Peter came and said to Jesus, “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. (Read the whole passage)
We have been hearing the stories of Jesus’ ministry for a while now, we started back in spring and through the whole summer. For the past few weeks, Jesus has been challenging the disciples more than usual. He has put before them the question of who they think he is. Jesus has rebuked Peter for not getting it when Peter tried to stop Jesus from going to his death. And last week, Jesus challenged his disciples and us with the reality of conflict resolution, of how it is that God truly sees us.
But today, it is Peter who puts the hard question to Jesus. “How often should I forgive?” he asks “Seven times?”
And while usually when we hear this story we move on to Jesus’ response, Peter’s question deserves some time to consider… We need to slow down and truly hear what Peter is getting at.
Yet, before even considering how much we ought to forgive, maybe it is worth reflecting on our own experience with forgiveness.
Think back to the last time you had to forgive someone in your life. And not just a small acts of forgiveness like for your spouse getting regular ground beef instead of lean ground beef at the grocery store, or for your neighbour’s leaf blower sending all their leaves onto your lawn, or for that grandchild who spilled juice on the couch.
Rather, try and think of that time you forgave someone for something big. Something that was hurtful and life impacting. Something that was more than an accident or forgetful moment.
It is probably likely that most of us haven’t had to give that kind of forgiveness recently, maybe even at all in our lives. Or if we have, it has been only a few times.
And it is also likely that IF we have forgiven someone for something big that we haven’t forgiven fully. The sin committed against us probably still stings, that a part of us still holds it against the sinner, that maybe we bring up the offense from time to time to make the one we forgave still feel guilty.
Forgiveness is a complicated process. And it can be just as much about letting others off the hook of our judgment, as letting go of the hooks ourselves… freeing ourselves from having to hold others in judgement and condemnation. It is a lot of work to hold a grudge, to hold onto our hurt.
And so is Peter asking about this kind of hard work forgiveness? Probably not.
In fact, Peter doesn’t seem to be asking about forgiveness at all. More something like chances. How many chances do I have to give someone before I can hold their feet to the fire? Seven?
Peter wants a type of forgiveness he can control, a measuring stick that he can wield against even his brothers and sisters in Christ, against the people closest to him.
He is talking about the kind of forgiveness as chance giving that we use daily, the free passes for little offences that we give out depending on our mood and how much coffee we were able to drink in the morning.
So Jesus answers Peter’s question. Jesus tells us how much we are to forgive. 70 times 7 or 490 times. But it is NOT the number that is important. It is how Jesus gets there. Jesus multiplies Peter first guess. In a way Jesus is saying, however much you think is a generous amount of forgiveness, multiply that and then multiply it again… by a lot.
And yet, just to make sure that Peter gets the point and just to make sure that we get the point, Jesus tells a parable. It is a simple parable. A King forgives a slave an enormous amount. The slave then turns around and does not forgive a fellow slave a much smaller amount.
In our modern world, where we deal with big numbers often… so 10,000 and 100 don’t seem like much. But to really understand the depth of Jesus’ point we need to do some math.
10,000 talents and 100 Denarii are two vastly different amounts. A Denarii was what a day labourer would ear for one day’s work. Whereas a talent was worth 15 years of wages.
10,000 talents was worth about 54 million denarii.
The king forgave a debt that would have taken the slave 3000 lifetimes to work off.
The forgiven slave had a fellow slave thrown in prison for 3 months worth of wages.
The difference between the two is absurd.
But of course, Jesus is making point in using ridiculous numbers.
Forgiveness is NOT about an amount. It is NOT just a measuring stick for how judgemental we can be.
True forgiveness is that hard and complicated process that we might never achieve ourselves in our lifetime.
How often should we forgive? Jesus answer is, “Over and over and over and over and over.”
And even then, Jesus says, even after you have practiced forgiveness for a lifetime… remember that forgiveness is not something that you can do on your own.
What Peter doesn’t realize and what we regularly forget is that true forgiveness, the kind of mercy and forgiveness that Jesus has come to show the world is God’s alone to give.
That when God releases us from God’s judgment we are transformed. That from the moment we are born into this world are we are “on the hook” for our selfishness and self-centredness, we are on the hook for our sin. We are on the hook to die. And we hang from the hook, being held in judgment. Judgment that says we are not enough. We are not good enough, not righteous enough, not holy enough, not perfect enough. We are failures and frauds. We are sinners. And because of that, we will die.
But there, as we are dying on the hook for our sins, we are held in judgment that we can neither let go of ourselves or escape…God comes. God comes to us in the waters of baptism. And God raises us up, God releases us, God frees us. God says that we are no longer held in judgement, we are no longer destined to die. That in baptism we are now held and alive in Christ.
Christ who forgives. Jesus who releases us from judgment. The Son of God who brings God’s mercy near and close.
And then, over and over again, God reminds us that we are forgiven.
As we gather for worship we practice it.
We confess our sins and receive God’s forgiveness again.
We hear the word proclaimed, and God shows us grace again.
We sing and pray and confess our faith and share the peace, and God tells us the story of God’s love for us again.
We welcome the newly baptized into our community of faith, and God welcomes us all in the Body of Christ again.
We come and receive bread and wine, and God gives us forgiveness to eat and drink and to live our very bodies again.
Forgiveness as hard as we know it to be, as complicated as we know that it is to give, as difficult as it is to receive…. Forgiveness is not what Peter describes today. And we know that. We know that forgiveness is not the power to hold our brothers and sisters in judgement.
But we need Jesus tell us what forgiveness truly is. And Jesus reminds us tell us again that forgiveness is the work of God in our world and in our lives. It is not something that we can do one our own, but rather forgiveness is what God is doing to us and for us. God is letting go of the judgment we are held by, God is releasing us from being on the hook for sin and death. God is forgiving us completely and wholly… over and over and over and over again.