21 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?”
22 Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times.23 Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.
24 When he began to settle accounts, they brought to him a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold. 25 Because the servant didn’t have enough to pay it back, the master ordered that he should be sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, and that the proceeds should be used as payment.
26 But the servant fell down, kneeled before him, and said, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ 27 The master had compassion on that servant, released him, and forgave the loan.28 “When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred coins. He grabbed him around the throat and said, ‘Pay me back what you owe me.’29 “Then his fellow servant fell down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’
30 But he refused. Instead, he threw him into prison until he paid back his debt. 31 “When his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply offended. They came and told their master all that happened. 32 His master called the first servant and said, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. 33 Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’
34 His master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners, until he had paid the whole debt.
35 “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Just the other day I was flipping through TV channels and came across a show about a guy who peels road kill off the road for a living, and I thought, why in the world would people want to watch this? And then, of course, I couldn’t turn it off! This show is called “Dirty Jobs,” and Mike Rowe is the man who has become famous for trying his hand at over 165 of the dirtiest jobs on the planet. He has waded through sewers, castrated horses, farmed worm dung, learned how to make sausage, and sorted through medical waste, just to name a few. He goes out and learns about the jobs that none of us would ever want to do, and gets coached by the people who do these jobs every day for a living, and it’s not just for the sake of entertainment. Mike goes deeper than that to pay respect to the men and women who roll up their sleeves and do these challenging jobs every day. I’m fortunate that in ministry, I don’t have a lot of moments where I literally need to roll up my sleeves so they won’t get dirty, but I do remember when I was at the Heifer Ranch and was asked to milk a goat. So, not knowing what I was doing, I rolled up my sleeves and was instructed on the mechanics of milking a goat. At first I was slightly horrified, but then it was actually kind of fun. Milking a goat probably wouldn’t be the subject of Dirty Jobs, however! The show sends a powerful message, as journalist Ellen McGirt says about the draw of the show: “There’s dignity in hard work, expertise in unexpected places and deep satisfaction in tackling and finishing a tough job.” Sometimes we just need to roll up our sleeves and be willing to get dirty- to do the tough job that is before us.
And that’s a message we need to hear today about forgiveness. Forgiveness is a tough job. Sometimes it is a dirty job, but someone has to do it. Luckily for us, Jesus rolls up his sleeves and shows us how. It begins with a question from Peter to Jesus: “Lord, how many times must I forgive a brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?” This question comes in the midst of a conversation about resolving conflicts between people in the church and community, and Peter’s question is one for further clarification. Peter is probably expecting Jesus to give the answer that was typical for Jewish teaching in the first century, which taught that you should forgive someone one, two, or three times, but probably not four. Jesus’ response, however, is one of almost absurd and unlimited forgiveness. The parable that follows is meant to give us a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven and how forgiveness plays a key role within it.
The king has a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold (or talents), which is an insanely large sum of money. A talent was the largest monetary unit of the day, equal to the wages of a manual laborer for 15 years. 10,000 talents would be the wages of 10,000 manual laborers, over the course of 15 years. By comparison, (notes biblical scholar Eugene Boring), the annual tax income for all of the territories of Herod the Great was 900 talents per year. Ten thousand talents would exceed the taxes for all of the countries of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea and Samaria (Homiletics). That’s a lot of money! The debt is unpayable. The king threatens to sell the servant and his family, but the servant begs the king to be patient, and he will be paid back. But the king showed compassion and forgave the debt. But when the servant goes out into the world, he finds a person who owes him money, and he does not show the same compassion and mercy that was just shown to him. In other words, he does not pay it forward. The king then calls the servant back, and because the same mercy was not paid forward, the servant hands him over to be imprisoned until his entire debt was paid off.
Jesus concludes by noting the significance of our forgiveness of others. We must be willing to forgive without bounds, just as we have been forgiven and set free by the grace of God. Our unwillingness to forgive will lead us to imprisonment of our lives and hearts. Forgiveness is neither optional nor contingent, because God’s forgiveness knows no end. It is a deep reservoir of grace that will never run dry. It doesn’t matter how big the debt, the payment from God is forgiveness. So also our relationships with others should be governed by a grace that knows no bounds (workingpreacher.org).
It is important to note that this teaching on forgiveness does not mean that we embrace or excuse any violence or transgression done against us, and it does not mean allowing those who have done us harm to get by with it or given free reign. It does not mean that we are then expected to still have a cordial relationship or even relationship at all with that person. The key is that we understand that forgiveness is a gift of grace and a reflection of God’s love, and we are challenged with the task (the dirty job!) of following this example- to roll up our sleeves and get to work. The Greek word used here for forgiveness literally means to send off, hurl, release, or let go. It is an active process- an almost violent act of dismissal, and Jesus challenges us to do it endlessly. To forgive, then, is to cast off the sin and bitterness of wrongdoing. To forgive someone is to set ourselves free from the burden we have been carrying. To forgive is something we do to empower ourselves, and also to glorify the God who forgives.
