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"Frustration & Possibility"

Even though Jesus warns us about our lack of forgiveness, we do not forgive others out of fear of punishment. We forgive because we feel grateful to God. The gratitude develops mercy and kindness deep within us.


We probably need a good parable on forgiveness. We can’t go for long without hurting someone or feeling the hurt ourselves. Without forgiveness, we bottled up our anger. Without forgiveness, the relationship remains broken. We may take a twisted delight in holding on to our grudges, nursing our wounds, but we know that comes from the dark side and that we should let it go. So, we ready ourselves to hear Jesus’ words about forgiveness.


What exactly did Peter have going on inside when he asked his question of Jesus about how many times he should forgive? Only rarely do we ask this kind of question in the abstract. We usually ask the kind of question Peter asked when we have a specific issue hanging over our heads. Did Peter find himself in the predicament we often face? Had a specific person rubbed Peter’s nerve raw? We might go to Jesus when we have reached the magic number of seven, hoping he would tell us we can quit now. Whew! Thank you, Jesus!


Yet, if we stopped at seven, we might miss the reconciliation that would come with the eighth time. We know, however, that forgiveness can wear us out. We throw up our hands, wondering if anything will ever change. So, when Jesus tells Peter that we should forgive 77 times, we feel both frustration and possibility.


Forgiveness carries both sides of that equation: frustration and possibility. The possibility includes the tearful reunion, the loving embrace. The frustration comes from the stubbornness of others. We know what the mental health experts tell us: If we confuse forgiveness with indulgence, we can “enable” someone’s bad behavior. Matthew seems to understand this problem because he included a saying from Jesus about accountability right before this passage on forgiveness. If a person just won’t listen, we must hold that person accountable.1 Jesus teaches us to forgive, not to enable.


Each act of forgiveness carries its own complexity. We must figure out how to forgive but not enable. We must figure out how to forgive but not stay in the same relationship with a person who is not safe for us. We must figure out how to forgive but let someone go from a job or an organization. We may need God’s help to forgive someone but also to admit that we cannot trust that person. We must release the anger, hurt and even hate in our heart but also make wise decisions.


Jesus gives us the principle of forgiveness here and tells us that forgiveness can be a marathon, but we must decide how to forgive in the best way, even if we have to show strength to stand up to a person.


Peter’s question triggers a parable from Jesus. The parable has high drama. A king had shown great generosity to at least one slave. He had lent the slave enough money for several lifetimes. We might pause and ask why the king would do that. Surely the king would have known that the slave could never repay 10,000 talents. Had the king not kept count, or had the king shown a soft streak? He seems to live out the teaching of Jesus to give so that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.2 What would the slave have done with so much money? The parable never answers these questions. The parable tells us only that the slave owed a debt he could not possibly pay. That part of the parable helps us understand our sin. We owe a debt we can never repay.


The slave has apparently cheerfully accepted this extravagant generosity of the king. He seems never to have asked himself what he would do if the king decided to call in the loan. Neither the king nor the slave thought through all this money while it went out. But for whatever reason, the king decides that the reckoning day has come. The king, who once had shown generosity to a fault, now reveals his demanding side. The slave owes 10,000 talents because the king had given him more than he should have. Nevertheless, the slave cannot pay. The king responds by insisting the man and his family be sold into slavery. Even the best of slaves would not fetch 10,000 talents on the marketplace. The king would receive only a fraction of the debt owed him.


The parable then presents a poignant scene. The slave falls to his knees to beg for leniency. The slave, who must have lived a sumptuous life at the open-handed giving of the king, now feels genuine fear. Surely his new owner would not show such generosity. We might imagine the panic in his heart and the terror in his eyes. He can hope only in the mercy of the king. The king knows that the slave’s promise will never hold up. No matter how much patience the king demonstrated, the slave could never repay everything. Even if he put his wife and children to work as well, he could not put a dent in the amount he owes.


Somehow, the king’s anger melts. Does the look on the slave’s face or the sound of his voice as he chokes out his promise pierce the king’s fury? Whatever the case, the king forgives the debt. The slave can breathe a sigh of relief. He does not have to repay the money. The king, who had struck such fear in him, has relented. He walks away a free man, with no debt hanging over him.


We might scratch our heads over the next part of the parable. How could one slave owe a second slave 100 denarii? Had the first slave lent out part of the money the king gave him? In any case, the second slave owes a much smaller amount to the first slave. But the first slave shows none of the mercy that the king had showed him. The first slave carries out his anger, throwing the second slave in jail. The other slaves catch wind of this and report him to the king. The slave has not learned his lesson. He has not found the same generous spirit that the king showed. The hardheartedness of the slave carries a penalty. The king finds his anger again and hands the slave over for torture.


We can see the broad points of the parable. Our sin compares with a debt we cannot hope to pay. We rely only on God’s grace to forgive our debt and set us free. Because God has shown us mercy, we show mercy to others. We can hear that message.


Yet the parable raises some questions. We might have problems forgiving the 100-denarii debts, and that’s on us. Most of the time, though, we can forgive the 100-denarii debts. Our real struggle comes when someone owes us a few thousand talents. When someone really injures us, or takes something precious from us, that’s when our forgiveness seems blocked. We understand the dynamics of Jesus’ parable, but we could use a parable for the times when we need to forgive more than 100 denarii.


The last verse of the parable catches us as well. The king hands the small-minded slave over for torture. Jesus then announces, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” That sounds like forgiveness that arises out of fear. Do we find motivation for forgiveness only to avoid torture? We suspect that the fear in the parable only gets our attention so that we don’t let the parable roll past us. We should also hear the last three words of the sentence: “from your heart.”


Indeed, this parable that drips with fear and punishment also contains the language we need to hear. The king felt “pity” for the slave. The second slave asked for “patience” from the first slave. We see this word in Paul’s famous chapter on love: “Love is patient; love is kind.”3 Fear of punishment may drive the plot of the parable, but Jesus really wants us to learn to forgive from the depths of our souls. The parable teaches that Jesus wants us to forgive out of gratitude and the desire to heal both ourselves and the relationship.


If we add the conversation between Peter and Jesus to the parable, we receive a message about forgiveness that understands the gratitude for God forgiving our debt, that arises from deep within us and that makes possible the endurance to forgive over the long haul.


The image of debt reminds us that we can never resolve our guilt on our own. God has forgiven us so that we need never feel the terror of the first slave. Forgiveness not only cancels out our debt but works inside us as well. May we allow God’s mercy to create in us a love brave enough to forgive, wise enough to forgive rightly and strong enough that we don’t keep score in our graciousness to others.

1 Matthew 18:15-20.

2 Matthew 6:3.

3 1 Corinthians 13:4.



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