Counting Forgiveness

Debt being erased by the end of a pencil, word implies debtPentecost 14: Counting Forgiveness

Matthew 18:21-35

September 14, 2014

I’ve been taking a poetry course online.

It  began this week, so poems are on my brain…

Elizabeth Barrett Browning begins Sonnet 43…

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

In the end of her poem, I count 12.

What do you think….Is that a good number?

It sounds like a lot… (especially in the language Browning uses!)

Should the one she loves feel good about that number?

If Peter asked Jesus,

“Lord, how many times should I love my neighbor?”

Would 12 be enough?

Of course putting a number to love is ridiculous!

But Jesus says putting a number to forgiveness is equally ridiculous.

Love is a relationship – it can’t be measured.

And I think Jesus is saying the same thing about forgiveness.

Forgiveness can’t be counted.

It is a relationship.

The way Jesus tries to describe forgiveness,

is in the form of the parable.

I’ve just started teaching a class on parables.

Those of you who were here for the first session hopefully remember that

parables were part of the culture Jesus grew up in.

There were parables in the Old Testament,

and there were parables that were told in every day life –

around the fire, in the fields, at work.

Webster’s dictionary says that parables are stories which give a lesson…

but that’s far too simple an understanding.

Parables were not merely moral tales;

they were meant to be more active in the listener.

They were meant to do something to the hearers:

  • to challenge,
  • to make them to see the world in a different way,
  • to provoke them,
  • and even to indict them.

So let’s look again at this parable Jesus told …

listening for what it does to us.

There is a king who wishes to settle accounts with his slaves.

One very unfortunate slave owes the king 10,000 talents…

Let’s see exactly how much this is..

A talent was about 130 lbs of silver…which was about 15 years’ wages.

So this slave, somehow owes the king 150,000 years’ worth of wages.

In other words, this slave owes more than he can ever pay back.

We don’t know how he was able to get so far in debt.

Someone wasn’t paying attention…

Anyway, this time he’s not going to get away with it.

The king orders him to be sold,

he and his wife and his children and all of his possessions.

Such selling of debtors into slavery was prohibited in Jewish law.

It was permitted in Greek and Roman law,

but hardly ever practiced.[i]

So we know the king is a harsh master

when he finally gets around to collecting his debts.

But then the slave falls on his knees before the king

and he says, “Have patience with me,

(which actually in the Greek is, “Be big-hearted with me,”)

and I will repay you everything.”

Right…he’ll repay everything?

Not in 150,000 years!

Something happens to this harsh king then.

He changes.

He takes pity and forgives the entire debt.

The king does more than the slave has even asked for!

He doesn’t just give him more time to repay it,

He zeroes out the account! It’s erased! It’s like it never happened!

(Wouldn’t it be nice if Mastercard did that sometime!)

The king changes…

the slave does not.

The king has been transformed…

but the slave has not.

The slave has been given a chance at new life,

but he rejects it.

Instead, he chooses to continue in a life of profit and loss, of keeping accounts.

When he sees someone who owes him a mere 100 denarii – about 100 days’ wage –

(a large sum, but certainly possible to pay off),

rather than offer grace,

he demands repayment.

When it cannot be repaid, he sends the offender to prison.

Those who witness this exchange find it so shocking

that they go back to the king and tell him what happened.

As a result, the king gives the slave the kind of life that he has asked for by his actions…

a life where debts are either paid in full or punished;

a life of judgment rather than grace.

The parable ends rather ominously…

“So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you,

if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

By keeping such careful account,

and demanding that each debt be paid,

the slave consigns himself to a miserable life;

the slave chooses his own punishment.

Some debts – some wrongs – some hurts that have been done to us –

are just too large to ever be paid back.

When we hold onto them,

waiting for the appropriate remorse or sign of repentance,

we often choose a life of punishment  for ourselves.

There’s the story of a former prisoner of war who asks another,

“Have you forgiven your captors yet?”

“I will never do that,” the second one answers.

“Then they still have you in prison, don’t they,” the first one replies.

“How often shall we forgive?” Peter asks.

“Seven times?”

“Not seven times, but I tell you seventy seven times!” Jesus says.

Life isn’t meant to be lived with a ledger,

keeping track of the hurts.

Life is lived in relationship,

and just as you can’t quantify love,

you can’t quantify forgiveness.

Let’s go back to consider what the parable does to us.

Hearing this parable in a week in which we remember the events of September 11 

and in which we heard the president talk about airstrikes against ISIS or ISIL,

the terrorist group which has been incredibly brutal,

I think it challenges us.

What does forgiveness mean in those contexts?

Does forgiveness apply there?

I challenge you to talk about it at lunch today!

But also, hearing this parable in a week in which Ray Rice was let go from the Ravens

for domestic violence,

makes me worried.

It makes me worried that endangered spouses will hear this parable

and think that they need to welcome back the offending spouse 77 times…or more!

What does forgiveness mean in the context of domestic violence?

I think it means something different than remaining in a harmful situation.

Talk about this at lunch today too!

Forgiveness is hard.

It can’t be counted…it is ongoing.

Which is probably one reason we need to be reminded of it as often as we pray…

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”


[i] Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4.


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