Jesus has just told his disciples that if someone sins against them they are to first go talk to the person in private. Then if that doesn’t work try again with witnesses. If that doesn’t work bring the matter to the church. And if all of that doesn’t solve it than treat that person as a Gentile or a tax collector. We know how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors.
Peter was that attentive student who always tried to impress Jesus and so he responded with a question: “Jesus, Jesus, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive that person? As many as seven times?”
Peter knows his suggestion of seven times is super generous. He padded his question to show Jesus just what a forgiving guy he was. After all, Jesus just described a possible four-step process when it comes to dealing with people who hurt you. It seems like a fair question: “So just how many times do you have to go to all that trouble with the same person before you can write them off?”
The rabbinical custom, according to Amos, was three times. You should forgive a person up to three times and then when it comes to the fourth infraction they can be punished. Peter takes that number, doubles it and then adds one to make it the perfect number, seven. He probably thinks, “This time Jesus will smile at me and say, ‘Well done, Peter. Well done!”
Jesus says, “No. Seventy times seven.” I wish I could see Peter’s face. But I know that face. I have made that face. “Really, Jesus, what you ask of us is too hard. How do I keep track of 490 times? I will have to create an Excel spreadsheet but I don’t really know how so I will have to take a quick online tutorial and that takes time away from other things I want to do. Really, Jesus.”
(Now for you numbers people in the room. I know that it says seventy-seven times in the scripture you heard this morning. Actually, translators will tell you that the language is not clear on whether it says seventy-seven or seventy times seven. Most scholars agree it is seventy times seven so I went with them.)
Okay, back to the story. So Jesus decides to explain his answer further for those of us who live in the land of ledgers and Excel spreadsheets. He tells a parable about a king who decided to settle accounts with those who owed him money. First to be brought in was a man who owed him 10,000 talents. One talent was 130 pounds of silver. On talent was equivalent to 15 years at a laborer’s wage. So this man owed the king 150,000 years of wages. (Just an aside here, I love that Jesus’ stories always include hyperbole. So if you have ever accused me of a bit of exaggerating, just know I am continuing the work of Jesus.)
Everyone who hears this parable knows that the servant was not going to be able to repay the king this money and so did the king. But still the servant falls down on his knees in front of the king and cries, “Please have patience with me and I promise you I will repay every cent!” Right!
The king looks on this man in front of him and he thinks, “There is no way he can pay me back. Poor guy. This must be horribly stressful for him.” So he tells the man to stand up and he forgives him all of it….all 150,000 years of labor….every last dime of it is forgiven. The man goes skipping out of the palace. A huge weight has been lifted from his shoulders and he stands up straight for the first time in years. Tonight, he will let his children’s have seconds at dinner.
But as that forgiven man walks home he runs into a person who owes him money. He whips out his ledger and says, “Hey buddy, where is that 100 denarii you owe me?” A denarii was what one received for a daily wage. This debtor owed the newly forgiven man 100 days of work. That is no small debt. That is a third of his wages for one year. But it is probably way less than some of you owe on a mortgage or a student loan.
The forgiven man grabs a hold of the neck of his debtor and yells, “Pay me what you owe me….now.” Out from under his debt he is ready to accumulate some wealth. The debtor falls down on his knees and says, “Please have patience with me and I promise you I will repay every cent!” Remember where you just heard that same plea. But the forgiven man wouldn’t listen. He decided to get the law involved and throw the unforgiven man into prison where it would be even harder for him to repay his debt.
Well, their neighbors couldn’t believe the irony of what they just witnessed. So they tattled to the king. He summoned the man, whom he had just forgiven, to come back to the palace. He said, “You are a wicked man. Give me that ledger. I forgave you a huge debt after you pleaded with me. Then you turned right around and refused mercy to a neighbor.” The king says to the guards, “Throw him into prison until he can repay every penny of the money he owes me.”
