Jesus means. He tells the story of a king settling debts with his slaves. One slave owed him 10,000 talents. One talent was equivalent to 15 years of a day laborer’s wages. This means he owed the king 150,000 years of labor – clearly an impossible debt to settle! The second slave mentioned owed the first 100 denarii – about 100 day’s wages. Now this is still no small debt, but one which could reasonably be paid down. So how could this slave, who had been released from an impossible debt turn around and be unforgiving of a relatively small one?
I think the reason is found in our very human penchant for legalism and keeping score – especially of the wrongs done to us. Ever notice how we don’t seem to keep track of the good things done for us but instead we keep a meticulous ledger balance of the hurts and wounds inflicted by others? Some of this is natural – it is our survival instinct. When we are hurt we naturally don’t want to repeat that experience, do we? But our memories often go long beyond the wrong done to us and often turn into seething resentments which are toxic and can spill over into other relationships far beyond the one in which the grievance took place. Left to our own devices, our ledger books become heavy with entries because when we are wronged, we want to get even and punish. This is grounded in our love of legalism.
The law is necessary because it sets the metes and bounds for how to relate to others. But there is something the law cannot do: it cannot require us to love each other. I can follow the letter of the law in relating to another and still hate them with all my heart. The law can never command us to love.
Our Lord’s answer to Peter makes it clear that bean-counting and score keeping isn’t what forgiveness is about because forgiveness is the fruit of love. It is, in fact, the brutally hard work of love. You wouldn’t ask “How many times must I love?” would you? Of course not, because love isn’t about quantity – it is about quality. The question isn’t “how many times must I love?” but “how well can I love?” The same is true of forgiveness. The question isn’t “how many times must I forgive?” but rather “how well and how completely can I forgive?”
This isn’t to say there is no place for boundaries and law when it comes to being in right relationship. Forgiveness does not mean you must be a doormat and allow others to walk all over you committing wrong after wrong, abusively beating you down and robbing you of your human dignity. No! In those cases, you may need to both forgive and simultaneously leave the relationship. This doesn’t mean you stop loving the other person – but it does mean you love from a safe distance. In fact, sometimes the most loving and forgiving thing you can do is to walk away and stop the abusive behavior.
There are always two dimensions of our lives. One is the dimension of law which gives us limits and accountability. The other is the dimension of our being – how we regard ourselves and others as worthy of dignity and love as children of God. This brings us to the rather harsh ending of this parable where the king hands his servant over to be tortured until the debt is paid. I don’t believe this is a punishment from the king. Instead, I believe the king is merely allowing the slave to live in the hell of his own score keeping game until the end of time … or until he can forgive.
Forgiveness is a decision we make about the past. It is both an acknowledgement that we cannot change the past but also that the past will not hold our future in captivity to the rancor and bitterness of resentment. When you forgive, you release your past and are able to face the future in freedom. When you do not forgive, you hold your future in captivity until the end of time. But make no mistake, this doesn’t mean forgiveness can be forced or compelled. Forgiveness, like love, is a gift. We can pray for it and for the ability to forgive – especially for those from whom we are estranged or who have died – so that we may face an open and free future of a resurrected life in Christ.
All of us struggle to forgive and each of us has at least one person we find it hard, even impossible, to forgive. Of our own power, we cannot do it – it is a gift of the Spirit, just as love is a gift. And it isn’t a question of “how much?” or “how many?” but rather “how well?”