Matthew 18:21-35 – The 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time â€“ for Sunday, September 14, 2014
â€œThen Peter said to Jesus, â€˜Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against meâ€¦â€™â€ (Matthew 18:21)
The â€œParable of the Unforgiving Servant,â€ which is the subtitle used in my old New Revised Standard Version, is easily understood.
(And maybe unsettling.)
The disciple Peter asked Jesus how many times he must forgive another.
Not surprisingly, Jesus told Peter a parable. In the parable, Person A forgave Person B. Did it matter that Person A was the â€œmasterâ€ and Person B was the â€œservant?â€ While it added detail and tension, Iâ€™m not sure itâ€™s important. One forgave another. The story continued, becoming more complicated. Person B, having felt the joy of forgiveness, was next seen confronting Person C.
Person C owed Person B.
B didnâ€™t forgive C. Indeed, B did bad things to C.
A, clearly in the loop of information, learned what B did to C.
As quick as you can say a-b-c, Person B, once forgiven, once the recipient of compassion, was tossed into the slammer by A.
(Whew. Bad things do happen to bad people!)
Christianity, from the earliest Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions through todayâ€™s rise of non-denominational churches, has emphasized the healing power of forgiveness. But what about other religions? The Qurâ€™an, in Surah 7:199, implored: Keep to forgiveness (O Muhammad), and enjoin kindness, and turn away from the ignorant. The Buddha invited: To understand everything is to forgive everything.
Isnâ€™t forgiveness central to every faith tradition?
(Please forgive me if you think Iâ€™m wrong!)
As a Christian, I think I understand the parable, and yet Iâ€™m also unsettled. My discomfort isnâ€™t about comprehension, but with Peter.
For the most part, I think the writer of Matthewâ€™s Gospel inserted Peter into these verses as a foil. Matthewâ€™s primary interest was the tale told by Jesus. Any disciple could set the stage; it couldâ€™ve been Simon the Zealot or James the son of Alphaeus. But Peter was the one who asked about forgiving another.
And so Peter wondered: How many times, Lord? As many as seven times, Lord?
The answer from Jesus to Peter was quickly given: as many as seventy-seven times.
Then the parable was told. But what happened to Peter?
Peter, who couldâ€™ve been Simon or James, and who probably thought the number 7 was darn generous for the balance sheet of forgiveness, was left busily counting his fingers and toes while Jesus shared the parable. Perhaps Peter had to start adding again because 77 were a whole mess of digits. And lest we forget, some ancient Greek manuscripts claimed Jesus said 70 times 7â€”for a grand total of 490 fingers and toesâ€”instead of 77 or the original, only-two-hands-needed 7!
Poor Peter. (Or James. Or Simon. Or maybe you, and certainly me.)
But what if Peter wasnâ€™t merely inserted into a verse so Jesus could tell the story? What if Peterâ€”or you or meâ€”truly needed to forgive someone?
What if Peter needed to forgive Simon or James, or Mary or Martha? Or anyone else who lived in Peterâ€™s â€œneighborhood?â€
Easy, go talk to her or him. Ask for forgiveness. Wait for an answer.
What if Peter needed to forgive a person who lived far away or that he hadnâ€™t seen for a long time?
Easy, write â€˜em an honest note. (And hey, for us moderns, if itâ€™s you or me instead of Peter, we can send an email or flowers . . . or even phone. Poor Peter wouldâ€™ve had to find expensive papyrus, precious ink, and a decent stylus.)
Hey, wait just a darn minute! Itâ€™s not always easy to forgive. When another belittled, ignored, or misinterpreted our words or actions, it can be tough to forgive. A healing chat, or writing words that (may) lead to reconciliation, can be hard work. Indeed, the person youâ€™re offering forgiveness to might think you should be saying youâ€™re sorry! Okay, so itâ€™s complicated . . . humans are messy and communication is a chore. But isnâ€™t rebuilding a relationship worth that effort?
But what if Peter canâ€™t forgive the other person because what he or she did was unforgivable?
Did Jesus, in telling a story about financial shenanigans between the haves and have-nots, expect everyone to be forgiving when the personal cost had nothing to do with bags of gold? Can you forgive a priest who molested you when you were a child? Can you forgive a man who raped you? Can you forgive a parent who abandoned you? Can you forgive a drunken woman who plowed her car into your spouse? I can keep making these scenarios worse. And yet, whatever tragic acts are imagined, there are probably worse ones that happened to you, or to someone you love.
How can we once, let alone 490 times, offer healing words to the person who inadvertently or intentionally wrecked our life?
Frankly, Iâ€™d prefer to Google an answer. Letâ€™s pause a moment while I find a zippy quote from the Book of Mormon or the Midrash, from Buddha or Mohammad, from Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., from Scientology or the Mayans, from Billy Graham or Nadia Bolz-Weber! Please, can someone smarter than me, or a sacred text that has informed believers for millennia, reveal to me how to forgive the unforgiveable?
If quotes are what you want, Iâ€™ll let you do your own search. Though Iâ€™m sorely tempted to conclude these reflections with an expertâ€™s insights or scriptureâ€™s inspiration, Iâ€™m stuck with thinkingâ€”believingâ€”Jesus was right.
Even with the most unforgivable actions, Peter (or me, or you) has to keep finding a path toward forgiveness. Regardless of which ancient manuscriptâ€™s mathematics you trust, I believe there are more than 490 ways to forgive. I believe forgiveness only counts when you donâ€™t keep count. Forgiveness is not about winning or losing. I also believe we may never find the perfect way to achieve forgiveness in some broken relationships. But if the path we choose ignores our hurt, or masks our anguish, or involves scheming and revenge, we will be lost in a wilderness of despair.
I hope, to our last breath, we are still wondering how to forgive rather than hoarding our hatred.