Forgiveness doesn’t always come easily to humans. Sometimes it’s quite easy to forgive – think of the wide-eyed child whose plea for forgiveness for some naughtiness is answered with stifled laughs and fondness. Or the genuine remorse in a loved one’s “I’m sorry” that softens your heart and, while not erasing the hurt, begins the process of reconciliation.
But then there are those whom we struggle to forgive. People who callously destroy the thing you most cherish. The neighbor who commits the same offense again and again. Or the co-worker whose insincere “Sorry” doesn’t even begin to make up for the credit he took for your work. We all know of families torn apart from carefully nourished grudges. Sometimes the desire for revenge or punishment is what comes easiest to us. Forgiveness doesn’t come so easy.
Perhaps this is what Peter is thinking when he asks Jesus, “How many times must I forgive? Seven times?” (Matthew 18:21-35) Peter is looking for a number, a definition on just when he’s done his duty in the forgiveness department and can write the relationship off. To forgive someone seven times – presumably for a repeated offense – is more than generous. Seven is the number of wholeness and completeness, so surely seven times is doing your forgiveness duty.
But Jesus ups the ante – not seven times but seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven. The point is not a specific number seventy-seven or four hundred and ninety. The point is that forgiveness has no limit. To drive home his point, Jesus tells a parable.
Sometimes, when Jesus tells a parable, you have to work to figure it out. Some parables are so tricky that Jesus himself explains them. That’s not the case with the Parable of the Generous King (also known as the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant). Jesus’ point is abundantly clear.
A servant owes a huge debt to his king, 10,000 talents. If you do the math, the servant would have to work approximately 150,000 YEARS to pay off his debt. It’s impossible – he cannot repay the king. So the king orders him, his family and all he owns to be sold. The servant throws himself on the king’s mercy.
Incredibly, the king is moved by the servant’s plea and forgives the entire debt. The servant is free to go and free of that crushing debt.
He hurries home, excited to share his good news with his family. On the way, he meets a fellow servant who owes him 100 denarii, or about 100 days wages. The first servant, freshly released from staggering debt, does not ‘pay if forward.’ Instead, he jumps on the second servant, and has him thrown in prison when he cannot pay.
The King, when he hears about this is not pleased. He calls the servant to him and challenges his lack of mercy. Then the king ‘unforgives’ the debt and hands the servant over to torture until the debt can be paid.
Really, there is only one way to read this parable and it’s a sobering one. We are the servants who have been forgiven abundantly, extravagantly by the King of the Universe. And the King expects us to respond to this mercy and grace by showing mercy and grace to those around us.
Now, there’s no chance that God will rescind our forgiveness. Jesus paid our great debt once and for all on the cross. We are a forgiven people who live that grace by offering forgiveness and reconciliation to others.
Peter wants to put a limit on forgiveness. He wants to define how much is enough. Jesus makes it clear that just as God has unending mercy for us, our mercy for our brothers and sisters never ends.
Yes, forgiveness doesn’t always come easily for humans. Thanks be to God that when we find it difficult to forgive, we can ask God to soften our hearts and change our grudges to grace.