When Forgiveness Is Needed

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church[a] 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 slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.  So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’  And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.  But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’  Then his fellow slave 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 slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.  Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’  And in anger his lord 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, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” ~ Matthew 18:21-35

Every Sunday when we open our scriptures to read and hear the Word of God, we are almost inevitably coming in on the middle of the conversation. I feel that’s particularly true in this passage, which begins with Peter asking a question that couldn’t be more loaded: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times? I’m speaking hypothetically, Lord. Of course.” (Matt. 18:21). Where exactly did this particular conversation start? What has led up to this moment?

This conversation began at the top of the chapter, when some unnamed disciples asked Jesus a different (but probably related question): Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus gave what must have felt like a completely ridiculous and not at all satisfactory answer. This little child, Jesus said, enlisting the nearest kid. Unless you change and become like this little child, you won’t even get past the bouncer at the door of the kingdom of heaven.

The Big Question behind all these individual questions is this: what does it mean, again, to be in community with Jesus Christ? What is his vision for life in community, which, for us, translates to, life in the church? So it begins with a question about who’s the greatest, and moves into a conversation about what we do when things go wrong and we hurt one another. And that’s how we end up here.

When someone hurts us, how forgiving do we have to be? Another way of putting that might be, What’s the least forgiving we can get away with being? Peter wonders if forgiving the same person seven times is enough. Then can we be done with it? Will that do?

Jesus’ answer is very bad news for the legalists among us. Seven times? Ha! Try seventy-seven times (that’s what it says in our English translation). Or even, seventy times seven (that’s what it says in the original Greek). Which, lemme see, that would be… 490 times. In other words, Jesus gives him an answer that reminds me of my mother, who would say, “Oh, are we keeping score?” Jesus is not interested in our attempts to keep score, because his answer amounts to: Don’t bother with the numbers. Just keep forgiving.

Then Jesus tells the parable of the king and the slave. I’ll summarize it for you: The king forgives an enormous, insurmountable, life-crushing debt on the part of the slave. The slave, on the other hand, does not forgive a relatively small debt he is owed by another slave, but has him sent to prison. The king gets wind of it, and is enraged that someone who could be forgiven so much would refuse to forgive so little. So, the king has the first slave sent off to prison to be tortured.

As parables go, it’s a grim one. And I don’t know about you, but I find the presence of slavery in the text to be very troubling. We often wave those kinds of concerns aside when we read scripture, saying, “Well, in that culture…” But there’s a reason why we, in this culture, have outlawed slavery, and it has to do with Jesus. We don’t believe that people should own other people, in part, because Jesus is very clear that the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. We believe that slavery violates the dignity of human beings, all of whom we believe are made in the image of God. But perhaps the best thing I can say about slavery in this parable is: It made me notice the presence of slavery in our reading from Genesis, too.

Remember Joseph? That favorite son of Jacob? The one for whom his father made the amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat? The one who didn’t know how to handle being the favorite, but was kind of a brat. The one who hugely irritated his brothers by announcing he’d had dreams in which everyone, sun, moon, stars, parents, brothers… everyone bowed down to him? That Joseph. Our reading this morning finds Joseph much later. Joseph’s punishment for irritating his brothers had been that they sold him into slavery (and then lied to their father about it.) Eventually, though, Joseph turned out to have some talent, he totally landed on his feet, and he ended up in Egypt, right-hand-man to the Pharaoh, and second only to him in power.

Much later, his brothers have come to Egypt looking for food—economic refugees, they’re everywhere the bible—and Joseph, after putting them through their paces for a bit, finally admits who he is, and they have a tearful reunion, and it’s very sweet and emotional. It truly seems as if all is forgiven.

Then, their father Jacob dies.

‘Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?”’ (Gen. 50:15)

So they approach Joseph, and they say that Jacob would have wanted Joseph to forgive them.  And they beg Joseph’s forgiveness. Finally, they say these words: “We are here as your slaves.”

