Peter comes to Jesus with a question. It is a question that he and the disciples have been wondering about for some time. It is even a question that many of us from time to time may have wondered. How many times should we forgive someone? This is a question that not only applies to ourselves but extends to the church and the world. Is there a point at which we stop forgiving people, forgiving nations or even forgiving the Church?
Jesus’s answer to Peter is to not forgive just seven times, which may seem fair enough, but rather to forgive seventy-seven times. Well that is a whole lot more than seven. Jesus says that forgiveness needs to happen again and again and again, any number of times an infinite number of times in fact. We are called to forgive until the person needing forgiveness and by extension ourselves are made whole. We forgive until a total transformation of the heart occurs. Forgiveness as I have mentioned before can be hard, especially when we have been hurt or to use Peter’s words, “sinned against” badly. The sting is that much more intense when we are hurt by people we know or love, such as a church community or family. Sometimes forgiving the ones we love is the hardest.
If forgiveness and the struggle we have with forgiveness is not enough, our Gospel goes on to include a story from Jesus that he uses to explain his concept of forgiveness that comes from the heart. We read about a King and his slaves. We read how the King forgives the debt of one slave. This slave in turn wreaks havoc with his fellow slaves by saying that they have to settle their debts. The King upon hearing this calls the first slave to account for his actions. As a result the slave is tortured until his debt is paid. The king says, “I forgave you. I made you whole. Why are you not extending this same grace to others . . .” Why wouldn’t the slave want others to experience the wholeness he has received? This is an interesting question and one worthy of our reflection.
This is a passage that can be problematic for us who may approach this text with a twenty first century lens. We live in a different world where we have a labor code, unions and human resources in place to help maintain the necessary checks and balances between workers and employers. Despite this, we know that there are flaws and gaps in any good system or society. It may even be hard for us to admit that while slavery is illegal, it looks a little different in our day and age. We only need to have a closer look at migrant workers and seasonal fruit pickers to realize that we are not too far away from what could be called slavery. And don’t get me started on the debate between minimum wage verses a living wage. There is a big difference between what is the least we can get away with paying someone verses paying someone enough so that they can live. It is well documented that living in the Lower Mainland and receiving minimum wage is not enough to pay bills, rent and groceries and the other basics. People have to resort to working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. Days and weeks go by without a day off or time for rest, Sabbath.
So how do we reconcile these differences? How do we come to terms with a troubling gospel that reminds us of the many ways in which society falls short of making people whole and our own difficulty with forgiveness and the many ways in which we are called to forgive?
My wife will often mention that forgiveness is not always about forgiving. She explains that there are many steps that lead to forgiveness. She talks about what are the faithful responses, or faithful steps that we need to take in order to reach the ultimate goal of forgiveness. These are the steps for times that we can’t forgive or have great difficulty forgiving. The first step is to pray that we want to forgive. Or if that step is too difficult that we pray that we want to want to forgive. The intent of each step is a faithful response that leads us to be in a position to forgive. These are steps that can take a life time to make. There are times when forgiveness is not something that can be achieved in this life-time, but is something that will happen when we are united with God in the heavenly realm. For me what is important about these faithful steps is the humility to acknowledge that often we cannot forgive on our own. We need God to be with us, working in and through us to reach a place where we can forgive.
The other side of forgiveness that is also implied in Jesus’s explanation of the King and his slave is the concept of mercy. When we finally reach the place when we can forgive, we show mercy. We acknowledge that the one who has wronged or sinned is able to be free. They are no longer bound to us in any way through past wrongs, they are free. In showing mercy to others we acknowledge the times when we have received mercy, when we have been forgiven. We are reminded of what it truly means to be forgiven and the freedom that forgiveness has brought. We allow, as the king would ask, the opportunity for others to experience the grace of forgiveness that we too have received. This is the sweet spot when we forgive from the heart.