There was a man, named Ronald who loved dogs. He served as a speaker in various civic clubs to benefit the SPCA. He was known far and wide as a dog lover. One day his neighbor observed as he poured a new sidewalk from his house out to the street. About the time he smoothed out the last square foot of cement a large stray dog walked across his sidewalk leaving footprints in his wake. Ronald muttered something under his breath and smoothed out the footprints. He went inside to get some twine to string up around the sidewalk and came back outside only to discover dog tracks in two directions on his new sidewalk. He smoothed those out and put up the twine. About five minutes later he looked out and the footprints indicated that the dog had cleared the fence, landed on his sidewalk and simply walked over the wet walk as he desired. Ronald was mad now. He troweled the wet concrete smooth again. As he got back to the porch he saw the dog come over and sit right in the middle of his sidewalk. He went inside got his gun and came out and shot the dog dead. The neighbor rushed over, “Why did you do that?” he inquired, “I thought you loved dogs.” Ronald looked up from once again smoothing his concrete at his neighbor and replied, “I do, I do like dogs; I love dogs! I love them in the abstract, not in the concrete.”
For most of us forgiveness is like that. We love the idea of forgiveness. We think forgiveness is very important. It is just a lot easier in the abstract than in the concrete. Our reading today comes directly after last week’s reading with Peter asking Jesus, “How many times should I forgive someone who sins against me? Should I do it seven times?”
I want to quote from a Fr. Schlossberg who wrote about this passage: “Now to be sure that we’re talking about the same person Peter’s talking about. Peter’s talking about the person who sins against him. So he’s not talking about the person who fails to live up to his expectations, or irritates him, or gets on his nerves or gets under his skin. This is easy for me to forget, and it’s important for me to remember: though it’s hard for me to believe, it’s not a sin to get on my nerves. What gets under my skin, usually, is not something inside of someone else; it’s something inside of me. When people offend me, what they’re offending, usually, is my pride; when people irritate me, what they’re irritating, usually, is my own lack of patience and my own thin skin. People who annoy me like that don’t need me to forgive them for that. I should be asking them to forgive me for my own irritability. All they’re really demanding from me is a little patience and a normal healthy sense of humor. So Peter is not talking about them; he’s talking about people who sin against us, about people who actually injure us: people who steal from us, or cheat on us, or slander us, slap us in the face or stab us in the back again and again without stopping. So how many times do I forgive this person? That is what Peter is asking.”
In those days Scribal law was clear. One was supposed to forgive a person who sinned against you up to three times, after that-no more forgiving! After that it was get even time. Now Peter knew that Jesus had a higher standard so Peter went all the way up to 7 and he thought that was pretty good. So the answer Jesus gave him surprised him very much. This is why Jesus then gave the parable in order to explain his answer.
The story is one of the most memorable ones that Jesus tells. We are told in the story that the man is in debt to the king for 10,000 talents. The Greek word Murias literally means 10,000. However, murias is the largest numerical term in classical Greek so it also can mean a vast uncountable number, in fact, we get our word myriad from it. In our day’s money the amount would be in the billions. So the debt of 10,000 talents for a single man was an incalculable, unpayable debt. He simply could not live long to repay that amount of money, not in one lifetime, not in many lifetimes. So when he is called to settle accounts with the king there is no way he could ever have paid. Jesus’ listeners would have realized this right away. The king therefore was going to sell the man as a slave, sell the man’s wife and children as slaves and all his possessions. Now he would not get10,000 talents for them, but he would receive something, some money and something is better than nothing. But then the man falls to his knees and begs the king for mercy. He tells him to have patience and I will repay everything. Words, these were simply words, he could no more pay back the king 10,000 talents than he could fly. But the king has pity on him and we are told that he releases him and forgives the debt. He tells him that he does not have to pay him back.
But the story goes on—this same fellow who had been in so much debt now meets up with a fellow slave. This slave owes him money, 100 denarii. For us in our day and age, the debt in would be about $12,000. This is not pocket change is it? If I owe $12,000 it is not a tiny amount but it is certainly something that can be repaid; it is actually payable. In the story slave number one grabs slave number 2 by the throat and tells him to pay him back and pay him back now. Slave two answers him exactly how he had answered the king, “Have patience and I will repay you.” But slave one doesn’t have any patience and he has slave two thrown into prison until he would pay the debt. In those days, this was what would happen and for the fellow to get out of prison basically his family would have to borrow from someone else to pay debt number one off. Of course, now they are in debt again plus a little more but that is how it worked.
But then the king finds out about this episode and gets very angry. He calls slave one back reinstates the former debt, and then throws him in prison and gives him over to be tortured until he could pay back his unpayable debt.
The point Jesus is making is that we have been forgiven a debt by God we could not have ever possibly repaid. Note also that the forgiveness is freely given, it is not deserved; it is not earned. This is why it is so difficult to forgive those people who sin against us. They very well may not deserve to be forgiven by us. But Jesus is saying, “That is right—but you don’t deserve forgiveness either.”
See, this is what I meant about forgiveness being easy in the abstract but not so easy in the concrete. William Willimon once wrote: “The human animal is not supposed to be good at forgiveness. Forgiveness is not some innate, natural human emotion. Vengeance, retribution, violence, these are natural human qualities. It is natural for the human animal to defend itself, to snarl and crouch into a defensive position when attacked, to howl when wronged, and to bite back when bitten. Forgiveness is not natural.”
In fact forgiveness is tough. Jesus tells Peter to forgive not just 7 times but 70 x 7 times. You see, we can keep track of 7 times and God does not want us to keep a tally of all the wrongs committed against us. That’s why the 70 times 7. We will lose track; we are supposed to lose track and that’s the point. Just like God keeps forgiving us day after day and week after week, we need to keep forgiving those who sin against us.
But how does this unlimited forgiveness relate to last week’s lesson? Last week I told you that there are some sins that will destroy a relationship. There are sins that need to be repented of if one is a part of the church of Jesus. I told of a person who had deserted their spouse and children who refused to change and that this person was excommunicated from the church. Now the spouse left behind still needed to forgive. In like manner there are women who are physically abused by the person with whom she lives. There are different reasons she may give for not leaving but one often is that she feels she is supposed to always forgive. Even though it happens again and again the woman forgives but the situation never changes. This is similar to what we talked of last week. Jesus tells us in a situation like this to confront, confront with another, and then with the church and if there is no change to have nothing more to do with this person. We don’t have to live with this behavior but we do need to forgive.
Talking about forgiveness is easy and telling others they need to forgive is easy. That is forgiveness in the abstract. But to actually have to forgive in reality, to forgive in the concrete is very hard and sometimes it seems impossible. It might be unless God helps us. But as followers of Jesus we must. It is not an option. If we expect God to forgive us we must forgive those who sin against us. Jesus tells us here that God will not forgive us our sins if we refuse to forgive other. We need to work at it; we need to keep our hearts clear and clean of resentment against others. In so doing we are being true followers of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen