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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

September 14, 2014

 The Problem with Forgiveness

Genesis 33:1-11;Matthew 18:21-35

              The problem Peter brings to Jesus is as old as the human family: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Peter is clearly wrestling with something big here, something incredibly important. He is not talking to Jesus about petty annoyances or little white lies. How do you deal with a brother or sister, a trusted friend, or family member, who has hurt you, or offended you, and done so over and over again? What are you to do when someone you trusted betrays you? “How many times, Jesus, do I need to forgive?” “Seven times?” Peter asks, plaintively, considering perhaps “seven” as the Biblical number for perfection or completion.

             Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question comes in two parts. The first is a number Jesus throws out – “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Actually, the Greek text says literally, “seventy times seven times.” This is what the King James Bible and the Revised Standard Version say. The New Revised Standard Version says, seventy-seven, opting for the number found in Genesis 4, when the Bible says, “If Cain avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” Either way, the number Jesus offered meant the same – “More than you can ever count, Peter!” Maybe Jesus was saying, “Let your forgiveness be as unrelenting as Lamech’s desire for revenge.” And maybe Jesus was saying, “Forgive seventy times seven.” Either way, the number is utterly daunting. “Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea,” C.S. Lewis once said, “until you have something to forgive.” Then it is excruciatingly difficult and a deeply personal crisis.

             The second part of Jesus’ response comes in the form of a parable, and the numbers get even more mind-boggling and absurd. The parable involves two debtors and two creditors, but only three main characters. The central character is a slave who owes his king ten thousand talents. The number is absurdly large. One talent equaled six thousand denarii – a denarius being a laborer’s fair wage for a day’s work. Ten thousand talents would amount to sixty thousand denarii – a humanly unpayable sum. (Think billions of dollars!) He knows that he owes more than he can ever pay back, so he falls on his knees and begs for patience. (Not forgiveness!) “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” Truthfully, he can never pay back everything; he cannot even come close. You wonder how a slave could run up this kind of debt – the text does not tell us, but it suggests some nefarious activity. The servant is being completely disingenuous in saying that he will pay back everything. But the king has pity on the servant, and releases him of the debt. This slave is not just forgiven much – he is forgiven everything, an unimaginably gargantuan amount.

             So having been forgiven his own incredible debt, the forgiven servant then becomes a creditor in the parable. He is owed one hundred denarii – three months’ wages for a common laborer – maybe somewhere around $5,000 or $6,000, given inflation. The man with the debt this time pleads the same thing: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But this time, the slave who has been forgiven infinitely more refuses to forgive even a single denarius, and has him thrown into prison, “until he could pay the debt” – presumably never, as long as he was in prison.

             Then comes scene three of the parable: Some other servants witness this, and report the unforgiving servant to the king. This time the king runs out of mercy and orders the unforgiving servant to be thrown in prison, and then Jesus adds, “So my heavenly Father, will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

             All in all, it is not a very pretty story, even if it is a brilliant one. It is not pretty because it forces us to ask, “What kind of scum, having been forgiven such an overwhelming debt, would choose to turn around and be miserly over someone else’s small debt?” And it is not a pretty story because finally it is a story about small and mean people, or about people who receive much and turn around and give almost nothing in return. Those are always ugly, small, unattractive people … and we all can probably remember times when we looked just like them!

             One of my all-time favorite movie scenes is from Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, made in 1992. It won the Academy Award for best picture. Eastwood plays William Munny, a hired killer with a rough past who decides to kill one more time in order to support his family and save his farm. The plot is complicated, but one of Munny’s accomplices, a young man, kills for the first time, and is shaken by it. To ease his conscience he says, “He had it coming.” Eastwood says, “We all have it coming, kid.”

             You see, Clint Eastwood is a Calvinist, and so am I. We all have it coming! We all need a forgiveness, a mercy, that we can never give to ourselves, and that we can never earn. We owe God a debt that we can never repay. And God pays our debt anyway – God forgives it all; God takes it upon Himself in Jesus. And all Jesus asks is that we who have been forgiven much become forgiving ourselves. This is how we are to pray and live: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” It is the heart of the Gospel. So hear Jesus’ words once again: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

             Jesus knew that forgiveness was a matter of the heart. So did Saint Thomas Aquinas. He said, “God does not command us to do impossible things, but rather commands us to do things that would be impossible if it were not for the grace of God.” If it were not for the grace of God, of course, we would not be here at all. And the grace of God is given to change our hearts – and to make us gracious. The grace of God is given to make us more large-hearted, more generous of spirit, more merciful. Aquinas said, “We were created for friendship with God.” But God is a friend who is generous and gracious, expecting that His generosity will make us generous, that His mercy will make us merciful.

             And sometimes it does. It did for Bud Welch. Bud Welch lost his beautiful twenty-two-year-old daughter, Julie Marie, in April of 1995, when Timothy McVeigh bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing one hundred sixty-seven others along with Julie Marie. Welch said, “I simply wanted him fried. I would have killed him myself if I could have.” Welch started drinking to kill the pain, and visited that building every day, trying to cope with his pain. Then one day he realized, “I had to do something different, because what I was doing wasn’t working.” “It was revenge and hate that killed Julie, and I was only adding to it.” Welch started to pray for mercy. He had a lot of help along the way, friends who came alongside of him in his long, lonely journey, and in December of 1998 he went to visit McVeigh’s father and sister. He saw a picture of McVeigh’s father, and could see from the photograph that this man was also in great pain. Looking at McVeigh’s high school picture on the wall, Bud Welch said, “God, what a good-looking kid.” McVeigh’s father started weeping. (Welch realized how much more pain Timothy McVeigh’s father was in than he was. He could talk about how lovely Julie was – this man couldn’t even admit he had a son.) “About a year before the execution I found it in my heart to forgive Tim McVeigh. It was a release for me rather than for him.” It always is!

             And then from Rabbi Harold Kushner: “A woman in my congregation comes to see me. She is a single mother, divorced, working to support herself and her three children. She says to me, ‘Since my husband walked out on us, every month is a struggle to pay the bills. I have to tell the kids we have no money to go to the movies, while he’s living it up with his new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him?’ I answer, ‘I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve to power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically, but you keep holding onto him. You’re not hurting him by holding onto that resentment, but hurting yourself.’”

             So pray today with me, “Forgive us our debts.” We all are debtors before God. We all need grace. We all owe to God more than we can ever repay. Then from your heart pray, “As we forgive our debtors.” The soul you free may be your own!


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