He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself; for every man has need to be forgiven. –Thomas Fuller
There is a story about a young boy that had never said a single word. You know, most kids start talking when they are little babies and then they never shut up. But this kid never talked at all. When he was a toddler, the mother took the boy to the doctor to find out what was wrong with him. The doctor examined the boy thoroughly, but could find nothing wrong with the child. Eventually, the parents just accepted the sad truth that the boy would never speak. Then, one day, after several years, when the boy was five, he sat at the dinner table, took one bite of his meal and announced, “This tastes like crap!”
The mother and father were both astounded the child finally spoke—and not just a word either, a complete sentence! They looked at him dumbstruck and finally asked, “Son, why haven’t you ever said anything before?” The boy answered, “Up until now, everything’s been okay.”
You know, that’s kind of the way it is with religion. It’s easy to have faith and believe in God when everything is okay. That’s why the Taoist priests go off to live in the mountains alone. It’s hard to be serene when you live around other people. They bring out the worst in us. It’s very difficult to have loving, Christian feelings towards your fellow man when your fellow man just cut you off getting on the freeway.
It was easy to follow the teachings of Christ while he was around. But after he left, his followers began to have problems right away. And Matthew’s gospel was written very specifically to address some of those problems.
For one thing, there was some conflict caused by the early Christians who were originally Jews. They sort of felt a little superior to the gentile Christians. That’s why Matthew (or whoever wrote the gospel) was always pointing out that the gentiles were just as much God’s children as the Jews. Matthew consistently has the gentiles showing more faith than the Jews. That was his way of telling the Jewish Christians to make nice with the gentiles. But conflicts continued.
This story only appears in the Gospel According to Matthew. Last week’s gospel reading dealt with what to do when someone pisses you off. First you go and try to talk things out with the person. If that doesn’t work, bring some friends with you. And if that doesn’t work, get the whole church involved. And if that still doesn’t work, treat that person as you would a gentile or tax collector. In other words, avoid the person and let things go.
This week, the reading deals with what to do about a person who just keeps on doing the same old rotten crap over and over and over and over and---well, you get the idea. So Matthew has Peter ask Jesus how to handle such a situation.
“Peter approached Jesus and asked him,
‘Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive?
As many as seven times?’”
“Jesus answered, ‘I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who decided to settle accounts with his servants.
“When he began the accounting,
a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.
Since he had no way of paying it back,
his master ordered him to be sold,
along with his wife, his children, and all his property,
in payment of the debt.
“At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said,
'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.'
Moved with compassion the master of that servant
let him go and forgave him the loan.
“When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants
who owed him a much smaller amount.
He seized him and started to choke him, demanding,
'Pay back what you owe.'
“Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'
“But he refused.
Instead, he had the fellow servant put in prison
until he paid back the debt.
“Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened,
they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master
and reported the whole affair.
“His master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant!
I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.
Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant,
as I had pity on you?'
“Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.
So will my heavenly Father do to you,
unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart." (Matthew, Chapter 18)
We all know that seven times seventy means unlimited forgiveness. Specifically, Jesus (or Matthew) is making reference to a passage in Genesis in which Lamech calls for vengeance seven times seventy. In this way, Jesus is yet again turning the common culture on its collective ear. Remember, Jesus called upon people to “repent”, that is, to change their way of thinking, change their way of seeing the world. He wanted people to change the way they saw God and their relationship with God. God is not about vengeance. God is about Love. And love is about forgiveness.
To do this, Jesus tells the parable of the king and the servant. The king is calling together his servants to settle up accounts. He is collecting debts. In our minds, this is fair and just. And we’re all dealing with settling up debts these days in this economy. Indeed, I’ve heard a great deal of talk about those “irresponsible” people who got themselves into mortgages they couldn’t afford and how we’re all suffering because of it. So the king, much like the banks that have foreclosed on so many mortgages today, is calling in the loans he’s made.
And the servant in our story, the one who owes 10,000 talents, cannot pay it back. Let me tell you about 10,000 talents. In the first century, 10,000 talents were equal to about 150,000 years’ wages. A talent was the largest denomination coin they had. A kingdom would not have been able to repay that debt. The Walton family couldn’t pay that debt. Our nation’s deficit IS larger than that, however. Does THAT tell you something?