The brothers who sold Joseph into slavery, in the end, offer themselves to him as slaves. This is what is called, making reparation. Making amends. They ask forgiveness with their lips; they show contrition with their actions.

Joseph’s response is beautiful. Don’t be afraid, he says. “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good…” Joseph has come to the conclusion that God ensured the survival of the covenant community by placing Joseph in Egypt, where he would able to aid his family—as well as the entire population of Egypt—during the time of famine. (Gen. 50:20). God intended it all for good.

The story of Joseph and his brothers illustrates a couple of commonsense truths. Forgiveness is easier to give when, first, we can see a greater good arise from ash heap of bad actions; and second, when those asking forgiveness demonstrate their sincerity with their actions. “We are here as your slaves.” That statement of humility shows that the brothers of Joseph understand the gravity of what they have done to him.

When we read this story, I don’t think we have the liberty of forgetting that institution of slavery flourished in our land from 1619 to 1867, nearly 250 years, and then there was another hundred-plus years of systematic denial of human rights to people of color. The aftereffects of slavery are very much with us. I wonder how this country we love could show by its actions that it understands the deep, horrific damage done to generation upon generation of those who were enslaved here, and which continues to harm individuals,  families, and communities?

There are some circumstances in which forgiveness is easier. And there are others in which it is harder.

Maybe it would be good to be clear about certain things.

Forgiveness does not mean: Remaining in a situation where you allow a person to continue to harm you.  Forgiveness does mean: Creating the space for your own healing from the harm done to you.

Forgiveness does not mean condoning harmful actions. Forgiveness does mean undergoing a change of heart about the perpetrator of the action (that is, no longer seeking retribution).

Forgiveness does not mean excusing the harmful actions. Forgiveness does mean holding the perpetrator accountable for their actions.

Forgiveness does not necessarily mean the restoration of relationship. But if the person who has caused the harm expresses an understanding of the harm they’ve caused and offers, in some way, to make amends… it may.

The figure at the heart of the parable is the king… the one who is so completely forgiving in the beginning, but who revokes his forgiveness when he sees that the one he has forgiven, refuses to forgive someone else. And though we are discouraged from turning parables into allegories, it’s common to assume the king in this parable is a stand-in for God. I don’t believe that allegory holds up. I think the enraged king looks a little more like us, than it looks like God. We are imperfect. That’s a given. But God’s love is not—I repeat—not conditional. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. God’s mercies never come to an end. They are fresh every morning. (Lam. 3:22-23)

So, I would like to offer this. It is an email I received this week, from pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes. He offers daily devotions—poems, prayers, “rooted in a contemplative, Creation-centered spirituality.” This week, on Friday, he offered this guided meditation.

Settle and breathe deeply. ...

Rest in the peace of God. ...

Bring to mind a person you haven't forgiven. ...

The two of you stand together.

Jesus comes and looks at the two of you
with great kindness in his eyes.

He embraces the other.
Perhaps there are words,
though likely you can't hear them.
Perhaps there are tears.
He holds them for a long time. ...

They release the embrace, look at each other
and smile. ...

Jesus turns to you
with great kindness in his eyes.
He embraces you.
Perhaps there are words. 
(What might they be?)
He holds you a long time. ...

He releases you and looks at you
and smiles. ...

You look at the person you want to forgive.
What is in your heart? ...

Tell them. …

Jesus blesses you and leaves you
with your new heart.[i]

I don’t think the enraged king who sentences the slave to be tortured is God. It sounds more like the sentence we might pass on ourselves in our hurt and anger. God is the one who creates us in love, redeems us in love, and sustains us in love. God is the one whose forgiveness draws us out of the prison of ourselves, and shows us what freedom might look like. God is the one whose forgiveness and mercy are not limited or countable, but are fresh every morning. God forgives, and invites us to forgive, not out of fear, but out of love. Thanks be to God. Amen.


[i] Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “Forgiveness Meditation,” Unfolding Light, 9-15-2017, https://www.unfoldinglight.net/reflections/2ad847lp9brttlr2gkkklfycpk9mt8