When Peter asks Jesus how many times he needs to forgive his brother, he is often criticized by preachers for what they discern to be his less than admirable motives. They suggest that by setting a limit of seven times that Peter is really not all that into forgiveness, and that he is looking for a limit to the number of times he has to forgive before he can indulge his resentment and claim what he is owed. Perhaps. But this, it seems to me, is a cheap and too-easy route to lead into Jesus’ response to Peter that tells him and us that we need to forgive and forgive and forgive for what is really an indefinite number of times. As such it also tends to miss Jesus’ real point about the nature of forgiveness and the kingdom, a point which goes a lot deeper than the number of times that you have to forgive, even if that number is endless.
One preacher does a better job, though. John Calvin saw a lot deeper than most when he described a different sort of motive behind Peter’s question. For Calvin, Peter is not holding on to his resentment nor is Peter looking to get out of forgiving. After all, forgiving somebody who has contracted a moral debt with you seven times is really pretty generous. Few of us would get to seven times with anybody other than a near relative. Where Calvin sees Peter as needing correction then is for a different kind of assumption. For, Calvin opines, Peter seems to think that forgiveness is always for something, that it is designed as a tool to produce a good moral outcome. This is say, that Peter, who is a good man, and who has learned something from Jesus, knows he has to forgive. He is willing to do it. But he assumes that point of forgiveness is the repentance and improvement of the one who is forgiven. That hoped-for result is the sum reason for why we forgive. So, Peter is, in essence asking, “if one forgives another seven times, if one gives another person not only a second and a third but a seventh chance, and the other doesn’t change, shouldn’t we in the moral interests of the other change tactics? Shouldn’t we no longer forgive but put the hammer down until he says he is sorry?”
Now, what recommends ascribing this motive to Peter is that this is actually the way that most good people approach forgiveness. It is an enlightened way. A good parent will give a child a second chance, hoping that with that chance she will get things right. A merciful judge will show leniency to a reprobate in the hopes that, in giving him a second chance, he will improve his ways. “Go and sin no more” is the thought here and it comes from a good source. Good people when dealing with others who have offended them hope for better from them. Thus, we give them a second chance to do better. That is all to the good in its way. But, in this sort of thinking, there also seems to be an assumption there surely has to be a limit. If second and third chances don’t work, then there has to be a point at which we close the books, and call the account due.
But Jesus corrects Peter. Or, better put, he tries to expand Peter’s horizons. He tells him that he is to forgive his brother or sister in the church not seven times, but seventy times seven, which is to say more times than he really could keep track of. Basically, you don’t count the times you should forgive; you just keep forgiving. Now, one way of looking at this is to say that Jesus is telling Peter and us that we have to keep giving others an unlimited number of chances. He is telling us that we cannot close the books on our brothers and sisters. There is some of that; it may be what Peter hears. But, what I think Jesus is really getting at, and what can be hard to understand, even by a saint like Peter, is something else, something a lot more revolutionary. I think Jesus is actually challenging the idea that forgiveness is just a matter of giving people a second chance. I think he wants us to think about forgiveness in another way.
What way is that? Well, not as a tool or a technique that is designed to elicit a specific response or result from another person. Instead, it is, I would like to suggest, a matter of lifting a weight or a burden from the life of another, and to forgive always is to be always ready to lift that burden.
Let me explain. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus, a good rabbi in his way, is keenly aware of the demands of God’s Law. He does not want to abrogate the Law– he doesn’t want to change a jot or a tittle of it. But he does want us to understand what the Law is for, what it is all about. He believes that folks have not gotten it right. In using it to get to goodness, they have unfortunately turned it into a system of debt and punishment. They have not necessarily been cruel or unfeeling, but they are often rigorous and scrupulous in demanding that the Law’s commands be met. When there is a debt, it has to be repaid. There will be no order if there is no respect for the Law, they think. Sure, there can be forgiveness. The Law itself spells out how that can happen. That is what sacrifices are for. But still, somehow the debt has to be repaid.
Jesus, however, has another angle on this. It is simply illustrated by his response to those who criticize him for breaking the Sabbath by healing on it. He counters them by pointing out that the Law is for life, and that in interpreting its demands we need to see how they can lead to life. They are misunderstood when they crush life, when they lay a burden so heavy on us that we cannot stand, or when they push us into a prison so dark that we are cut off from the light. So, if healing is a matter of giving life, you do it even if it appears to contradict the Law – but it doesn’t really. So, similarly, forgiveness, he is telling Peter, is a matter of lifting the burden, not just a matter of giving someone a second chance to bear it. Forgiveness, at least the sort of forgiveness that the kingdom of God is made of, is a matter of giving light. It is not just a second chance. That willingness to lift the burden needs to be behind all the rest of our moral endeavors.
