The story opens with Peter’s question about how many times you should forgive a person. He is wondering if there is a time when forgiveness becomes absurd because someone keeps on hurting us. I imagine most of us have someone in our lives that is very difficult to forgive. They just don’t get it. They know where all our buttons are and they just keep on pressing them. We try to be Christian and pray the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts and we forgive our debtors.” After several times of forgiveness we may feel like we are the doormat where someone else wipes their feet and we pray to God and say, “Lord, I have tried to forgive, but I have reached my limit.” Peter had reflected on this, and to show that he had a magnanimous spirit, he says, “Should we forgive even up to seven times?” Seven times seems like quite a bit, doesn’t it?! In the Jewish mind, seven is a number that represents completion and finality. Throughout the Bible we find 7 days of creation, seven signs in the book of revelation, and so on. Surely this would be more than enough. I have the right answer now Jesus!
Jesus answers with a word play on the number 7 and says that we should forgive 70 times 7. He doesn’t mean that we should keep track and forgive someone 490 times, but rather he is saying we must throw away the calculator and live a lifestyle of continual forgiveness. At this time I imagine the disciples responded much like I would, being absolutely dumbfounded at such a notion. So Jesus then tells a parable to make his point:
To paraphrase a bit, Enron goes bankrupt owing billions of dollars to creditors and its employees, creating economic chaos. That is how much money the servant owed in Jesus’s parable. (A talent is about 130 pounds, price of gold is $1286 per ounce, so each talent is about $2.7 million, so 1000 talents is $2.7 billion.) In an unprecedented move, the top executives asked for time, promising to pay everyone back every dollar they owed, even it meant selling several of their Florida condos, so the Federal Judge agreed to extend them mercy. Then the executives went out and began to shake down every person they could find for money, hiding their assets offshore and filing lawsuits against even the smallest creditor. So the Judge stepped in and threw them all into a Federal Maximum Security Prison, along with their wives, ex-wives and children.
That may sound like a story with a happy ending, but that is not the point. Jesus is saying that all of us have experienced God’s forgiveness for some sin. None of us are totally righteous and need God’s grace to be free from our mistakes. If we are to experience God’s forgiveness and then turn around and be unforgiving to those who sin against us, we fall short of the call to discipleship. Jesus is reminding Peter of the source of forgiveness. Our own good intentions are not the source, but rather the powerful grace of God towards us and all people is the source. But still we struggle to live this out in the real world.
A group of people were struggling with the nature of forgiveness at a Bible study class I attended at a Mennonite Church while on sabbatical. Several of my international colleagues from the Summer Peace Institute also were there, providing a cross-cultural look at the difficulties. First a man who had interned at a Rape Crisis Center spoke. He was concerned that the counselors would not let the women speak about forgiveness in their therapy. It was seen as dis-empowering and unhelpful to taking control of their lives. He thought the counselors had a false notion of forgiveness, as if it was saying that evil is OK. In contrast, he felt that forgiveness was really for us, to help us move on after trauma, so it was essential for the healing process.
Next, Lien, my roommate from Viet Nam spoke up. He had spent five years in a single jail cell for working for democracy in the early 1990s. Many people had starved to death as the government stood by and did nothing. Who do you forgive when a whole system killed people? “I don’t hate the Communists,” he said, “but history must not be forgotten and repeated.”
Joe Campbell, who runs a mediation center in Belfast spoke next. He told the story of a family who had lost a son in an IRA car bomb attack. They publicly forgave the IRA at a very tense time of the Troubles. This created a great deal of psychological turmoil for hundreds of families who had lost loved ones on both sides of the conflict who were still struggling with the process of forgiveness. His counsel to people was not to forgive and forget, but to remember and change. Acts of violence are more than individual acts. Only a few people actually pull the trigger in a war, but society as a whole creates the conditions of hatred and injustice. So forgiveness is to remember the past and change our behavior and change the societal conditions.
A Mennonite missionary who had returned from El Salvador asked, “What are the implications when so many people have been killed, as in our Civil War? How far can forgiveness go? I find that I can bring people together from opposing sides for simple tasks like building a regional water system, but they will not meet in each others homes or share a meal together. We just try to work at the simple level of trust, then allow grace to deepen and work itself out.
“But what about our duty as Christians to forgive others?” said Francois, a woman from Congo. She told the story of being chased out of Congo when a group of rebels attacked her village. She had to sleep by a roadside for three days in hiding. When she tried to go back the first person she met was a woman from her church who had supported the rebels. Francios said she had no choice but to forgive.
A woman from Virginia said that she had been in a car accident a few years before and had been seriously injured. She had gone through many hardships during her recovery and had been very bitter against the driver who hit her. Guilt at the inability to forgive had plagued her, doubling her misery. Then one day,” she said, “I realized that forgiveness is not a duty, it is the answer. When we forgive the grace comes to heal our hearts.”
I learn two things from these stories. First, working out forgiveness in the complexity of life is a subtle art. There are no simple formulas or prayers that will simply take care of the problem for us. I can’t tell you what forgiveness will look like in your life any more than I could tell Michelangelo how to paint the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel. The second thing I learn is that we can’t walk away from forgiveness. It is painful work to go through the process of forgiveness, but so is living with the open wounds of unresolved anger and resentment. Forgiveness is not a virtue that comes from within, nor is it a duty we owe to someone else. It is a cry to God that says, “Lord, heal my heart.” Forgiveness is not an easy answer to our problems, but it is the most powerful answer.