Depiction of the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Scot’s Church Melbourne
Ernest Hemmingway tells in one of his short stories called “The Capital of the World” an episode about forgiveness which goes like this:
Madrid is full of boys named Paco, which is the diminutive form of Francisco, and there is a Madrid joke about a father who came to Madrid and inserted an advertisement in the personal columns of El Liberal which said: PACO MEET ME AT HOTEL MONTANA NOON TUESDAY ALL IS FORGIVEN PAPA and how a squadron of Guardia Civil had to be called out to disperse the eight hundred young men who answered the advertisement.
Now the joke is all about the ubiquity of the name Paco in Spain, but it also expresses a deep seeded truth that I think many of us can relate to about our desire for forgiveness to be received. For I think we all have those times where we wish we could change an action that hurt someone in the past, or to be able to take back the words that we said. We wish those words could be like the cartoon bubbles that we could pull back into our mouth to where they were never uttered in the first place. SFC Rubley who was my platoon sergeant while I was a platoon leader in the army used to talk about wanting to be able to lasso the words and say come back. But there is no bringing them back, there is no undoing the past, there is no way to go back and take back the words that were said or put in words that needed to be said. And the reality is that there is truly no future without forgiveness, there is no way forward without a new start. In fact, while forgiveness is one of the hardest things we are called upon as followers of Christ to do it is also at the very heart of our faith. It is right up there with loving the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself, in fact it is necessary for both of these for there is no way to love one’s neighbor without forgiveness. We might think that the world of the bible it might be easier to live into forgiveness, but that would be mistaken for you see the bible is written in the same world that we live in. The Old and New Testaments are full of stories of brokenness, unreconciled differences, and woundedness. Even very early in Genesis (Genesis 4) we encounter the story of Lamech which is the opposite of forgiveness, “I have killed a man who attacked me, a young man who wounded me. If someone who kills Cain is punished seven times, then the one who kills me will be punished seventy-seven times!” Or the very first family we follow for a long journey in Genesis, Abraham and Sarah or Abram and Sarai as they start out, is a story of brokenness-yet we don’t often think of it that way. God’s promised child had been a long time in coming and Sarai says to Abram ‘we’re not getting any younger, why don’t you sleep with my servant Hagar and have a child through her and that can be the child we have been waiting for.’ And so Abram does and Ishmael is born, and yet later-after God has changed their names to Abraham and Sarah and the promised child Isaac is born there is no longer, at least in Sarah’s view, anyplace in the household for Ishmael and Hagar and the image is from a sculpture of Abraham saying goodbye to Ishmael, Hagar is facing away and Sarah is watching from behind the rock to ensure this son of Abraham from Hagar will be sent away. Ishmael will never return until both Sarah and Abraham are dead and only then will Isaac and Ishmael be reunited to mourn the death of their common father. But just because the people that God works through in the bible don’t live out God’s vision of forgiveness-that doesn’t mean that is who God is.
As Psalm 103 says:
6 The LORD gives righteousness and justice to all who are treated unfairly.
7 He revealed his character to Moses and his deeds to the people of Israel.
8 The LORD is compassionate and merciful, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.
9 He will not constantly accuse us, nor remain angry forever.
10 He does not punish us for all our sins; he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve.
11 For his unfailing love toward those who fear him is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth.
12 He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west.
13 The LORD is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him.
14 For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust.
The God who removes our sins as far as the east is from the west, who doesn’t remember them anymore and who is tender and compassionate as a father is to his children. This is the God that the bible points to again and again and again and yet it is so easy to try to transform God into something different, something less gracious and more judgmental. One of the things I find interesting is that there are a number of Christian theologies out there that try to understand God as somehow bound to a system of rules and laws that God must act in accordance with- and if anything the bible contrast God against the rulers of the nations around them that are like that.
