From the moment Adams teeth crunched into the forbidden fruit humankind has sought out and discovered every conceivable way of turning away from God; of wounding his love and marring his image in us, of causing pain and sorrow, inflicting harm and death on fellow human beings. The whole of scripture is really the story of our continual straying and struggling and of God’s infinite care and concern, his patience and forgiveness, his constant seeking us out and calling us back into relationship with him.
If this particular parable in Matthew’s gospel and the passage immediately preceding it were paintings in an art gallery they would, or should be hung as a pair; the first as an illustration of forgiveness and reconciliation within a community and the second about personal forgiveness and reconciliation.
In the first, which was set as last week’s gospel reading, Jesus gives the disciples a three-step outline to reconciliation with a brother, or member of the community who has fallen short, let’s say. First, you should have a quiet word, get him or her to acknowledge the fault, one-to one. If this doesn’t work then bring two or three more to reason with them. If this still doesn’t sort things out then tell the church and if the member still refuses to listen, then you treat them as you would a tax collector or a Gentile.
Of course, while the Jews had nothing to do with the Gentiles or tax collectors, Jesus had everything to do with them, so Jesus, through Matthew, is, as much as anything, issuing his largely Jewish audience with a challenge about how they interpret the law.
And it’s an interpretation of the law that is at the root of Peter’s question to Jesus at the beginning of today’s passage. How many times should I forgive someone if they keep on sinning against me?
As many as seven times?
Peter may be showing off his Jewish roots here and may well think he is being particularly generous. The Jewish Law in Leviticus and Numbers has reams of formulaic instructions about dealing with forgiveness and atonement.
But, as many as seven times?
No, says Jesus. I tell you, seventy times seven.
The intention here is not about setting limits – even at 490. This is about banishing all limits – it’s about limitless forgiveness. And Jesus uses a parable to help the disciples to understand.
It’s important here we remember the Jewishness of Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew was writing for a principally Jewish audience and his Gospel is littered with Old Testament references.
Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a king who wants to settle accounts with his servants; to pay them what he owes them and to receive payment for what he is owed.
A man is brought before him who owes him ten thousand talents. Now, one of the things that may be entirely lost on us today is the sheer scale of this debt; the ridiculousness of it. One talent was worth between six and ten thousand denarii, and one single denarii was the usual days wages for a man such as this slave who stood before the king.
So the sum owed might well be the equivalent to a billion pounds in today’s terms; a debt the servant couldn’t possibly have built up or hope to repay – certainly not on a denarius a day!
The king orders the debtor’s wife and children and all he owns to be sold to offset the debt. Now remember, this is firstly for a Jewish audience, who would have known that according to Jewish Law, under no circumstances could the wife be taken and sold. So we are to assume that this is a Gentile king. Even so, the price realised would have been a drop in the ocean compared to the debt.
The man gets down on his knees and pleads with the king. Have patience with me and I’ll pay back all I owe. Have patience with me. Something in the king gives. He is moved to pity. He not only lets the man off his debt, but he releases him. It’s easy to be so focussed on the money that we miss the fact that the slave is released. He is unbound in every sense. He no longer owes anything. He is no longer owned. What unexpected grace to find yourself entirely freed from all bondage. He no longer has any obligations to the king. He is free.
And this is the nature of forgiveness.
It releases us; gives us a clean slate, an opportunity to start afresh. But, of course, the parable doesn’t end there. Fresh from his release, the newly free man comes across a fellow slave who happens to owe him a hundred denarii. Not inconsiderable, but compared with his own debt, a pittance. You’d think, under the circumstances, he’d say, No problem mate, just forget it. And yet when the fellow slave appeals to him using almost exactly the same words as he had used to the king, he has him thrown in prison.
Word gets back to the king, who condemns him to torture until the debt – the impossible debt is repaid. There can’t be a single one of us here who, despite our best efforts, has held onto some deep set unforgiveness for past hurts. We think it’s gone and then some brief reminder touches a scar, a sensitive spot and the pain comes flooding back and we realise there is still work to do.
Jesus recognises this when he answers Peter’s original question, do we let someone hurt us even seven times before we call a halt. No says Jesus, seventy times seven. Jesus is not suggesting we keep a count – even 490 times sets a limit. But what he’s saying is that we should go on and on forgiving – endlessly. He understands that in our human frailty, we don’t often have the capacity to forgive all in one go.
Jesus knows that forgiveness is a process and it can take a lifetime. The important thing is that we keep trying; that we do the head stuff; that we want to forgive, or at least we go on wanting to want to forgive; that we never give up making reconciliation our goal; that even as we come face-to-face with those who have hurt us we should long for reconciliation rather than revenge. Unforgiveness binds us, shackles us, prevents us moving on and wounds us as much as the person who has offended us. Perhaps this is the kind of torture Jesus meant.
When we forgive another, we unbind them, set them free and set ourselves free; released and relieved from anger and resentment. Like the slave who was both freed of the debt and freed from slavery, we are free to be ourselves again. The image of God is restored in us and we are remade as the people God intended us to be.
And as we come together as Christians, Sunday by Sunday, we come as frail imperfect, sometimes broken human beings in need of forgiveness and healing. This is the place into which we are called; a place where we are not condemned, but a place where we are healed, restored, forgiven, reunited, reconciled with one another and with God.