Readings: Matthew 18: 21-35, True Christianity #490, Divine Providence #280 (see below)
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The gospel text for today speaks to us about forgiveness, both directly and in parable form. But before we launch in that, let’s first talk about parables in general. The lectionary is going to give us a few in a row in these coming weeks, so I think it might be helpful to talk about them a little. Often times, we look at parables as if they are simple prescriptions, examples of how we are supposed to live. This is mostly how they are taught in Sunday school. Jesus is giving us advice, which we would do well to follow. And to some extent, this works.
Unless we actually read the parable. And then we might notice some things that make us feel really uncomfortable. This is okay. Parables are not actually straight-forward moral tales which we can transfer wholesale onto the events of our own lives. Parables are meant to be disruptive to our way of thinking. They are meant to be slightly uncomfortable so that we might generate reflective questions about the assumptions we bring to the story. So it is okay to relax into any ambiguity we might feel and allow ourselves to take a curious stance.
The story today begins with a question from Peter to Jesus. How many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Seven times? Peter probably thinks he is being extremely generous. Just to be clear, this is not just forgiving anyone who offends you seven times in your life overall, but seven times for the same person, possibly for the same thing, with no indication that there is repentance involved. That does seem pretty generous. But Jesus explodes Peter’s notion of generosity. Not seven but seventy times seven times, he replies….four hundred and ninety times….essentially infinity times. Jesus is implying, as one of my commentaries wrote:….“Whoever counts has not forgiven at all but is only biding his or her time.” (1)
Jesus then launches into the parable about the unforgiving servant. The first hint that the parable is a little fantastic is the unrealistic amount of money. Our reading calls it ten thousand bags of gold….in the original greek it is ten thousand “Talents.” A talent is the largest possible denomination in those ancient times. One single talent was equal to the wages of a manual laborer for fifteen years. Ten thousand of those was meant to signify the largest possible amount of money. It is supposed to make for a crazy comparison with the comparatively paltry but still significant amount the second servant owes and we very reasonably feel outrage over the first servant’s lack of gratitude in the face of such mercy.
As we continue though, some uncomfortable-ness might arise from how the parable ends. The king goes back on his forgiveness and throws the servant in jail to be tortured. As happy as we are to see the villain get his comeuppance, we might wonder, was it right for the king to do so? Was it justified? Can one *withdraw* forgiveness, even in the face of extreme hard-heartedness? These are challenging questions. And further, there is verse 35 ”this is how my heavenly Father will treat you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” YIKES. Does *God* go back on God’s forgiveness? Surely, the withdrawal of forgiveness ruins the whole idea?
Many scholars believe that verse 35 is an addition by the gospel writer, clearly meant to allegorize the parable so that the king is God and the debts are our sins. Both the parable itself, and Matthew’s interpretation seem uncomfortably transactional though. Forgiveness seems to be given and received like an object, one that must be asked for before it can come into being, and it is taken away if one is not deserving.
This seems at odds with the kind of God we learn about from Swedenborgian theology, a God who is constantly forgiving, constantly loving. Jesus hints about this kind of God right at the beginning of the text. The framing of this whole interaction, the seventy times seven, is telling us about the infinity of God’s forgiveness. Seven has long been held as an auspicious, powerful number, and from Swedenborg’s tells us(2) that the number seven signifies that which is holy and inviolable. Seventy times seven, then, indicates something that has no limits, something timeless, eternal, a holy and enduring principle. As we heard in our Swedenborg readings today, God’s forgiveness and mercy is so expansive as to have no limits, and is an sacred aspect of God’s nature.
So, if God’s forgiveness is naturalized, pre-existing, constant, and assumed to be a natural function of God’s love, how does this change how we view the parable? On the one hand, we see forgiveness embodied as a transaction by both the king and the servant and by the whole economic system in which they participate. On the other, we see that contrasted with the infinity of God’s forgiveness. This is what a parable does, it reveals to us the inadequacy of certain ways of looking at things. We first rejoice over the unexpected mercy of the king, we experience outrage over servant’s obviously bad behavior, we are cheering when the other servants turn him in. Quite right, quite right, we think. But then maybe the king’s withdrawal of forgiveness makes us squirm, and we start to question….We don’t doubt that the servant deserves to be corrected, but maybe we intuitively feel that there is something wrong with the withdrawal of forgiveness, as if we were just taking back something to the store that was defective. And perhaps we are moved to recognize that forgiveness, when it is really lived, is not really a give and take at all.
The truth is forgiveness can take many shapes. Forgiveness can be a solitary thing, a way to retain our own humanity and reclaim our own liberation and release. Forgiveness can involve connection, a recognition of shared humanity and loss. Forgiveness is can be a gift of grace, an impossible kind of thing that creates space where none was before. Forgiveness can allow for repairing something that was broken. There are as many shapes for forgiveness as there are people. When the parable causes us to question whether forgiveness can ever be transactional, we only need to return to the beginning of our text to see that, indeed, the infinity of God’s forgiveness transcends the all easy equations we are trying to do; it is calculus to our algebra. God is working in the realm of multiplication, while we are still counting on our fingers.
But, there is one last thing to consider. Swedenborg insists that repentance must be part of the forgiveness equation. At first that might seem like it thrusts us back into the transactional realm, an exchange of forgiveness for the appropriate repentance. On the contrary though, I think it deepens the complexity and the variability of the forgiveness equation. For repentance does not limit whether forgiveness can exist or be given, but rather, repentance is simply integral to the experience of being forgiven. The servant in our text wanted to return to business as usual, return to extracting all he could from those below him. He had no interest in thinking about what it meant to be a recipient of such mercy, what it meant to examine his actions or experience regret. To the servant, it seemed like the king’s forgiveness did vanish…but it was his lack of repentance that prevented it from having any kind of reality for him in the first place.
Repentance fundamentally changes us, and that change, that openness is what lets the forgiveness in, that creates space for healing to happen. It is like taking a deep lungful of air after holding our breath for a long time. Asking to be forgiven is not about begging, or making the most fervent supplication, rather, it is hinges upon whether the forgiveness can become real and enfleshed in the person asking. Repentance opens the door and creates the space for forgiveness to be felt, for forgiveness to transform. It is one part of a holy dance, though the steps vary for every person and every situation.
There is not one way things are supposed to go with forgiveness. Sometimes repentance brings forgiveness forth, sometimes forgiveness kick-starts repentance, sometimes both occur independently or not at all. Forgiveness takes its own time and its own path. This is what the infinity of God’s forgiveness also means, infinity of times forgiven, but an infinity of experience, opportunity and providence as well. And thank goodness for that. There are so many ways to make mistakes, so I’m glad that forgiveness is such a feisty, miraculous and expansive thing. Amen.
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven times.
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.
24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him.
25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’
27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.
31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.
33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’
34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
True Christianity 490
In Matthew the Lord teaches that we are to do good to our adversaries and enemies and have goodwill toward them…
I have also heard from heaven that the Lord forgives everyone's sins and never takes revenge or even assigns spiritual credit or blame, because he is love and goodness itself. Yet for all that, our sins are not washed away. Nothing washes our sins away except repentance. Since the Lord told Peter to forgive up to seventy times seven instances of sin, at what point would the Lord stop forgiving us?
Divine Providence 280
The Lord forgives everyone's sins. He does not accuse us or keep score. However, he cannot take our sins away except by the laws of his divine providence; for when Peter asked him how many times he should forgive someone who had sinned against him, whether seven was enough, he said that Peter should forgive not seven times but seventy times seven times (Matthew 18:21, 22). What does this tell us about the Lord, who is mercy itself?