Forgiveness and living
When I was a kid, I was happily dragged around the country to different camps and church events, where my dad would speak to the grown ups and my mom would lead “creative dramatics” with the kids. Essentially, this meant acting out bible stories from a set of rhyming storybooks she brought along. Today’s parable is one that I acted out so many times as a kid, with so many groups of strangers, that I can still remember the exact lines that once got me kicked out of the room.
My mother was reading along, doing the voices of the characters, and fifty children were sitting cross-legged and rapt. We were getting to my favorite part. I had surreptitiously positioned myself right next to her, almost facing the rest of the kids, and my heart was pounding wildly, as I worked up my courage for a surprise assist.
The moment came, and she read,
”How much does he owe?” The king asked the treasurer, standing below,
And lept up and I roared out the answer at the top of my lungs, “TEN THOUSAND!”
She was supposed to continue, “The treasurer’s answer was loud!
“Ten thousand!?' Exclaimed everyone in the crowd…”
But instead the energy in the room turned electric and all eyes swiveled to me, wide and worried. My mother pointed a stiff and shaking arm at the door, finger pointed like a sharp arrow, and said, “OUT!”
And, horrified, I stood and slunk out to the hallway where I wept bitterly.
So, suffice it to say that I grew up really familiar with this parable, often called, “The Unforgiving Servant.” Hearing this story maybe 100 times in my childhood gave me plenty of chances to either feel mildly convicted that I wasn’t more forgiving to my sisters or classmates, or smug that I wasn’t like this total fool of a servant who couldn’t appreciate what he’d been given. We like to turn parables into morality tales and either smack ourselves with them or pat our own backs, and I bounced back and forth between both with this one.
But I never really heard the context of this story. I never heard that this parable was Jesus’ response to Peter, when Peter asked Jesus how many times we should forgive another member in the church who has hurt or offended us. Jesus had just been talking about conflict in community, and Peter was left mulling this question.
I have some empathy for Peter – it’s a great question. Peter thinks to himself, over, and over and over again I go through the work of forgiving someone who hurts me. Who among us has not asked this question? I certainly have.
So when is enough? He thinks. When can I stop? How much am I expected to put up with?
So then, maybe stretching to the outer limits of his capacity, he suggests a number, a good, large, and even holy-sounding number, and ventures, How about seven times? Surely that is a beyond generous amount, right Jesus?
And Jesus tells him – try seventy times that. In other words- infinity times, Peter. Just keep on going till you lose track. There is no end to forgiveness. No point at which you’ve reached the limit. No strikes or chances, no lifetime maximum out of pocket amount.
And then he tells this parable. And to be honest, if Jesus was going for some parable to talk about forgiveness’ limitlessness, surely he could have thought of something better. Because the king gives this guy exactly one chance and then sends him to eternal torture. Which kind of goes against what Jesus just said about forgiveness. So… what’s up with this story, Jesus?
“The kingdom of heaven is like…” he says, “a king, who forgives a slave more than he could ever possibly repay. To put it in perspective, this is the equivalent of 200,000 days wages. This man is trapped under unfathomable debt with no future ahead, even if the king sells him, all his possessions, and his family he wouldn’t even begin to recoup what he’s owed.
But the king forgives it all. All of it. He requires nothing of the man, doesn’t ask him how he got to be so in debt, doesn’t set up a reasonable interest-free repayment plan. He wipes the slate clean. He shows him mercy. In one fell swoop, everything changes for the servant.
Biblical scholar Craig Koester says, “Forgiveness is the declaration that the past will not define the future… It is not acceptance of the past… Forgiveness opens up a future that the past has closed off.”
No matter what this man has done, no matter what he deserves or owes, all that is over now. Instead of living his whole life trying to get out of debt he will never begin to make a dent into, the King hands the man a life that begins in mercy, in forgiveness, in the possibility of freedom. A new future is opened to him. He is freed from the old story, the old identity, to step into this new future as a new person. The former slave is invited to live in the fullness of his forgiven-ness.
But, the parable continues. And he goes out and grabs the first guy he sees that owes him money, this fellow slave who owes him about 100 days wages, (that’s 199,900 less, ½ of 1%, of what he owed to the king) and demands that the guy pay up immediately.
There is no solidarity or shared humanity. No, hey! Guess what just happened to me! kind of sharing. No passing on of the mercy he’s just received. There is only transaction and owing, competition and self-protection. It’s as though this thing with the King had never happened.
And so, the story goes, upon hearing of his actions, the king summons him back and furiously heaps back onto him his entire debt, and the full and terrible consequences of non-payment.
And then, just to make sure the message hit home, Jesus tacks onto the story “so my heavenly father will do to all of you if you don’t forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”
Oh, Peter, what did you do?
You just got yourself in deeper! Now not only do you have to forgive seventy times seven times, but you have to do it from your heart. You’ve got to mean it, Peter. Every time.
