In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
He’s done it again. St. Peter has blurted out something impetuous, and he thinks he is being really generous. He asks Jesus, “How many times should I forgive? Seven times?” Yes, seven is good, seven is the perfect number, it’s way more than the three times the Mosaic law requires. But Jesus tops him, way-over-the-top-tops him, and replies, “No, not seven, but seventy-seven times”, and then Jesus tells the parable of the wicked slave who was forgiven a massive debt, an amount equal to 150,000 times one year’s wages. ”What??” cried the crowd who heard Jesus’s story. I wonder, do we have any idea how completely crazy this sounded to Jesus’ listeners? What?, forgive that much? This King/Lord is like the father in the story of the Prodigal Son who threw a party for his wayward son. Such extravagance!
But then Jesus goes on, and the story turns darker. The slave, a man who is beholden to the King, forgets the pity and compassion shown to him and assaults another man over a trifling amount by comparison, about a hundred day’s wages. The King in the story is more than disappointed in his slave. He is outraged and in anger turns the man over to the jailers. There is no pity for him now.
This is one of the hard stories in the gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. I always cringe when this story is read and hope there isn’t anybody listening who is coming to church for the first time and is hearing about torture. But when we look at this story we see a truth that Jesus intends for us to see. It is that those who will not forgive, and for whom their own being forgiven has no transforming power, will be tortured, after a fashion, in many ways.
I think of a lady I knew, a dignified woman named Anna, who was born in Poland and grew up in Europe. During World War II she was forced to perform slave labor, though she rarely talked about that experience. She came faithfully to church and was generous and hard working. One Sunday, I preached on forgiveness, probably on these very lessons, and at the end of the service, she came up to me at the back of the church (remember doing that?) and with her eyes glinting, said to me, “I heard what you said, and it sounds very nice, but that’s for other people. I will never be able to forgive the people who stole those years of my young life.” I will never forgive.
The Annas of the world, we know, are legion. They are in our cities, protesting, sometimes violently. They are in our communities, where poverty has held them in thrall for generations. They are in ethnic conflicts throughout the world, they are in refugee camps, they are alive in the fears and anger that grip people and keep them imprisoned. They say, “After what was done to me, I will never forgive.” A friend with a quick wit, would interject, “And, how‘s that working out for you?”
Because, you know, sometimes what’s been done to us is really damaging and hurtful, no doubt about it. I believe Jesus wants us to live with an open mind, a compassionate heart, a clear conscience, in freedom and at peace with our neighbor, God and ourselves. For the faithful follower of Jesus, doing the hard work of forgiveness is a part of that equation – an ingredient in that mix. Forgiving is not forgetting, not making an easy excuse, a “pish-posh, that’s OK, no problem” kind of dismissal of responsibility to those who’ve hurt us. Sometimes, often, there IS a problem, but unless we make a move to forgive and release, to undertake this complex action, nothing will change, the cycle will continue and there will be no peace. One wise person has written, “living without being forgiving is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” It just doesn’t work.
I think this is what Jesus is driving at when he tells us to forgive 77 times. Forgiveness is seldom easy, as we well know. Forgiveness when there is no repentance by the transgressor, that’s even harder. But forgiveness heals, and it helps the forgiver and the forgiven. We have to try, to keep going back, maybe 77 or some huge number of times, until we reach a place of freedom and release for ourselves and hopefully for others.
That remarkable, healing forgiveness was present in Charleston, SC five years ago when Dylan Roof attended that fateful Bible Study at the Emanuel African Methodist-Episcopal Church. Just two days after shooting 12 people of color, on purpose, 9 of them fatally, some of the victim’s family members found it in their hearts to forgive him. I don’t know, could I do that? A woman who was there said later, “Forgiveness is like you think you are letting someone else off the hook, but you’re actually letting yourself off the hook because if you keep it, there is no healing with hatred. You have to love one another.”
It is this freedom of love and forgiveness that God wants for us, as we hear in the story of the Chosen People’s escape from Egypt through the Red Sea. Once you set out, leave home and make that crossing, there is no going back. The old life in Egypt, the old threats from Pharoah, they’re dead. New life awaits us on the other side.
This freedom that comes with love and forgiveness emanates for Jesus on the cross. Once he got to Jerusalem and God’s plan continued to unfold, for him, there was no going back, only forward. Jesus forgave his tormentors from the cross, (Father, forgive them for they know not what they do) and he pardoned a fellow condemned man (Today you will be with me in paradise), because he knew that in forgiveness there is new life. Jesus moved into that new life from the cross, going forward, for all of us. We sing that in our hymns today.
So this beautiful Sunday, when there is so much that occupies our attention and makes us wonder and sometimes shake our heads, let us hold fast to the truth of our faith. We are, as St. Paul has said, not our own. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession. Living in Jesus’ light and life is the way for us, in freedom, in peace, in being forgiven, and in forgiving others. May that be a mark of our wild, impulsive and extravagant abundance, in Jesus’ name. Amen