Then Jesus says, “Does that explain it Peter? God will do the same to you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from you heart.” Wouldn’t you like to see Peter’s face? It is the same face we have. We are trying to hide our ledgers behind our backs while we process what this means about the jerk who always lets his dog poop on your lawn without picking it up or the uncle who ruined your wedding reception while he was drunk and then never said he was sorry or the son-in-law who keeps you from spending more time with your grandchildren or the kid at recess who steals the ball and runs away or the thief who took your wallet or the drunk driver who killed your daughter or….you can finish that sentence with your story. Surely, the times we have been injured are outside of what Jesus is talking about. Surely our story is different than what Jesus is talking about. Surely our injury requires that ledger.
Jesus isn’t really expecting us to keep track 490 times or even 77 times. What he really wants us to understand is that forgiveness never comes with a ledger. It is something we do in the context of our relationship with God….not within the context of the person who harmed us. If God loves us so much that God forgives us, we should do the same. We aren’t forgiven because we deserve it. We are forgiven because God loves us and wants us to bestow that same kind of irrational love on others.
Forgiveness can’t be counted. It isn’t a legal transaction. It is not even a transaction. It is an act done in love. If Peter had asked Jesus how many times he had to love we would know it was a ridiculous question. Love is the framework in which we need to understand forgiveness.
Some of you here have been harmed in ways that I can’t even imagine….you have suffered inexcusable injury. You need to know that forgiveness is not about allowing yourself to be further injured. Forgiveness is not about staying in an abusive relationship. You need to distance yourself from harm. Absolutely.
Forgiveness is actually a decision about your past. On December 22, 1986, Bill Bosler, a Church of the Brethren minister in Miami, Florida, and his 24 year-old daughter, Suezann, were getting ready to go Christmas shopping together when the doorbell of the parsonage rang. Bill went to answer it and then Suezann heard crashes and groans. She went running into the living room and found a man savagely stabbing her father. He stabbed her in the back, twice in the head and left her for dead. Her father, Bill, died of his injuries. Suezann regained consciousness three days later on Christmas Day.
James Bernard Campbell, a drug addict in search of funds, was convicted of killing Bill Bosler. Suezann made it her mission to keep Campbell from getting the death penalty. She said her father and she had spoken once about it and he had told her emphatically that he would never want someone to get the death penalty for killing him. She was raised in the Church of the Brethren and she had sung the song, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” She believed that it needed to begin with her.
Campbell was sentenced three different times. Each time the prosecutors were trying to get a sentence of death. Twice it was overturned. The third time Suezann insisted on speaking. At that third hearing Campbell received a sentence of life. After the hearing she gave Campbell a Bible and said to him, “I forgive you.” Suezann began traveling around the country speaking out to abolish the death penalty. She feels like killing people to show that killing people is wrong makes no sense and just makes more victims. Her included. She knew that and eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.
The story of Suezann Bosler is an amazing one. It got attention in the mainstream media. The television show, 48 Hours did a whole episode on her fight during that third attempt at a death penalty verdict. Her story was even written up in People magazine. If it had happened in the time of the world wide web it would have gone viral and ended up on Facebook.
The reason it got so much attention was because Suezann lives in the land of ledger but her heart resides in the Kingdom of God. James Bernard Campbell refuses a relationship with Suezann Bosler after her many attempts. But Suezann hasn’t required Campbell to say he is sorry in order for her to forgive him. She refuses to be held captive to the worst night of her life. When she forgave Campbell she was released to live into her future. Her forgiveness was rooted and grounded in the love and forgiveness God bestows on her. Suezann forgave Campbell and she was freed. She doesn’t live in his prison cell.
I know that some of you are living in the prison of your inability to forgive. I invite you today to move out of the land of ledger and dip your toe into the Kingdom of God. I am going to give you some time of silence to think about a person you are having a hard time forgiving. It may be someone who doesn’t even know how hurt you are. Do you see them? Imagine what forgiving them would do for you and for your future.
God invites us to burn our ledgers and live in the land of Love…God’s holy land…the Kingdom of God. Forgive and be free. Forgive as you have been forgiven. Forgive and live into your future. Amen.