Debts, whether legal or financial or moral can be crushing, and the demand for righteousness can actually cut us off from life sometimes when we fail to see that the goodness God wants for us is a matter of life and freedom and light. The demand for goodness can actually crush us unless we understand this.
Anthony Trollope’s novel The Vicar of Bullhampton is a novel in which Trollope in the mid-nineteenth century sought to raise the issue of pity and forgiveness for so-called fallen women, whom he thought were treated much more harshly than fallen men ever were. “Fallen women” were at the time the icons of how laws and good order came to crush lives. Thus, we are told of Carry Brattle, a young woman seduced and betrayed, who is forced to leave home and the village of Bullhampton in shame. Her life has become sordid and hard. Mr. Fenwick, the Vicar of Bullhampton, seeks to restore her to her family and home. But it is hard to find people who will forgive her. One woman he talked to argued vehemently that Carry deserved what she got, and she would have no forgiveness from her. Mr. Fenwick, after encountering this woman, thought to himself that “what this woman had been saying was only what the world had said to her.” And, he thought with bitter sarcasm, “the world knows so much better how to treat a sinner than did our Savior when on earth.” What Fenwick understood, and this woman didn’t, is what Jesus was trying to get Peter to understand – that forgiveness and mercy is a matter of lifting a weight so that we can live. Unless it happens, we will simply wither and die. In cases like this one, the notion of a second chance is really not the main point. Something much more basic is what is needed.
Which brings us to Jesus’ illustration of his point in the parable of the ungrateful servant. In the parable, a servant owes his master ten thousand talents. Since Greek does not know how to write a higher number, and since the amount is the equivalent of fifteen thousand years of wages, Jesus is basically saying that the servant owes his master a billion, kazillion dollars. It is unpayable. This, of course, makes the servant’s plea for patience on the master’s part utterly ridiculous. The debt is infinite. There is no number of second chances that is going to pay this debt off. As a result, it marks and defines the servant’s life all the way through. But the master has pity for his servant. That is important. His heart goes out to him, he feels for the man who because of his debt is utterly lost, facing the sale of his family and possessions, which weren’t going to even make a dent in what he owed. The master in this case is not looking to give the guy a second chance, or more time. He isn’t forgiving him for any other reason than to give him his life back. Perhaps that wasn’t so smart as the servant then turns around and throws someone who owed him three months of wages, a very finite debt, into prison. Perhaps the master should have asked for some signs of rehabilitation first. But he didn’t.
What is interesting here is the master’s reaction to the servant’s subsequent savagery. He is so angry that he throws the servant into prison. Why? Not because he owed the master something. That had already been forgiven. It was because the servant refused to forgive others.
Now, Jesus tells this parable as an illustration of what the kingdom is like. He is not giving it as an exercise in everyday ethics. In that sense, I would even like to suggest that he is not using it to repudiate Peter’s assumptions. In fact, I would like to say that, on one level, Peter was quite right in holding them. There are lots of times that we should use mercy and forgiveness as a matter of giving people a second and third chance in the hope that they will turn themselves around. It is good to turn around. And there are lots of times when we need to stop giving them chances when they don’t turn around. Nobody should give an abuser an infinite number of chances to continue to abuse. Nobody should give a hater an infinite number of chances to spew venom or racism or any other kind of hate. Jesus, only a few lines before this story, actually says as much. In last week’s Gospel lesson, he gives the disciples a very definite point at which they are to treat the reprobate as one would normally treat a Gentile and a tax collector.
But if he is not exactly repudiating Peter’s, or other good people’s assumptions about limiting the number of chances to give someone, he is trying to expand Peter’s horizons about forgiveness. He does that by showing Peter that the moral economy of debt and repayment has its limits. It produces harm and injury as well as good. It encourages, but it also can weigh us down like a ton of bricks. So, that moral economy of debt and repayment has its limits. It is not what the kingdom of God is made up of. It is not how we get to the kingdom of God, no matter how precise we get about the rules or how well we measure them. That economy will not in the end give fullness of life, although in limited ways, it can protect us. But it can also hurt us.
So, something else is needed for the fullness of life, and that something else is something that has to stand, uncompromised, behind everything else that we do. It has to stand behind every relation we have. That something else is the love we need to show for our brothers and sisters, it is the willingness to lift their burdens so that they can breathe, and so that they can see light. That is what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. He lifted the weight, an infinite weight, so we could breathe. He didn’t just give us a more finely-tuned Law. He didn’t even just give us another chance to pay our debt. He freed us completely and he did it out of pity for us. And then he gave us a commandment to love one another as he loved us. He gave us the possibility of living life without a crushing debt on our backs. Our willingness to lift the burdens of others in turn, is the degree to which we have accepted that life of freedom and light. It is that by which we will be judged. And as Jesus makes clear, we will be judged on it.