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How often should I forgive?

Unforgiving servant

14th Sunday after Trinity Matthew 18:21-33

Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?”

One November evening, Bill, aged seventy-nine, was leaving his local pub after an evening with friends. In the darkness of the car park, a car reversed into him. Bill was knocked over, hit his head and died in hospital two weeks later. The driver of the car had a previous conviction for drink-driving. He pleaded guilty to causing death by careless driving, and stood in court awaiting the inevitable prison sentence. Then something extraordinary happened.

Bill’s widow was in court. She asked to speak to the judge. She said that the driver’s guilt was punishment enough for her husband’s death. She asked the judge not to send him to prison. The judge listened. As the driver left the dock, Bill’s widow hugged him.

Often we hear the families of victims saying that they find peace when perpetrators are punished. Sometimes they are left dissatisfied when a sentence does not feel severe enough. All cases are different, of course, and deliberate acts of violence are harder to forgive. But Bill’s widow did not want there to be any more punishment. She knew that there was more goodness in forgiveness than in condemnation.

Martin Luther King said; ‘Hate is a boomerang that circles back and hurts you.’

Forgiveness is important not just for the perpetrator but also for the victim, helping them to break away from hate and bitterness which could freeze them in the past and destroy their hope in the future.

Jesus has been teaching his disciples about how to deal with fellow Christians who sin against them. This prompts Peter to ask Jesus what the limits are, and offers seven times – a generous act, as rabbis would have limited it to three. The fact that the question refers to “another member of the church” suggests that this might have been an issue for the early Church. We can imagine that early Christians quarrelled with one another, just as Christians do today. Of course there should be forgiveness for wrongs, Peter knows that, but should it be limitless? After seven offences and seven acts of forgiveness, would a little punishment be in order, he wonders? Jesus, however, in saying that the disciples should be prepared to forgive seventy-seven times, means that Christian forgiveness should be limitless. Imagine the reaction from the disciples. How is this possible? Jesus tell a parable to explain how and why.

The slave whose debts have been remitted by his master needs to respond by forgiving what is owed to him. Of course he wants his money back from his fellow slave. It is a small amount, which should be easy to pay. It is in a different category from the vast amount that he has been let off. But the principle is the same, according to Jesus. Those who have been forgiven will also forgive. And they must forgive from the heart, Jesus says. In biblical thinking the heart is the source, not of the emotions, but of the will. Forgiveness is a matter, not of feeling, but of conscious action. It is a mark of the followers of Jesus, and it needs deliberate intent. The key to this parable lies in the king’s furious words.’ Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?’ If we truly understand how immeasurable a debt God has forgiven us, we will forgive others the comparably much smaller sins they commit against us.

An ordered human society needs a system of justice to make it work. Rule-breaking must be dealt with, and dangerous people must be removed from society. We human beings instinctively feel that wrongdoing should be punished. There is a complex philosophical and practical debate about the function of prison and other legal responses to crime.
This is a difficult teaching and there are some common misunderstandings about what forgiveness means in practice which are worth exploring.

There is the concept that to forgive we must forget. This is not always realistic, especially where they have been violent crimes and we can all think of plenty of examples. We may not be able to forget but forgiveness will affect how we take those memories into the future, preventing them consuming us with hatred and vindictiveness. Forgiveness does not always bring about reconciliation, especially in situations where it is not a safe or sensible option. Abusive relationships and crimes involving children are two examples. When we have been wronged we hurt, and our hurt matters. Trying to rush in and forgive without allowing our hurt to be healed will result in even more hurt and damage. We need to pray for our healing before we can begin to think about forgiving others.

But the Church is different, the Gospel discussion suggests – a different standard applies. The reason is simple. We have all been forgiven everything. Our debt was as massive as that which the slave owed the king, but God does not ask for it to be paid. God has a solid case against us, and chooses not to condemn us. So in the Church there is no place for condemnation of anyone. There is no place for judgments against our brothers and sisters.

It is easy to say and much harder to do. Our human nature usually gets in the way, and God understands and forgives that too. But an effort is required. Forgiveness is primarily about our feelings, but forgiveness is an act of the will. It is a choice that we make, we may struggle with trying to forgive but we need to begin somewhere and make an effort to forgive from the heart – not with our emotions. Only then will we learn, as Bill’s widow did, how much goodness comes from forgiveness. Forgiveness and our participation in it are fundamental signs of the kingdom of God for which we pray and long for.

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