Unlike King Xerxes in the book of Esther, who while he is drunk summons his wife Vashti to appear before him, a summons which Vasti refuses, and so he passes an edict that she shall never again appear before him. Then he wakes up the next day realizing what he has done, but it is now a law and he cannot break it-God is not like that. Unlike King Darius in the book of Daniel who loves Daniel and yet is tricked by his advisors to pass an edict where everyone is to pray to King Darius and when Daniel is caught praying to God, Darius has no choice-he is bound by the law to throw Daniel into the lion’s den. But God is not like that, no God is like a shepherd who has 100 sheep, and then when one is missing leaves the 99 in the wilderness in search of the one, or like a woman who has 10 coins and losing one searches the house until the one is found and then calls all her neighbors to rejoice. Or like a father who has two sons, and one of the sons, the younger one, says to his father in effect, ‘dad I wish you were dead, give me what is mine after you will be gone so that I may go away from you, away from my family, and away from all that has defined me.’ And the father grants him his request and when the younger son finds himself in a foreign land starving, feeding pigs (doing that which is completely against what he was before) and wishing for what the pigs eat and no one gives him anything and he says to himself, ‘you know my father’s servants are better off than I am’ and so he goes back home and he is expecting to be a servant-but the father seeing the son rushes out to meet him, wraps his arms around him, puts a robe on him and a ring on his finger, slaughters the fattened calf and throws a party to reestablish this son with the community. And welcomes him home not as a servant, but as a son-against every rule of the way things should be. Yet there is another son in the story, the older son, who knows the way things should be, the way the rules say they should be and so he stands on the outside of the party refusing to go in and enter the celebration. So the father goes out to this son who says in effect, ‘father, I wish you were dead, for welcoming back in this younger brother who brought so much dishonor, who broke all the rules, who did everything I haven’t done” and yet the father loves both sons. The son who has gone away, who was lost-who went away and who came home again and the son who never left but now stands on the outside of the party unwilling to go in, dealing with his own anger and unwillingness to forgive and his own woundedness.
Pompeo Batoni, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773)
We serve a God who relationships are always more important than rules and people are more important than ideas. Unfortunately, sometimes the very people who should be most receptive to this are the ones who understand this the least. Take for example the story of Jonah, Jonah is sent by God to go to Nineveh-but Jonah hates the Ninevites and doesn’t want them to turn but wants them to receive God’s wrath and so Jonah goes on a ship in the opposite direction towards Tarshish. But Jonah cannot escape the God who won’t give up and so in the midst of the storm Jonah asks the sailors to give him death, to throw him into the sea because Jonah would rather die than see mercy given to the Ninevites, and yet God refuses to allow that to happen and so God sends the fish and then places him back on land and Jonah goes to Nineveh and the people turn and Jonah pouts.
In the story of les Mis, whether you’ve read it in the novel or seen it as a musical or on the big screen there are two major characters throughout the story. There is Jauvert, the lawman whose life is bound to his dependence on the law for order. The main character though is Jean val Jean who begins the story in a prison camp having served twenty years for stealing a loaf of bread. Upon Jean val Jean’s release from prison he is defined by the reality that he has been a prisoner and that there is no one who will hire him, he is a thief-and to everyone it seems he will always be a thief until when he actually does steal from a bishop and after being captured the bishop says, ‘but you left the best’ and gives him the golden candlesticks as a part of the gift. A gift which allows him to start a new life with a new identity as Misseur le Mer, and yet in the eyes of Jauvert who continues to track him throughout the story he is always the thief, and even at the end of the story when Jean val Jean spares Jauvert’s life-Jauvert cannot live this new story, he would rather die than to forgive and live in a world where the law fails him and so he does die, he commits suicide rather than forgive.
There are many people who would rather die than forgive, who would rather carry their enmity to their grave rather than let go of it, rather than let something that they have that they can hold over someone else be given up. For that is what forgiveness is, forgiveness states that I refuse to let the actions which caused me harm in the past to define our relationship going forward. Forgiveness gives us freedom from having to seek a better past. It allows us not to be defined by the things that we have done, but rather to be defined by the relationships that have been opened to us. That’s what God does, God comes and brings that forgiveness that we need even before we are ready to accept it, in the hope that we will begin to live into it. But forgiveness is not easy for us, I know a person who is a Lutheran pastor now but she didn’t grow up in the Lutheran church and going for the first time to a Lutheran church she heard at the end of the brief order of confession and forgiveness, “as a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ and by his authority I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all of your sins,” and she turned to the person next to her and said, ‘that’s it!’ For God indeed, yes that is it, God has already made the journey of forgiveness, but for us many times the journey still lies ahead.
In our gospel today we hear Peter wrestling with this forgiveness that Jesus is talking about:
Matthew 18 21 Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” 22 “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!
At seven times Peter probably thinks he is being generous, but Jesus’ response of seventy times seven takes the world of power and revenge and retribution and turns it on its head. The world of Lamech is reversed. And it is not a point of counting up to 490, the calling is to forgive.
and then Jesus also answers with this parable (Matt 18: 23-30)
23 “Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. 24 In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars.
