God’s grace and peace be with all of you.
A few years ago, I was in the car with my husband Steve when another car hit us. It was a strange collision; the other driver had changed lanes into us. We weren’t in her blind spot or anything, it wasn’t two lanes merging into one. She just decided she wanted her car to occupy the space our car was occupying.
Fortunately, no one was hurt, but we pulled over, shaken up. Just like you would typically do after a car accident, we exchanged insurance information. The insurance companies did their investigations; the other driver told her insurance company that she had changed lanes, but that we should have gotten out of the way. Her insurance paid out to cover the car repairs. In the end, no one had gotten hurt, the car was fixed, we put it behind us.
Imagine the same scenario, but playing out a bit differently. Her car hits ours; we pull over to the side of the road. Then she says, “Hey, I don’t want to get insurance involved, but here’s my contact info. Whatever the repairs cost, I’ll pay you back.”
That’s another way of repairing an economic injustice. Say it cost $500 to fix the car. You do $500 of damage, you pay $500 to make it right.
Or imagine the scenario playing out differently again. Her car hits us; we pull over to the side of the road. Then she says, “Please, I don’t have insurance, I don’t have the money to pay you. Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”
What would you do in that scenario? Would you refuse her plea? Would you give the other driver time to pay you back? Or would you forgive the debt entirely?
Jesus tells a parable in today’s gospel reading. A king summons his servant or slave, who owes him a huge debt. The servant can’t possibly pay the king back, so he begs for more time. “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”
What does the king do? Does he give his servant an extension on the loan, more time to pay it back? No. The king forgives the whole debt, ten thousand talents—an astronomical sum. To put it into modern terms, imagine forgiving the debt of an individual, ordinary person who owed… a hundred million dollars.
The slave asked for patience. Instead, the king gave him unlimited forgiveness. The whole debt, wiped away. It’s hard to even imagine such mercy.
There’s a nonprofit organization here in the US called “RIP Medical Debt,” that buys medical debt that has gone to collections—for pennies on the dollar—and then forgives that debt. People who have been carrying medical debt for years suddenly get a letter in the mail that says their debt has been released. That could be life-changing for an individual. RIP Medical Debt has erased 10 billion dollars in medical debt since 2014.
All of that debt, wiped clean. It’s a staggering amount of money. It’s an incredible amount of forgiveness.
But let’s go back to Jesus’ parable for a moment. The parable doesn’t end with the king erasing the servant’s huge debt. This servant—who has been given unlimited forgiveness, unimaginable mercy—turns around and shows only cruelty to one who owes him far less. A hundred denarii is roughly the same as one talent. The servant was forgiven ten thousand talents, but grabs his fellow servant and demands to be paid the hundred denarii. The second servant begs for more time, just like the first servant begged the king. But the one who received forgiveness does not offer forgiveness.
The king asks, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”
In one translation of the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” That’s exactly what the slave in this parable fails to do. He is forgiven his debt, but does not forgive his debtor.
Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
The message is clear in the parable, in the Lord's Prayer, in Peter’s question and Jesus’ answer. We are meant to forgive. We, who have been shown unlimited mercy, should show mercy to others in return. We should forgive not once or twice or seven times, but seventy-seven times. We should not just offer an extension on the debt repayment, but forgive the debt entirely.
God seeks to create a system, an economy, of unlimited forgiveness. Like the king who wiped away a debt of ten thousand talents, God offers us unlimited forgiveness. Our response ought to be that we turn around and offer forgiveness to others in return. “Lord, forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
Of course, forgiveness is simpler, less complicated, when it has a price tag. It’s easier to think about forgiveness that’s quantifiable. You owe a debt of 100 denarii. You did $500 of damage to my car. You have $30,000 in student loan debt. Forgiveness means setting the counter back to zero, wiping the debt off the balance sheet.
It may not be easy to forgive a debt like this, but at least it’s easy enough to imagine. You forgive the debt. You let go of the money or merchandise or whatever you were owed. You wipe the slate clean.
What about the kind of forgiveness that can’t be quantified? What if the damage isn’t measured in dollars, but in suffering? What if the harm isn’t done to a car or a balance sheet, but to a human life?
Some of us may have direct experience of this kind of harm. Perhaps you, or someone you love, has been a victim of violence. Perhaps you have experienced the kind of harm that can’t be quantified. “Lord, if someone sins against me, how often should I forgive?”
Forgiveness is pretty easy when it fits nicely on a balance sheet. Forgiveness gets very complicated when it can’t be quantified.
And let’s be clear: passages like the one we heard today from the gospel of Matthew have been used in a way that perpetuates sin and harm, instead of creating the kind of system God intends.
If a person is abused by their spouse, and the message of the church is, “Don’t forgive seven times, but seventy-seven times,” then the church is keeping that person locked in a system of sin that can be literally life-threatening. That is far from God’s will for any of us.
If someone has been harmed, if someone has been sinned against, the church is often too eager to say, “You have to forgive!” After all, that’s the ‘Christian’ thing to do, right?
But if you’ve ever been the victim, you know how hard it can be to forgive. Pious admonitions to “forgive and forget” or “be the bigger person” or “get over it” only compound the harm and make it far harder to forgive.
God desires a world of reconciliation and forgiveness. But we don’t get there by demanding that other people practice forgiveness.
Even though I believe forgiveness is what God wants for all of us, for the whole of creation—still, forgiveness is deeply personal. Only you can choose to forgive. No one can force you to forgive. No one should guilt you into forgiving, or tell you you’re a bad Christian unless you forgive.
Only you can choose to forgive. You get to choose when, and how, and on what terms you forgive. Forgiveness doesn’t trump the need for physical and emotional safety. I never want to suggest from any pulpit that a victim should be forced to stay in relationship with their victimizer under the guise of “forgiveness.”
Only you can choose to forgive, and it’s not a sign of failure if you’re not there yet. Even Christ himself on the cross didn’t say, “I forgive you,” but instead, “Father, forgive them.” Think about that! Even Christ needed to say, “Father, forgive them.”
At the end of our parable, the king learns what his servant has done, and throws him into debtors’ prison. The parable concludes, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive.” These words are shocking. They should be shocking. Often, parables are meant to shock us, to challenge our assumptions, to disrupt our way of thinking. I could give a whole extra sermon just about the interpretation of this final verse—but none of us wants me to stand up here for another 15 minutes preaching. So let me just say this:
God isn’t going to punish you, or me, or any of us for not being able to forgive. Even Christ, the Son of God, wasn’t able to say “I forgive you” to the people who crucified him.
God’s desire for a world of reconciliation and unlimited forgiveness doesn’t require us to remain in dangerous or harmful relationships. But when we are able—when you are able—to choose to forgive, remember that you forgive as a child of the God of unlimited forgiveness, as a disciple of Christ the sacrificial savior, in the shadow of the cross of mercy. Forgiveness isn’t something God forces us to do. It’s what God chooses to do, and what God gives us the choice to do as well. Amen.