490 Times (or More)

Matthew 18:21-35 – The 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for Sunday, September 14, 2014

“Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me…’” (Matthew 18:21)

The “Parable of the Unforgiving Servant,” 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.

ForgiveNot surprisingly, Jesus told Peter a parable. In the parable, Person A forgave Person B. Did it matter that Person A was the “master” and Person B was the “servant?” While it added detail and tension, I’m not sure it’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 didn’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 today’s rise of non-denominational churches, has emphasized the healing power of forgiveness. But what about other religions? The Qur’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.

Isn’t forgiveness central to every faith tradition?

(Please forgive me if you think I’m wrong!)

As a Christian, I think I understand the parable, and yet I’m also unsettled. My discomfort isn’t about comprehension, but with Peter.

For the most part, I think the writer of Matthew’s Gospel inserted Peter into these verses as a foil. Matthew’s primary interest was the tale told by Jesus. Any disciple could set the stage; it could’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 could’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 7—for a grand total of 490 fingers and toes—instead of 77 or the original, only-two-hands-needed 7!

Gulp. 490?

Poor Peter. (Or James. Or Simon. Or maybe you, and certainly me.)

But what if Peter wasn’t merely inserted into a verse so Jesus could tell the story? What if Peter—or you or me—truly needed to forgive someone?

What if Peter needed to forgive Simon or James, or Mary or Martha? Or anyone else who lived in Peter’s “neighborhood?”

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 hadn’t seen for a long time?

Easy, write ‘em an honest note. (And hey, for us moderns, if it’s you or me instead of Peter, we can send an email or flowers . . . or even phone. Poor Peter would’ve had to find expensive papyrus, precious ink, and a decent stylus.)

Hey, wait just a darn minute! It’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 you’re offering forgiveness to might think you should be saying you’re sorry! Okay, so it’s complicated . . . humans are messy and communication is a chore. But isn’t rebuilding a relationship worth that effort?

But what if Peter can’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, I’d prefer to Google an answer. Let’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, I’ll let you do your own search. Though I’m sorely tempted to conclude these reflections with an expert’s insights or scripture’s inspiration, I’m stuck with thinking—believing—Jesus was right.

ForgiveEven with the most unforgivable actions, Peter (or me, or you) has to keep finding a path toward forgiveness. Regardless of which ancient manuscript’s mathematics you trust, I believe there are more than 490 ways to forgive. I believe forgiveness only counts when you don’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.

(Image of stone on palm from here; image of eraser from here.)

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  1. There are a myriad of ways to forgive. Some completely easy. Some quite difficult. I find some people easy to forgive, but others, I harbor some ill feelings for a while. I know it’s wrong, but darn it God gave us brains and hearts to feel and think. But some times after you forgive, it’s not always easy to forget. But, I keep working on it. If it were only 490, I’d never be able to keep track. Which I think is the point. Thanks for thought provoking reflections.

    1. Nancy . . . I think that’s the struggle for many: we strive to forgive people, but can’t forget the actions that created hurt and/or brokenness. And so the nagging memory keeps compromising our best intentions at forgiving. Circular frustration!

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