So the king is going to foreclose. He will sell the slave and his family in order to recoup a tiny fraction of the debt. The servant falls on his knees and begs for mercy, much as many people who are swimming in debt today have done. And like all of us when we bargain with God, he makes promises he cannot possibly keep. He promises to pay off the debt.
The king has mercy on him. He relents. The original Greek says that he “turned and moved in a new direction.” The king forgives the debt. He wipes it away! He releases the servant, but the servant then goes to one who owes him money and proceeds to beat the crap out of him until he pays. The servant has NOT changed his way of thinking. Although he has received the benefit of compassion, he still lives in the domain of justice. He wants what’s his. He is not willing to forgive, and so, when the king discovers this, the wicked servant is handed over to be tortured.
And of course, those fire and brimstone evangelicals or ultra conservative Catholics might point to this and warn us that we better get right with the Lord or we’re all gonna be roasting real good in eternity. But I think the point that Jesus (or at least the early church) is trying to make here is that holding onto anger and expecting some kind of justice, or at least justice from our point of view, just brings us more torment. I know that from my own experience, holding onto anger uses up a great deal of energy. When I’m angry at somebody, I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. It seems to occupy my every waking moment, and that’s just no healthy. It does me no good.
We live in a world we’ve created, a world in which you reap what you sew. We go to work and we expect to be paid. We learn early on that you have to work for what you want. And nothing makes us more angry than putting a lot of effort in to something and then not having it pay off. We want what we deserve. Jesus is asking us to change our way of thinking. Instead of looking at the business model of the world, we should be looking at the parental model of the world.
Our parents didn’t feed us and clothe us and love us because we earned it. Our parents took care of us because they loved us. And I think all of us can feel sure that had our parents knew about everything we did, we would not have wanted to have received what we deserved. I think we can all agree that it is better to be loved unconditionally. We all want to be forgiven. I know I would love for the bank that holds my mortgage to forgive me my debt. I doubt they will, but it would be nice.
It would be a much nicer world if everyone would forgive everyone else. Robert Assaglioli said, “Without forgiveness life is governed ... by an endless cycle of resentment and retaliation.” Forgiveness truly is a gift twice given. It frees the person forgiven and the person forgiving. That’s why that famous prayer asks God to forgive us as we forgive others.
The debt we owe God, the universe, our world, our lives, our love, could never be repaid by being nice people. We don’t earn heaven, whatever that may be. We couldn’t earn it anymore than the servant in the story could ever repay his debt of 10,000 talents. So Jesus is telling us that the Father doesn’t operate that way. God, or whatever you want to call that power, is the pure spirit of love. God doesn’t deal out justice. God deals out love.
In the Garden of Eden myth, Eve is only convinced to eat the forbidden fruit because the serpent (it never says Satan) convinces her that if she eats the fruit, she will be like God. That’s what we’ve been trying to do since the dawn of civilization. We’ve been trying to be like God, a task we will never achieve. Jesus shows us what it means to be like God. God is all forgiving, unconditionally forgiving, forever forgiving. And to be in harmony with the energy that permeates the universe and every cell in our bodies, we have to be forgiving too. And that’s not an easy task , especially when people cut you off while you’re getting on the freeway.
As I reflect upon the 16th anniversary of 9/11, this seems more obvious than ever. We’ve spent the past 16 years trying to get pay back. It’s cost us trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives. And we have gained nothing. The living relatives of those poor souls who perished in that attack are no happier now. Certainly, the people in Iraq and Afghanistan are no happier. The families of the military who have so bravely and unselfishly given their lives in the service of their country are no happier. Jesus is right. We have to change our way of thinking.
Jesus understood that people weren’t always easy to live with, or even live around. He showed us how to be godly in seeking that connection to the godhead, and how to be godly when being godly isn’t such an easy thing to do. There is only one way to deal with conflict, and that is to forgive. And if it bothers you that I think we should forgive the people who perpetrated the terrorist attacks of 9/11, forgive me. That’s what Jesus would do.