This morning’s gospel picks up where last Sunday’s left off, and it begins with Peter asking Jesus, How many times do I have to forgive someone who sins against me? That’s a question that’s probably occurred to all of us from time to time. How many times do I have to put up with this? How much longer do I have put up with that person?
But I want 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 you; 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.
Peter’s not talking about them; he’s talking about the people who sin against us. He’s talking about the people who actually injure us: the people who steal from us, or cheat on us, or slander us, slap us in the face or stab us in the back—ruthlessly, repeatedly. So how many times are we supposed to turn the other cheek? That’s Peter’s question, and if you notice, Peter answers his own question. Jesus, how many times do I have forgive that bum—seven, right?
Now you can tell by the way he answers his own question that he’s afraid Jesus is going to give him a big number (and as it turns out, his fears are justified); but when Peter suggests seven, he’s picking out a big number. If we’re really talking about forgiveness, and we’re really talking about the people who do us real injury, then the number most of us are working with is one—at our best. More normally, I’m working with the number zero. When someone does me harm, I don’t normally forgive it, I don’t forget it, I remember it, I resent it, I brood on it, I build a little shrine to it in the sanctuary of my head and I burn a candle to it every day.
Now at my best, after I’ve had some time to think about it, pray about it and some time to cool off, I am sometimes willing to forgive it, and forgive the person who did it—once. But if they turn around and do the very same thing again—all bets are off. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
When Peter suggests that I should forgive a person like that seven times, he’s really using an astronomical figure; and sure enough, it turns out to be too low. Not seven times, Jesus says; 77 times. By which he doesn’t really mean 77. What he means is, Peter, if you’re trying to put a number on this, then you don’t understand forgiveness.
So he tells a parable.
There’s a king, to whom a man owes 10,000 talents of silver. Now that figure that means nothing to us; but in that time and place, 10,000 talents of silver was an astronomical figure. It’s an absurd figure; it’s like saying a bazillion dollars. But the absurdity here is intentional; the point here is that the figure is beyond counting. And the point becomes important when the man falls to his knees, begs for patience and promises to work off the debt. He’s promising to work off a debt that he could never work off, not in a hundred years, not in a dozen lifetimes. And the king’s heart goes out to the man, and he forgives the debt. He sets the man free to forget the debt forever.
And you can tell that the man not only forgets the debt, he forgets that it was ever forgiven, because as soon as he runs into someone who owes him money, he immediately, ruthlessly demands repayment. The figure in this case is a hundred denarii, which is not an insignificant figure. For an ordinary person, that would have amounted to about three or four months’ salary. Sizable, but not beyond counting. And you can tell the man is counting it, because when his debtor falls to his knees, begs for patience and promises to work it off, the man whose debt has just been forgiven refuses to forgive the other’s. And when the king hears that the man whose astronomical debt he’s forgiven has refused to forgive the reasonably modest debt of another, he withdraws his own forgiveness and he reinstates the astronomical debt.
That’s the parable; and that’s the answer to Peter’s question. How many times must you forgive the person who’s done you wrong? Peter, how many times do you imagine God has forgiven you? How much do you think God has forgiven you? Peter, how many times more do you think you are going to need God’s forgiveness? Seven? 77?
More than 77. The figure is astronomical. It’s beyond counting. Peter, you have been forgiven more than you could bear to know; so go, give as you have received.
The parable teaches two things about forgiveness. The first is that forgiveness is a gift, which is freely given. You don’t pay for it, you don’t earn it and you don’t work it off. It’s given with no strings attached, with no reference to whether or not someone is deserving. Forgiveness is not about deserving; forgiveness is about undeserving. Which is exactly why I’m so unwilling to forgive the people who’ve injured me—because they obviously don’t deserve it. To which Jesus replies: Exactly. Neither do you.
Nobody who needs forgiveness deserves it. Forgiveness is what God gives those people who could never in a hundred years pay off the debt they have run up, who could never in a dozen lifetimes make up for the harm they’ve done. That’s who gets forgiven in the parable: the person whose debt is astronomical, beyond counting.
