Who finds it difficult to forgive? I thought so – because so do I. We all know we are supposed to forgive. It is ingrained in everything from the Lord's prayer to passages like this one in Matthew. Our churches are full of people who know they are supposed to forgive, who know intellectually that letting go of hurts is a positive and life enhancing thing and yet find it nigh impossible to do so. In fact telling people who have been hurt and shamed and left feeling worthless that they "ought" to forgive someone can just heap guilt on to them as well as all that bitterness and hurt when they find that they cannot do it.
This parable appears, at face value, to say that those of us who cannot forgive others who have wronged us will not be forgiven by God. But is that really what it means? We possibly need to look at the parable a little closer
The first exchange between Peter and Jesus concerns the extent and nature of forgiveness. "Seventy seven times" is Jesus' way of telling Peter that forgiveness is not a commodity that can be reckoned on a calculator. Not only is it limitless but it cannot even be quantified, so the language of numbers is completely inappropriate when contemplating forgiveness. This particular point is rammed home with the absurd amount that the first servant is indebted to the king. "Ten thousand talents" represents the wages of a day labourer in Jesus’ time for 150,000 years!!
The second piece of the reading is the parable where the king forgives one servant that absurdly huge amount who is then unable to forgive another servant a reasonable debt. This heartless ogre is then justifiably imprisoned and tortured by the king. But if we look on this parable whilst reflecting on the difficulty of genuine forgiveness it takes on a different tone.
The first point to note is that human forgiveness is rooted in divine forgiveness. The king forgives the servant an incalculable amount. There is no way to measure divine forgiveness. Saying "seventy seven times" doesn't even come close.
Now when looking at the parable we note that there is an incredible gap in the parable. On hearing of his release from his obligation to pay this incalculable sum, the servant shows no appropriate response - no rejoicing, no gratitude, no celebrating with wife and children who are spared imprisonment, no reflection on the meaning of freedom. We know only that on the way out he refuses the plea of a colleague.
That "gap" in the parable has to be taken seriously. That first servant has not "discovered" forgiveness. We see that in the fact that although the debt is way beyond his capacity to pay he says "I will pay you everything"(18:20). It would be like me being presented with a bill for ten trillion trillion pounds and me saying “Oh I’ll repay that” when I won’t earn that in a hundred lifetimes. He imagines he is dealing with the king on the basis of Justice, but what he receives but doesn't grasp is the king's mercy. The parable wants us to know that Justice and mercy are different beasts.
The first servant sees indebtedness and forgiveness as a power game. He hasn't seen himself as a "gifted" person, as a recipient of mercy so is unable to see himself as being in the same situation as the second servant. He has no empathy. The final verse (18:35) makes it clear that forgiveness is a matter of the heart, a transformation of the inner disposition of the recipient of mercy, something that first servant has not yet discovered.
"How does this passage address seriously injured persons, battling with shame and alienation? It portrays the incredible kindness of God who doesn't deal with us with justice but with mercy. It invites us, the listeners to think of ourselves as forgiven debtors - no more or less - living with and among other forgiven debtors. To be forgiven means to give up the power game of innocent versus guilty and to join a fellowship of forgiven sinners.
Only then, the parable would appear to be saying, can we even begin to start to rid ourselves of the self-destructive rage and sense of injustice that keeps historic hurts and trespasses alive and unforgiven in our hearts.
Until I or you accept ourselves as forgiven sinners we will always find it difficult to have empathy with someone who trespasses against us.
This I accept, but it still takes a lot of prayer and a lot of time...perhaps a lifetime...to accomplish. And does scale matter? Someone is rude to me. I can forgive them quite easily (mostly). But If a spouse cheats on you? How easy is that? How about the family of David Haines who was beheaded by Islamic state yesterday?