Then Peter came to him and said, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? . . .”
Peter is actually asking for some clarification. He wants to more clearly understand the boundaries of the practical instructions which Jesus has Just given. Jesus has just explained what to do when another member of the church “sins” against you. His instructions are plain enough. First confront the person who has offended you on your own, to win them back. If that fails, go with witnesses. If that fails get the whole congregation involved. And if that fails to win the offender back they will find themselves outside of the church. “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile or a tax-collector” says Jesus. But that negative consequence is only a last resort – after everything else has been tried. What Jesus really wants is the restoration and maintenance of positive and loving relationships within the family of the Church. His hope and expectation is that a better outcome is reached first. He presents us with a process to deal with the hurts that we inevitably inflict on one another when we’re gathered together as a community of believers. It’s a process where the offence is named and the offender called out, not to punish or humiliate, but as an invitation to repent. Where forgiveness will be offered, and relationships will be restored. These are some of Jesus’ most clear and practical instruction for how life should be within the family of the church.
Peter though wants to know if there is any outer limit to this. What’s the boundary for this process of calling-out/repentance/forgiveness/reconciliation. How often must this process repeated with a repeat-offender before it’s acceptable to toss them out right away without the rigmarole of speaking to them by yourself, or with witnesses or with the whole church, to have them back down and be forgiven, only then to go back on their word and offend all over again. How often must we forgive someone before the sincerity of their repentance is called into question by their repeated re-offending?
Maybe we think Peter is being a bit cynical. He’s looking at the people he knows in the church. And he knows that a least some of them will go through motions. They will jump through whatever hoop is placed before them, in order remain within the fellowship of the church, to not be treated as a Gentile or a tax collector, all the while none of it making any real difference to their actions or their character. It does seem like a harsh way to be looking at people and seeing among the members of the church potential re-offenders.
But I wonder if Peter is actually being more cynical than any of us. Perhaps he like us would claim simply to be realistic, and therefore to be looking for a realistic limit to the demand that Jesus makes of us. Most of would probably agree with the proverb:
“Fool me once, shame on you.
Fool me twice, shame on me!”
Which would suggest the normal answer to the question: “How many times should I forgive someone who sins against me?” is “only once.” They can have second chance, but not a third. Forgiving once would allow for someone to make a mistake. Forgiving a second time would demonstrate weakness or foolishness on our part. Hiding under all of this is the basic assumption we make about people: that they won’t indeed can’t change. People who do bad things are bad and will remain bad. Sinning against us once could be a mistake, a simple lapse. But a second time is a demonstration of a fixed disposition. “A leopard can’t change it’s spots.” So we conclude there is no further point trying to bring this person to repentance and reform. There is no point sticking with them and helping them to change. We’re done with them. “Away you go, Gentile! Tax collector!”
In the light of that “conventional” wisdom Peter’s offer does sound remarkably generous:
As many as seven times?
Not just a third chance or a fourth – but all the way down to an eighth chance. At this point Peter is probably feeling rather pleased with himself. He definitely feels like he’s going the extra mile. He feels that he has grasped the way that Jesus goes beyond conventional wisdom, the way that Jesus goes on to risk taking generosity of spirit. Just now Peter thinks he’s finally got what Jesus is asking nailed down. Except, Jesus has an uncomfortable habit of puncturing our confident assumption that we have grasped what he is asking from us:
Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times
Seven times is already past the point where you’ve probably lost count. “Was that a seventh chance or was that the eighth?” Who could be bothered to keep score like that? But Jesus pushes well beyond even Peter’s generously extended limit. Seventy-seven is definitely past counting. Though what Jesus says could actually mean “seven times seventy” in other words 490 times. At this point they’re not really numbers any more, they’re just a way of saying there isn’t a limit. “How often should I forgive” Peter asks. “Past counting,” says Jesus, “keep forgiving, don’t stop, there is no limit!”
Jesus offers one of his stories as clarification. He pictures a scene in the court of a king. There is a settling of accounts. And there is an enormous debt:
One who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him
This is way beyond the scale of personal debt – this is debt on the scale that governments and nations create. There is no point in trying to work out what 10,000 talents is worth in today’s money. You can do it – it is a certain weight of silver, you can find out the value and do the arithmetic, but that is not what Jesus is getting at. Like forgiving someone 77 times it’s another number that isn’t a number any more. It is money past counting. It is he biggest denomination of money multiplied by the largest number you can think of. Like saying “a zillion pounds.” The debt is unpayable. It is essentially infinite. Selling the debtor along with his wife and his children and everything he owns will not make any kind of a dent in what he owes. Even after all that the debt would still be a zillion pounds!
