Posts Tagged ‘forgiveness’

“On Forgiveness”

Matthew 18:21-35

Daniel J. Ott


We all know that we should forgive.  But the question remains, “Just how much?”  If you’re like me, I’m sure you can think of many times when you have forgiven.  I think of myself as basically a forgiving person.  But I also can think of things that I have not forgiven.  There are some wrongs that have been done to me that I just can’t let go.  Some of these wrongs just seem too great to be forgiven; or they caused too deep a wound in me; or the person who did the wrong never did try to right the wrong, leaving me feeling as though the person was not worthy of my forgiveness.  Sure we all know that we should forgive.  But isn’t there some limit?  Do we have to forgive always?  Do we have to forgive everything?

Matthew’s parable wrestles with these questions.  And Matthew himself may get a little tangled in the answers.  And so may we.

Let’s start with the servant.[1]  In my study Bible the heading to this story calls him the “unforgiving servant.”  But is he really so bad?  A co-worker was having some trouble.  He loaned him a few hundred dollars.  So far so good, right?  Time goes by and the co-worker never pays him back.  Finally, he happens upon the guy and says, “Hey, what’s doin’?  Where’s that money I leant you?”  The co-worker says he can’t pay and asks for a break.  The servant has had enough, though, and decides to take the matter up in the courts.

Now I guess we could call this “unforgiving.”  But would any of us act so differently?  We all need to be responsible for our debts, right?  Our whole banking system, our whole economic system is based on this basic assumption.  We take loans and we pay them back.  If we don’t pay them back, there are legal ramifications.  What would happen if banks and mortgage companies just started forgiving debts left and right?  Are they “unforgiving” when they insist on repayment?

Of course, the reason that this servant seems so unforgiving is because of the contrast set up by the parable.  Just before the servant demands payment from his co-worker, he himself has been forgiven a great debt.

The story goes that the boss was reconciling his books.  He comes across our servant and sees that he owes ten thousand talents.  Now when I first read the story I thought to myself, “Oh, ten thousand talents, sounds like a goodly sum.”  But Matthew’s audience would have gasped at hearing that number.  A talent is worth fifteen years of a laborer’s wages.  Ten thousand talents is like a billion dollars.  How’s a regular schmoe going to pay back a billion dollars?  How in the world did he end up a billion dollars in debt?  What’s wrong with this guy?  So the boss comes to a fairly logical conclusion for the day.  Sell everything he’s got, including his family and him and get what you can.  What else can you do with such a deadbeat?

So the servant makes a scene and falls on his knees blathering and begging, saying, “Just give me a little more time.”  “Really?,” the boss thinks to himself, “Just a little more time and you’ll pay me back a billion dollars, eh?”  The boss has a flash of pity and decides to let the poor schlepp go.  He wipes the books clean and sends him on his way.

And this is the reason why we get so indignant about the servant’s unforgiving attitude toward his co-worker.  How can you receive forgiveness of such a huge debt and turn right around and harshly demand payment on a much smaller debt?  The servant had been forgiven an immeasurable debt, but did not learn forgiveness from this experience.

This is the ‘gotcha moment,’ of course.  The finger that wags and points at the servant turns right around at us.  How can we who have been forgiven of so much not forgive others?  God forgives us all of our sin.  God forgives the wrongs that we have done to God and the wrongs that we have done to each other.  God demands no payment at all for these sins.  When our account comes due, God simply wipes the books clean and sends us on our way.  And when we fail to forgive each other, we are that unforgiving servant who has been forgiven so much, but cannot see fit to forgive a little.

The force with which Matthew drives home this point is startling.  The boss hands the servant over to be tortured and Matthew puts these words on Jesus’ lips, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your sister or brother from your heart.”  Well, that’s not very forgiving is it?  The message can’t really be that if we don’t forgive, God won’t forgive.  This forgiveness business is tricky.  It’s hard to get our minds around the great mercy of God.  But I believe the message that Matthew was shooting for, even if he didn’t quite hit the mark, remains:  God’s forgiveness is limitless and so should ours be.

Two stories (ripped from the headlines as it were):

On October 2, 2006, a man named Charles Carl Roberts entered the one room West Nickel Mines School in Lancaster, County, PA.  At about 10:36 that morning the first call was made to 911 explaining that the gunman had let several adults, boys and small children go, but was holding hostage around ten girls between the ages of 6 and 13.  The police responded within minutes.  But soon after they arrived at around 11:07 shooting began in the school house.  By 11:11 the police on the scene alerted dispatch that there were 10-12 victims with head wounds.  Roberts had shot ten little girls before killing himself.  Five of the girls died in the end.  The five that survived live with various persistent injuries.

The world watched as a little Amish village in Pennsylvania dealt with their pain and grief.  We were all amazed by the scenes of forgiveness that followed.  Reports emerged that on the very same day of the shooting the grandfather of one of the murdered girls was overheard telling his family, “We must not think evil of this man.”  The family of the shooter reported that members of the Amish community reached out in consolation to them for their loss within hours of the massacre.  Amish community members attended Charles Roberts’ funeral and even established a charitable fund for the family that he left behind.  In an open letter to the Amish community thanking them for their forgiveness and grace, Marie Roberts wrote, “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need.  Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe.  Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.”[2]

On September 11, 2001, 19 al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four passenger planes.  At 8:46 in the morning five hijackers crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center’s North Tower.  At 9:03 a.m. another five hijackers crashed United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower.  At. 9:37 a third plane crashed into the Pentagon.  United Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania at 10:03 after passengers struggled with that plane’s hijackers.  In the end almost three thousand people were dead including the hijackers.

The world watched as a great nation dealt with its pain and grief.  The question of forgiveness in the wake of this heinous attack is a difficult one, but what is sure is that the scenes that followed hardly resembled the scenes from that little Amish village.  Three days after the event, our then president stood in the midst of the rubble in New York City and vowed revenge.  The so-called “war on terror” was launched immediately.  American troops were in Afghanistan before thirty days had expired.  Not two years later, Iraq was identified as the central front in the war on terror and military initiatives were expanded.  Ten years later, the war in Afghanistan rages on and troops remain in Iraq.  On May 2 of this year, the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. troops.  Our current president told those of us who wondered whether this assassination was necessary that we should have our heads examined.

Our grief and anger have also led to ill-effects at home.  A nation that once prided itself on its immigrant roots has grown intolerant and insular.  Muslim Americans have become the targets of hate crimes and deep suspicion.  Ignorant Christians have hosted burnings of Islam’s holy book.  Congress has even held hearings casting a wide net and suggesting that all of Islam is threatened by radicalization.  Muslim Americans, who lost their own on 9/11, have had their patriotism put into question and been forced to become apologists for their faith.

We all know that we should forgive.  But the question remains, “Just how much?”  When asked to put a number on it, Jesus said, “seventy times seven.”  In other words, as much as it takes.  God’s forgiveness is limitless.  What about ours?

[1] Throughout this treatment of the parable, I am following David Buttrick rather closely.  David Buttrick, Speaking Parables:  A Homiletic Guide, (Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), pp. 107-113.


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