Matthew 18: 21 – 35
“Obviously everyone deserves a second chance. And I was quite happy for ‘Fred’ to come back ‘within the fold’, despite that ‘difference of opinion’ I had with him, but here we go again! That’s it, no more, I can neither work nor worship with that man any longer”. A familiar scenario that’s as old as the hills!
And Peter, outspoken as ever, sounds familiar as he pursues the matter of reconciliation after a dispute. Suppose a fellow Christian offends me and we sort it out, but then it happens again. How many times must I forgive him and go back round the same old loop? He wonders just how far forgiveness is supposed to stretch. Seven times sounds overly generous. So, knowing Jesus to be ‘overly’ generous, Peter suggests seven as a figure!
To be honest, to forgive the same person for the same fault seven times might well test our calm and courtesy – that’s a lot of forgiving! But Jesus puts numbers into a different perspective – not seven, he says, but so many more times than that!
We remember Jesus saying ‘seventy times seven’ because we like a finite point beyond which we can say enough! No more! Perhaps, like me, you would have lost count well before 490 times, and in a way that’s the point. Jesus isn’t bothered about exact numbers. He’s taken the business of forgiving out of the realm of arithmetic. He says we’re to stop counting and just get used to forgiving, because the forgiveness of God is loving and limitless, immeasurable and infinite.
Jesus goes on to illustrate his point that if we cannot pass on the forgiveness of God to others, we might find our own experience of it turning out to be hollow and lacking.
Jesus might have used a real example to illustrate his point, because there was such a summons after Herod Antipas visited Rome in around AD29. So, current affairs helped to bring understanding to the illustration of Jesus’ point.
So, picture the scene, a king summonses his staff to settle accounts with them. The first servant’s debt is astronomical – a talent (roughly equivalent in value to a mortgage!) The debt is utterly unpayable and the situation has gone beyond the point of recovery for the staff member in question. And yet this astronomical and totally unpayable debt is pardoned, the slate is wiped clean and the staff member goes free!
But then, that very same staff member, even as he leaves the king’s chambers, bumps into a lower ranking colleague, who owes the first staff member (who only minutes before was pardoned his gargantuan debt) and violently demands that his much smaller debt be settled. The colleague cannot pay, and the staff member who had been released from debt, has the second man imprisoned until such time as his friends and family could repay the debt.
The one who has been pardoned, forgiven so much debt, has failed to pass on his master’s pardon to his fellow worker. And the upshot is that the king withdraws the forgiveness he originally granted and the story ends in bitterness and misery.
Verse 35 tells us that we will not enjoy the forgiveness of God unless we share it, unless we copy his example and do likewise. We haven’t grasped the meaning of forgiveness unless we can pass it on. We have to copy Jesus in our pastoral care of others and in our willingness to forgive.
Unless we are willing to forgive, we will not know the real security and acceptance of each other. We will not be very good at seeking the wanderer and the lost. Our ‘grievance procedures’ will be harsh with no sense of reconciliation about them.
But if we let forgiveness flavour all that we do, the Church becomes a very special kind of community the people of Christ who truly reflect the love of Christ.
And yet, are there circumstances in which we should not forgive? After all, God did not intend us to be ‘doormats’. So, perhaps there are some limits. If a person behaves like the first servant or is unrepentant, it might be a struggle to respond positively.
And yet, we owe it to ourselves to forgive inwardly before we get eaten up by annoyance.
Jesus himself did not create unnecessary opportunities to encounter people who ‘sinned’ against him – he dodged Herod for example. So, perhaps there’s nothing wrong with a proper caution when dealing with people who have hurt us or let us down badly in the past.
And of course, some serious and criminal actions and offences against people do such severe damage that there is no satisfactory way for the people concerned to go on living, working or worshipping together, and a prison sentence may be essential.
But even then, wise Christian friends, perhaps from another Church, or geographical area, or in their professional role as chaplain (in a prison) may have a role in helping all parties to find their separate ways to live with the painful memories and set boundaries for future safety.
The Church (the body of Christ) must endeavour to remain a family that cares for all its members.
Real forgiveness is not a ‘one-off’ act, it’s a process. Research shows that forgiveness usually has several stages, including anger, reframing the situation and releasing the sense of victimhood. So, I wonder, when Jesus asks us to forgive seventy time seven, does this also reflect making a repeated choice to forgive a grievance, waking daily and making an intentional decision. Is Jesus acknowledging the many stages people need to progress through – rather than simply forgiving seventy times seven separate grievances? Holding onto grievances is harmful to our mental health and wellbeing. Forgiving is a healing act, so perhaps Jesus, the healer, asks us to maintain a constant attitude of forgiveness towards others for our own welfare.
The Church must embody both love of neighbour and the limitless, intentional daily forgiveness of wrongs. And in doing that we will start to look like Jesus, not only as individuals but also as Church.
Lord, forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.