The best lessons I have learned about forgiveness have come from Eva Kor. After spending a week with her at Auschwitz, I came to a new understanding of forgiveness- that it is really about setting yourself free from the act of violence or discretion that caused you to be a victim of human tragedy, betrayal, or wrong doing. And as a Christian, it is about setting yourself free from bitterness, hatred, and the imprisonment that is caused by these things. It is, as the Greek word explains, about throwing it away or letting it go so that it no longer weighs you down. It is about fully embracing and having a relationship with the God of forgiveness- our loving and merciful God who is willing to do the dirty work of blotting out our transgressions and cleansing us from our sin (Psalm 51), so that we may be transformed into people who are able to roll up our sleeves and engage in the tough job of forgiving others. God knows that we can be transformed into merciful people, only if we are willing to roll up our sleeves and do that tough job. We have to start somewhere.
In a few weeks, I will be off to South Africa to study justice and apartheid with my clergy colleagues of the Wabash Pastoral Leadership Program. We will be spending our two weeks there hearing from church and community leaders about how they set about to do away with the oppressive apartheid system and to bring about equality and justice for all persons. In preparation for our trip, we have been reading various materials about how South Africa began to heal and come back together after being a country torn apart by racism, economic inequality, violence, and injustice, particularly toward people of color. In his book, No Future Without Forgiveness, Archbishop Desmund Tutu shares the story of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sought to bring the country together by the act of victims and perpetrators coming together to share their stories, exposing the past, and achieving reconciliation and forgiveness. Tutu called this strategy a third way- granting amnesty to individuals in exchange for full disclosure relating to the crime for which amnesty was being sought. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work was extremely difficult as they sat through hundreds of stories that told of torture, murder, and unspeakable violence. But over time, the Commission’s work began to see a new day and a new hope for the future of South Africa. People began the hard work of forgiveness and reconciliation. They began to understand and live out the African concept of ubuntu– a word that speaks of the very essence of being human. It is to say, “my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours. We belong in a bundle of life.” A person with ubuntu is diminished when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than they are. Ubuntu was at work in South Africa when there were no reprisals against the whites who oppressed, killed, and tortured people of color during the Apartheid. People began to forgive, and through the sharing of the stories of both victims and oppressors, they began to see the ubuntu present in the other- that we are all human and are bound up in this life together, equally, uniquely, and working toward a common good for all (30-31).
In this case, forgiveness is what put together an entire nation and began the process of healing thousands of people, and in many ways, they are still rebuilding. With this comes the acknowledgment, as Tutu says, “that forgiving and being reconciled are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the degradation, the truth…it is a risky undertaking, but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end, dealing with the real situation helps to bring real healing” (270).
Forgiveness in all its forms can be difficult and messy, but we are challenged to roll up our sleeves and take on this task for the sake of the God who so richly offers forgiveness to each of us. When I think of forgiveness, I often think of three types- forgiveness of the other, forgiveness of the self, and forgiveness of God. Which one are you struggling with right now? There will be times when someone has done a wrong toward us, and we struggle to forgive what they have done. There are times when we must forgive ourselves for whatever reason- self-hatred, mistreatment of our own bodies, when we blame ourselves for something that is really not our fault and for the times when it is our fault, and then there are times when we must forgive God. I know many people who are angry at God for taking their loved one or they are mad that God did not stop that accident or cause that cancer. But the truth is, that we explored weeks ago, is that God is good, all the time, and that God works for good in everything. God does not cause bad things to happen, but is working within the bad to bring out the good, even when we do not see it right away. This is a hard truth to swallow because we want to blame someone or something for the unexplainable. So we must find it in our hearts to forgive God for the things we want to blame God for…and instead, seek understanding of God’s unending love and mercy that we might find healing for ourselves in the midst of tragedy and brokenness. We must find forgiveness so that we, too, may be set free from anger and bitterness.
We must roll up our sleeves and get to the tough job of forgiveness as we understand that the divine mercy and inconceivable forgiveness of God cannot be fathomed. It can only be felt, lived, believed, and comprehended in the doing and practice of forgiving others, the self, and God. After all, that’s the kind of God we have, says Jesus. Our God is a king who has mercy on us, and who forgives our debts, and sends us out into the world to do the same. God is willing to do the most disgusting of dirty jobs, to roll up his sleeves and remove our sins and shame through the gift of forgiveness (Homiletics). All God asks is that we do the same for others- one, two, three, four…seven…seventy seven…infinity? Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work. Amen.