Forgiveness is a tricky thing for us. We get all tangled up in it – sometimes we see it as letting someone get away with someone, being a doormat, like “I forgive you” really means, “Oh that’s ok, what you did to me isn’t so bad.” Sometimes we feel loyal to our pain – we stroke it and stoke it, longing for our injury to be recognized as unjust and wrong, and act as though forgiving someone else is to somehow to betray ourselves.
Our culture at the moment is particularly brutal when it comes to forgiveness or mercy. Mercy is defined as, “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.” These days it seems we want to punish all those it is in our power to punish. And it’s so easy. With technology and social media, to ruin someone’s life or reputation as payback for something awful they’ve done – and regular folks can get in on the action, and do, every day!
We are a nation of vigilante justice-seekers, ready to right wrongs by tearing down the bad guys, (who are bad, by the way, because they tore someone down) so they got what was coming to them! From a distance, though, it’s awfully hard to tell the difference between “right and justified” dehumanization and “wrong and evil” dehumanization. It all just looks like people denying one another's personhood and degrading others for one reason or another. We will hold accounts and never release you from your past wrongs.
We are all for Forgiveness, most of the time. But some people, we like to tell ourselves, don't deserve forgiveness.
But that's just the thing.
'Forgiveness' doesn't belong in the same zip code as 'deserve' - they are completely different languages, contradictory accounting systems. Forgiveness and deserve are more like opposites, since forgiveness frees us from a system of gauging and measuring, and puts us instead into the realm of God's own inner life - bundles and unlimited love.
When forgiveness enters in, it sweeps our souls out and announces to all who will listen that past suffering, pain, betrayal or burdens, don’t get to entrap us or shape our future. Those who have injured us don’t get to redefine us forever by their actions. Forgiveness means our identity is shaped by our belovedness, instead of by our woundedness.
Jesus loved to use parables to take some point to an absurd extreme to highlight the contrast between the way of fear and the way of God. This whole conversation – even before Peter’s question, but in it too, has its basis in how do we treat each other in the church. If someone in the church sins against me… Peter asked.
How do we live together as those who have chosen to embrace and be defined by the way of God? A way of life that where we begin in grace and abundance instead of earning and proving, in generosity and care for one another, instead of self-preservation and isolation, that sees each other as brother and sister instead of competition. It begins in the very being of the One who embraces us and claims us, a God whose very nature is love, spilled out on us and lived out through us in the world.
In this way of life, this reality we choose to see and abide in, forgiveness is the currency, it’s God’s own lifeblood. It’s how how we remain free, how we receive the grace we’re given and how we go deeper toward the hope to which we are called in God.
It doesn’t achieve the end of making you right, or settle a score. It isn’t something people get to deserve or work toward or lose. That’s the old way of talking and thinking. No, forgiveness is how we experience our true humanity, and how we live into it as children of this God whose being is love.
The slave in our parable was forgiven more than he could repay in fifteen lifetimes, and then immediately and violently demanded someone repay a debt to him. This is like celebrating sobriety with a drinking binge, like running back into the burning building you were just rescued from, like scrapping the Ten Commandments for the golden calf and pining for the slavery of Egypt. He sticks with his old identity instead of the new one offered him by the king. He says, “Thanks, but no thanks” to a life of freedom and generosity, and chooses to live in the way of debt, and indebtedness, where people keep track, and there is no forgetting, no forgiving, no freedom.
Choose, then, which currency you wish to live in, which way you want to define you and shape your life. If you choose a world without forgiveness, you choose to be chained to the suffering of the past. You choose to repeat old hurts, to live them current, to nurture and tend the pain, with no chance of release.
If you choose this reality, for yourself, you choose it for those around you – you practice it and welcome it and spread it, and this will be the reality you will live in.
And I can’t help feeling like Jesus told this story to Peter, along with its dire warning at the end, with a twinkle in his eye, his words like a shove on Peter’s shoulder, to highlight to him the absurdity of his question:
How much forgiveness is enough, Jesus, before I can stop and be done with it already?
How much freedom from injury do I have to endure, before I get to be trapped in resentment?
At what point am I allowed to quit living in a future defined by love?
Is seven times a sacrificial and generous amount of forgiveness before it’s appropriate to throw in the towel and go back to hanging onto anger and betrayal?
Peter doesn’t know what’s coming.
That Jesus will die and take into himself all suffering and betrayal, all pain and injustice. That none of it, ever, goes unseen, untended, unmet. God himself will bear it all, all that has been and all that will be. And as the last breath leaves his human body, Jesus will look out at his murders and whisper, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
And they will cease being those who are killing God and instead become those on whom God has poured unending love. He will die in freedom, and release them too, and us as well, taking into the heart of God all the terrible things we think and say and do to one another, everything, every one of us.
And setting aside deserve and debt, punishment and payback, he will open to us mercy, grace, forgiveness and freedom. All that is dead, between us, within us, around us, is swallowed up by Resurrection. Our brokenness is now the ground from which new life is born, green and strong, beautiful and eternal.
Put down your burdens; let them go. Christ has taken them up.
In exchange for your woundedness he hands you belovedness.
This is what defines you now; this is your identity.
And forgiven-ness draws you into the being of God, and keeps you truly alive.