Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.


St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Bart Smith
The Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 17, 2017)
Matthew 18:21-35 (NRSV) – “490”

Then Peter came and said to [Jesus], “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his [servants]. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his [master] ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.

So the [servant] fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the [master] of that [servant] released him and forgave him the debt.

But that same [servant], as he went out, came upon one of his fellow [servant]s who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow [servant] fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow [servants] saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their [master] all that had taken place.

Then his [master] summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked [servant]! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow [servant], as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his [master] handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.

So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, [Jesus said] if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

“How often should I forgive?” Peter asks Jesus, “seven?” Peter is going for the gold star in class today. Perhaps he’s trying to impress his rabbi, aiming higher than one normally would. Seven.

Depending upon which Greek manuscript you’re looking at, you’ve got two options for Jesus’ magic number: seventy-seven times or seventy times seven, which makes what? 490. If you’re a math person, or someone who likes to think in terms of numbers, this passage gets progressively more interesting in the parable that Jesus tells.

But we before we get to the numbers, a little background to the parable might help. The servants mentioned here aren’t domestic staff serving in the palace, nor are they indentured slaves, but rather subordinate officials in the royal court. One of the many aims of this parable could be that Jesus is not-so-subtly lampooning the court life under Herod the Great. The debt that this first servant accumulated was through mismanagement of the king’s resources (possibly tax revenue) not the servant’s own personal bank account. It’s important to know that this servant blew through royal funds. How much does he owe exactly? 10,000 talents. And how much is that in modern terms? Well…

“a talent is the largest monetary unit (20.4 kg of silver), equal to 6,000 drachmas, the wages of a manual laborer for fifteen years. ‘Ten thousand’ is the largest possible number… The annual tax income for all Herod the Great’s territories was 900 talents per year. Ten thousand talents would exceed the taxes for all of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria. The amount is fantastic, beyond all calculation.” [1]

The servant can’t repay the debt, not in a million years. Yet still he receives mercy, inestimable mercy from the ruler in this parable.

But then comes this other situation. Another middle-management court official owes the first servant a debt, too. True, the amount owed is not insignificant (100 days wages for an ordinary worker in that day) but still, this debt is miniscule in comparison. Math people, here’s another number for you: the ratio of this servant’s debt to the amount the first servant owed the king is 1/600,000. His lack of mercy is unfathomable, outrageously unjust, almost cartoonish.

I wonder what Peter is thinking as Jesus tells this parable. Is he standing there, jaw dropped to the floor? Is he nervously kicking at the sand and staring at the ground? “Yikes, Jesus, I get your point! The debt we owe God is incalculable, so we ought to forgive others. Got it!”

But what do we think about this? Does the math here add up?

Like Peter, we’d probably prefer an exact number. “Let’s set some reasonable parameters to forgiveness, Jesus. Boundaries are good, aren’t they?” Maybe because we aim to be loving, patient, generous people, we’d go for forgiving someone seven times. Seven’s magnanimous enough. Seven’s a lot more than common sense metrics like “three strikes and you’re out.”

No, Jesus replaces our measurements of mercy with something far more extravagant.

It’s at this point at which I put myself in Peter’s sandals and start debating with Jesus. I don’t know if Peter did, but I sure would have liked to! “You must know, Rabbi,” I’d point out to him, “that what you’re proposing here, however well-intentioned, just doesn’t work. Let’s talk about accountability here; there are some things that we simply can’t forgive. We’d be here until dawn if I came up with a list—the things that people do to one another that break our hearts (and yours), the personal slights, the outright violence, the hurtful words, the blatant injustices on a systemic level again and again, and sins of omission, gosh don’t get me started on those…”

“But you are forgiven an enormous debt, Bart,” I can imagine Jesus gently reminding me. “What was that you said about accountability?”

Now we’re thick in the weeds! Calculating the harm we have done and the harm we do, that’s a mathematical feat in and of itself. That’s one reason why we Presbyterians have this ritual of confession and forgiveness toward the beginning of our worship, week after week: our broken world is in desperate need of mending, and the first step in that healing, we believe, is for us to own our part in it. It’s like Karl Marx once wrote, “In order to secure remission of its sins, [hu]mankind has only to declare them for what they actually are.” [2]

Still, when preaching about the need for forgiveness, I fear that the wrong people end up hearing sermons like this. I think of people who have been abused and exploited, and I’m confident that Jesus does not expect any of us to be door mats. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting. Forgiveness certainly does not mean giving permission for the injury to continue. On the contrary, true forgiveness necessitates an honest acknowledgement of the harm that’s been done. Cheryl Lawrie put it well in her poem “70 X 7 + 1.”

I forgave
and forgave once more
although I didn’t have it in me
although it used up every ounce of love
and hope
I had…
until there was none left
And still I forgave again.
And then
one day
when I had lost count,
when I had passed all the numbers I knew
and couldn’t add a single one
I had the faith
to listen
to the voice that says
Don’t do this forever.
You count too much.
Enough. [3]

Maybe what Jesus is trying to teach Peter by replying with such an outlandishly large number is that mercy takes repetition in order to gather strength. In other words, forgiveness takes practice. Maybe it’s something we never “get right,” so we have to keep at it. Because God is mercy, it’s a posture we won’t ever perfect, but one in which God’s grace helps us to grow.

Jesus’ math doesn’t add up here, that’s true. It’s not supposed to, nor is this parable supposed to make complete sense. In the heart of God is a vast ocean of mercy, deeper and wider than our minds can ever conceive. And while that grace isn’t cheap—the cross of Christ teaches us that much—it is unlimited. Of course that challenges us, because as creatures we like to think in measurable, transactional terms, of quid pro quo and “tit for tat.” Have you heard that expression, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind?” That is what forgiveness liberates us from: those destructive cycles of retribution in which we get trapped.

Forgiveness lifts us out of our transactional systems and puts us back into the possibilities of staying in relationship, the possibilities of transformation, the possibilities of love.

Probably one of the most famous examples of forgiveness in the news in recent years came out of an Amish community in Pennsylvania. Do you remember that? About ten years ago, a man walked into a one-room schoolhouse and killed five students and then himself. Reeling in the unimaginable horror of an experience like that, the world marveled at how the Amish community forgave the killer. They went to his funeral, they hugged his widow, they donated money to her and their three young children.

One of the many misconceptions surrounding those events was that this community “got over” the tragedy so quickly. Another was that they eschewed therapy; a nearby therapist said years later that many were still in grief counseling. When he was interviewed, the therapist said:

“Tragedy changes you. You can’t stay the same… Where that lands you don’t always know. But what I found out in my own experience if you bring what little pieces you have left to God, [God] somehow helps you make good out of it. And I see that happening in this school shooting as well.”

[He said] that because the Amish can express that forgiveness, and because they hold n grudges, they are better able to concentrate on the work of their own healing.

I’ll close with another parable, a brief story I heard once about two people in prison. One prisoner asked the other, “Have you forgiven your captors yet?”

The person replied, “No, why in the world would I do that? I’ll never forgive these people!”

To which the other said, “Then they’ll always have you locked up, won’t they?”

[1] Matthew 18:23-35 Commentary in The New Interpreter’s Bible Matthew – Mark (1995), Leander E. Keck, editor.

[2] Letters from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher Marx to Ruge, Kreuznach, September 1843. Credit goes to the Rev. Alison Harrington for pointing this quote out to me.

[3] Posted on her “hold this space” blog, April 30, 2012.

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