Now the millions of dollars is actually downplaying the size of the debt owed, in modern conversion we are probably talking billions, it was as one scholar put it the amount of money a worker could expect to make in 150,000,000 days-and if you want to figure out how many years that is-it is far more than you will ever live. It is a debt that is so large it could never be paid and this man find himself in a crisis. The story continues on:
25 He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold– along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned– to pay the debt. 26 “But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ 27 Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.
He didn’t do what the man asked for, the man asked for more time ‘give me more time and I’ll pay it back’ but the master released him from this debt and gave him a chance to start over
28 “But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. 29 “His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. 30 But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.
So many times I believe that is the way we may want to react, what’s in my best interest. It allows me to be the insider and the other person to be the outsider. Frequently the biggest critique of Christians is that they act, not like God, not like the Father in the parable of the prodigal son, but rather like the older brother or the forgiven slave. Forgiveness is good for me but these other people are still sinners, they still owe me, the things they have done still define them as people who need to be punished, shunned, set aside. I’ve got to be honest that in a lot of my conversations with people outside the church the most common reason they are no longer a part of the church has nothing to do with any philosophy, or anything on TV, radio or the internet and everything to do with how they were not met with forgiveness by others within the church. Somehow they were marked as the sinner, the outcast, the untouchable. And so it shouldn’t be surprising that the story continues with Matt 18:31-33 and the horror of the other slaves seeing how this forgiven slave acted in light of the incredible forgiveness he received.
31 “When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. 32 Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’
You see God wants to meet us in grace, God wants to meet us in justice and it goes back to us not living out the love and grace we have been given. And I think it wounds God when we abuse the gifts that have been given to us, when we set ourselves up as better than everyone else. When we receive grace and turn to the rest of the world in judgment. And I think God wants to meet us in grace, but I also have come to believe that if the only place we can meet God is in law, justice and judgment, then God will meet us there as well. The parable concludes:
34 Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt. 35 “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”
I’ve got to be honest, I don’t like the end of this, it makes me uncomfortable. Yet, I know that there are times where God has to come to me and remind me, ‘Neil this is not the life you are called to.’ ‘This is not who you are called to be, you are called to be on the journey of forgiveness.’ And it is a journey, and there are times where you may say ‘I forgive something’ and then something comes up and you realize you are still viewing your neighbor in terms of things they have done in the past. I had to learn this in my own life and journey, and I still bear scars from where I have been wounded. The reality is that there is a risk that comes with forgiveness, that you are opening yourself up to the possibility of being hurt again. And what happens if the other person doesn’t accept the forgiveness you offer. That doesn’t exempt you from the calling to be forgiving, and to be on that journey yourself. Forgiveness opens the possibility of reconciliation happening. And I know that there are wounds that may be too deep to forgive at that moment, but we are called to be on that journey. A person who I’ve learned a lot from is a man who grew up in the former Yugoslavia and is Croatian in background, a man named Miroslav Volf, and those who know a little of the history of Europe in the 1990s, this was the area of Bosnia and Kosovo where the Serbians and Croatians were in a conflict, an ancient conflict that had its roots hundreds of years earlier that was brought to the forefront in the 1990s when the Serbians were in power and began to move towards wiping out the Croatians, destroying entire villages, committing incredible atrocities and killing thousands while displacing tens of thousands. Sometime shortly after the events in Bosnia, Miroslav was working on his PhD in Germany working through the idea of forgiveness and embracing the enemy when another well known scholar, Jürgen Moltmann, said to him Miroslav could you embrace a chětnik, the very soldiers who had done all this to your people? And Miroslav’s answer was I believe an honest one, “No, but I don’t believe that is where God calls me to be.” Even genocide requires forgiveness. Doesn’t mean it is an easy journey and there may be something that is so horrible where our answer is also, “No, but I don’t believe that is where God calls me to be.” As Archbishop Desmond Tutu could say in the midst of the Truth and Reconciliation committees after Apartheid in South Africa, ‘There is no future without forgiveness’.
Forgiveness is the one thing we are called upon to do in the midst of the Lord’s prayer: to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, or forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Or as one of my friends who is a pastor in Washington State related a story to me of a young girl learning the Lord’s prayer, and not knowing what trespassing was she said, “Forgive us our trash-passing as we forgive those who trash-pass against us.” The wisdom of children, so forgive us our trash-passing as we forgive those who trash pass against us.