There is that; and then there’s this: the expectation is that those are forgiven will be forgiving. That’s in the parable this morning, but it’s found throughout the gospel, and we’re freshly reminded of it every Sunday when we pray the Our Father. Forgive us our trespasses, we pray, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Now I know that sounds like it’s saying we do, after all, pay for our forgiveness, that the price of forgiveness is our forgiving others, and if we don’t pay it, we’re not forgiven.
I think it’s truer to say this: Every gift that God gives, he gives freely; and every gift he gives us he expects us to share. Not just forgiveness, but the gifts of faith, hope, love, food, time, money. We’re expected to share what we’ve been given. That’s not really a string he attaches to the gift: that’s a part of the nature of the gift. The gifts God gives are given to be shared, and if they’re not shared, they spoil, they rot; they go to waste. If they’re not shared, they do us no good at all. So it is with the gift of forgiveness. If we’re not forgiving other people, that’s a sure sign that we have yet to receive the forgiveness that God has offered.
If we’re not forgiving people who do us wrong, that means either we don’t believe we’ve ever done anyone wrong, or we don’t believe we’ve ever been forgiven, or we believe that we’ve been forgiven no more than we deserve. Tending to believe that I have needed forgiveness only seldom, not often, and not much, I naturally tend to believe that other people deserve to be forgiven seldom, not often and not much.
How much do I think I’ve been forgiven? How many times have I needed to be forgiven? More than I can count. Do I think honestly think I’ve never demanded anything more from God than a little bit of patience and a healthy sense of humor? Obviously, God has a healthy sense of humor—I mean, look at me—and I know God is patient. But there are some things for which God has no patience and no sense of humor at all: those things he forgives.
I need to say one more thing about this, which relates to last week’s gospel and how it relates to this week’s.
There is a common misunderstanding about our call to unlimited forgiveness, which leaves some people in a bad place. The most obvious example of this is that of a woman who is being physically abused by the person she lives with. There are many women in this position, who for a variety of reasons refuse to leave the men who are beating them. One reason that some women never leave their abusers is that they believe they’re supposed to forgive the men who are beating them. Even if they beat them over and over again and never stop, these women forgive them over and over again and it never stops. That’s exactly the kind of situation last Sunday’s gospel has in mind. Last Sunday’s gospel, you remember, gave us a protocol to follow when someone is injuring someone else, and if after going through the protocol, the person won’t stop injuring the other person—what does Jesus say to do? Have nothing more to do with that person. Terminate the relationship. That’s the teaching that immediately precedes the teaching on forgiveness.
So the protocol in a case like this is: Terminate the relationship, get out of the house—and then forgive.
The question Peter is asking really isn’t How much longer do I have to put up with this? The answer to that in some cases is will be, You should not put up with that one minute more. But that’s a different question than, How many times must I forgive?
And that tells us something about forgiveness, which some of us need to know. To forgive someone doesn’t necessarily mean that we remain in relationship with someone. Jesus repeatedly teaches that there are relationships that need to be put to death. And the truth is that in some cases real forgiveness can come only after the relationship is over. And sometimes it takes a long time. Sometimes it takes multiple attempts, sometimes it must be done over and over before it finally takes root in our hearts. But the testimony of those who have been deeply injured by others is that their healing has depended, in large part, on their finally forgiving the person who hurt them. I know that doesn’t seem fair. But it seems to be true. Forgiveness, after all, isn’t about what’s fair. It’s about what’s necessary. And it isn’t about who’s deserving.
If we’re waiting for someone to deserve our forgiveness, we’re never going to forgive them. And if we’re waiting until we deserve it to ask God to forgive us, we’re never going to ask. God is not waiting for us to deserve it. It is given; it is given exclusively to those who don’t deserve it.
If God waiting for anything at all, he’s waiting for us to finally give as we have received.
The Rev. Steve Schlossberg is rector of St. Matthew’s, Richmond, Va.