Today’s Gospel reading follows immediately after last week’s reading from Matthew, which was about disciplining members of Jesus’ community who harm each other. In that case, the teaching was about confronting the offender in a progressively public manner – first alone, then with another one or two, and then before the whole assembly. It’s a way to resolve conflict for the good of the order.
But the next question, of course, is the one Peter raises in today’s reading. What about the personal side? What about the harm someone’s done to me? How am I supposed to deal with someone hurting me personally, not just disrupting things in the church? What’s the scope of forgiveness, Jesus? And how are disciples like us supposed to do it?
Even asking the question, Peter understands that the bar will be uncomfortably high. He asks, how often must I forgive? Seven times? Jesus, of course, sets the bar much higher – unattainably high, it’s always felt to me. We must forgive seventy-seven times? Or, as the verse also could be translated, seventy times seven times? Really?
So then, in classic Jesus style, he illustrates this hard teaching with a parable. Now, of course, parables are notoriously bad for explaining things because they’re really not intended to explain things. That takes a different kind of illustration – a diagram or a flow chart maybe. But that’s not where Jesus is going. Instead, he’s telling a parable, and parables invite the person hearing them to interpret their meaning. Parables aren’t cut and dried; you’re supposed to wrestle with them. So, how I interpret today’s story may not be just the way you’d interpret it. And I think Jesus would say, that’s OK. Struggling to understand God’s intentions and purposes – well, I think that’s the point, at least in this chapter of eternal life. We’ll have an eternity to find the clearer answers.
Anyway, Jesus tells this parable of the king and the unforgiving servant. I’d like to title it, the parable of the forgiving king and the unforgiving servant, but I think the story is a little muddier than that.
So, this king is settling up accounts with his slaves who owe him money. One slave owes him 10,000 talents. Now, that amount doesn’t mean anything to us; but you have to know that one talent was the equivalent of about 15 years’ wages for a laborer. So, owing 10,000 talents is a debt you couldn’t even conceive of paying. But the slave wants to try to make things right, and the king has mercy on him for his good intention. Then, the slave gets the opportunity to show similar mercy to another slave who owes him 100 denarii, basically three months’ wages. It’s a lot of money, but it’s a debt that a worker might be able to pay. But the forgiven slave fails to return the favor of grace, and he throws his debtor into prison. The king gets wind of it and confronts the forgiven slave for his failure to forgive. So, the story concludes, “his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay the entire debt” – which, of course, he could never pay. And then Jesus adds the bitter icing on the cake: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:34-35)
I was good with this story right up until those last two sentences. I think I can understand the first part of the parable: God wants us to forgive just as we’ve been forgiven, to show grace that mirrors God’s amazing grace. And the other side of the coin is also true, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: We will be forgiven as we forgive those who hurt us. But I have trouble with the conclusion Jesus offers, that if we fail to forgive as our heavenly Father forgives, then God will hand us over to be tortured until we pay the debts we owe.
So here’s where the wrestling with the parable begins. I guess I’d ask this: Is that torture at God’s hands, or at our own? At least in my experience, refusing to forgive someone is its own torture, because refusing to forgive is choosing to bear a burden that eventually will crush us. Hanging onto righteous indignation over someone else’s failure doesn’t hurt the offender. It hurts the victim.
But, of course, the huge challenge from this reading is that it sounds like we’re supposed to forgive people over and over again as we endure the consequences of others’ sinful choices. That might sound like we’re supposed to be doormats, forgiving someone’s selfish acts seventy times seven times, not counting the cost but letting it go.
Letting it go…. Now, that’s where forgiveness gets interesting. Is Jesus really asking us to let ourselves soak up other people’s sinful behavior, over and over again? Is that letting it go? Not at all. Real forgiveness requires the offender to own the harm. You know it’s true on a personal level; if someone cheats you but doesn’t own it, it’s awfully hard to forgive. It’s also true on a broader scale: In South Africa, after apartheid, Archbishop Desmond Tutu didn’t just call his flock to forgive their oppressors; he put together the truth-and-reconciliation process, which allowed those who benefited from apartheid and those who suffered from apartheid to hear each other’s experience. Full forgiveness is about love and justice. It’s about grace as well as contrition and repentance and action to amend your life.
But even when the offender does own the harm, forgiving is hard. For some of us, at least, we want to hang onto the hurt. Righteous indignation sometimes feels a little too good. Or, even if we want to let it go, we don’t know how. The hurt just won’t go away; and every time we hurt, we remember what caused it. Even though Jesus asks us to, we just can’t shake it. And we end up living in that torture the parable spoke about – the torture that comes from being unwilling, or unable, to let the offense go.
It probably won’t surprise you to know I don’t have a quick-and-easy prescription for forgiveness. But let’s play a game. Let’s create a parable of our own. Just for a moment, remember some harm you’ve endured. Don’t remember it too deeply, but just remind yourself of it. Now imagine that harm against you as a backpack full of rocks – a hundred pounds of rocks that you’re consigned to carry, day in and day out. So, here’s the parable of the backpack full of rocks.
* * *
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away – something like that; not in our world, at least – there was a woman who’d been hurt by someone close to her. In her world, people carried that kind of pain in the form of a backpack full of rocks, a backpack that you couldn’t take off. Carrying that load felt like a sentence, ultimately unfair. The woman would sometimes get down on her hands and knees and try to shake the rocks out all at once; but try as she might, she couldn’t because the opening was so small. And the longer she carried her backpack full of rocks, the heavier they seemed. What she really wanted – and what she felt was her due – was for the person who’d hurt her to take her backpack and carry those rocks instead. It was his fault, after all. He should bear the weight, not her. So she waited and hoped and prayed that he would come to his senses, and see his obligation, and take the rocks off her back.
Now, this person who’d hurt her was pained by what he’d done. So, he came to her and poured out his heart; and he promised to walk the path with her in a new way from there on. But he couldn’t figure out how to take the backpack of rocks off her shoulders.
Finally, as they walked sadly together, with the woman laboring under the weight, a stranger approached and began to walk with them. They came to the edge of a cliff – and frankly, by this point, the woman was done; she was miserable enough she just wanted to jump off, into the ravine. But the stranger said to her, “Why don’t you reach around, and throw a few rocks off the cliff instead, and lighten your load.” The woman could only reach a few because her shoulders were stiff, but she threw them over the edge, into the ravine. She felt a little better, so she turned to the stranger and asked, “OK, now what?” The stranger said, “Come back to the ravine tomorrow and the next day and the next, and I think you’ll be able to reach a few more each time as your shoulders loosen up with practice.”
And day after day, for what seemed a stupidly long time, the woman came to the ravine each morning. She struggled to reach back and grab as many rocks as her loosening shoulders would allow. Each day, she could reach back just a little further. Each day, she could throw the rocks just a little farther into the ravine. And each day, the backpack felt just that much lighter … until one morning, she forgot it was there. Every now and then, one of the few rocks at the bottom of the backpack would poke her uncomfortably, and she’d remember the time she’d been hurt so badly. She’d have to struggle to reach way back, and dig down deep in the backpack, and pull out that offending rock; and she’d have to go to the ravine that day to throw it in. But afterward, she’d forget about the backpack again. And she and the person who’d hurt her could keep making their way, along with the stranger … who, by this point, had become a companion.
Here endeth the parable.
* * *
So, here’s the truth I know about forgiveness: It can’t be a one-time thing. It’s a seventy-times-seven-times thing. We’ve got to throw rock after rock into the ravine, each time we’re able to put our hands on one. Because the torture would be to keep carrying them.