The debt is unpayable. Any attempt to collect the debt by the king would mean an end to relationship between the king and this servant. The king chooses to maintain the relationship with his servant. The relationship is more important to the king than that debt which is owed. The debt is forgiven and the relationship is restored
The only number here that is remotely a real number is 100 denarii. The now debt free, forgiven servant goes out and:
He came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii
This is a real sum of money. It’s not trivial, one denarius is the average daily wage, so 100 looks like several months of wages. This very much the scale of personal debt. This is a manageable sum of money. Given time it could be repaid. This is not an inconsequential sum, it is not something that “doesn’t matter” or that could be dismissed as unimportant. But it is as nothing compared to the sum of money that was being talked about in the conversation which the unforgiving servant has just had. Though you could argue given what he owed his master, these 100 denarii were actually part of what he himself owed to his master. Therefore since that debt has been forgiven, he has nothing to pay, and therefore no need to recover the money. The need to get that money back disappeared when his own debt was cancelled.
The servant’s demand is clearly self-interested and greedy! His unwillingness to forgive a debt which was payable brings an end to the relationship between the two servants. In contrast to the king the unforgiving servant chooses the money over the relationship he has with his fellow servant.
We are of course meant to see ourselves as the first servant. In the context of Peter’s attempt to find a limit to our need to forgive. Jesus reminds us that we have already been forgiven by God to an almost infinite degree. God forgives us our sins in the interests of maintaining a relationship with us. In view of that great act of forgiveness we are called to be forgiving ourselves, in the interests of maintaining the relationships that build the Church
But before it finishes Jesus’ story takes a disturbing turn:
When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.
The other slaves see a terrible injustice. And they speak out on behalf of the victim. Implicit in their speaking out is the typical human expectation that bad things should happen to bad people. The unforgiving slave should be made to suffer for his bad behaviour. In the same way that wrongdoers should always be punished. And trouble makers should be excluded from every community. And people who annoy and upset us should be thrown out of the church.
This part of the parable is very worrying. The king delivers on the slaves’ expectation. The unforgiving servant is:
Handed. .over to be tortured until he would pay his debt.
As a portrayal of God this is disturbing. It pictures God as cruel, capricious despot. Who is forgiving in one moment. And who moment later goes back on his word, and inflicts torture on one in his power.It implies that forgiveness could be undone. Or that it is not real, that it only provisional or conditional. Yet for all that, we probably feel that justice was done. The first, unforgiving slave showed bad character. The act of kindness and forgiveness had no effect on his behaviour. Which suggests he did not deserve forgiveness in the first place. His appeal for mercy was self interested, dishonest and cowardly. He was merely trying to avoid the consequences of his actions. And he remains self-interested in his dealings with his fellow slave.
The king delivers on our expectation that bad things should happen to bad people. The slave got what was coming to him. But torture? How does torture repay the debt? It merely appeals to the cruel side of our nature that thinks wrongdoing deserves to be repaid with suffering. Jesus just pushes the buttons of our unforgiving nature. And we happily respond, revealing ourselves to be cruel and unforgiving. We happily expect God to be unforgiving, and bring bad things on bad people, on the very risky assumption that we aren’t the bad people! Forgiveness and forgivingness are entwined with one another. Unforgivingness could come back round and bite us!
Peter asked the wrong question from the outset. He was looking for the wrong thing when he asked at what point would it be acceptable for him to stop being forgiving. The question which Jesus confronts us with is: What kind of people must we be to be part of his community of faith? Which is parallel to the question: what kind of people must we be to be capable of receiving forgiveness?
The issue is that failure to forgive leads to a breakdown in relationships. The relationships that make the community of the Church. The relationships that enable us to become part of the kingdom of God. What do you do when faced with an unforgivable debt? The answer is, if you want a relationship to continue, you must forgive the unforgivable. That is what God does. Jesus invites us to pray (in the Scottish wording of the prayer): “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Our forgiveness is dependent on our forgivingness. But it is also true the other way around: Our debts are forgiven which poses a duty of forgiveness on us. Forgivingness must grow out of forgiveness. The kind of person who can be part of the community of faith is the one who recognises the debt they have been forgiven and forgives the debts that other owe them. Not once or seven times or seventy seven time but past all counting.