How Many Times?

How Many Times? September 18, 2023

I made the bold and sane choice yesterday of not waking up at 4 in the morning to wrest something out of the Sunday lections. I had such a busy two days before, it seemed good to sleep an hour longer than usual and just go to church. Still, I love the gospel reading we had, I can’t bear to let it pass me by. I love it so much, in fact, that I made my children memorize it one year. It goes like this:

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

The “then” if you remember from last Sunday was Jesus telling his meager band of hangers-on what to do if any of them “sinned” against each other. That’s such a difficult and ugly word. It’s no wonder it’s being abandoned in favor of other kinds of words like ‘broken’ or ‘abused.’ Those are bad words too, but they seem a little clearer. They are a little bit more emotionally accessible, I think, for how we think of ourselves and each other. They externalize the problem, which isn’t bad, but doesn’t get to the root of why humanity has such a difficult time forming and keeping cultures and relationships.

The problem with the word ‘sin’ is that it is so broad and wide and entire. It can be something very small or very great. It can include killing someone and also being selfish in such a way that all the people around you find their lives constrained and circumscribed and made uncomfortable by that, so often thoughtless, ungenerosity.

Peter, hearing Jesus saw on about Matthew 18 (I’m sure that our Lord was already mentally referring to it that way as he gave the instruction), finds his mind and heart facing the ghastly possibility that, if he were to go to his brother who had sinned against him, and then maybe even go to the trouble of taking one or two witnesses along with him, might still have to forgive that brother after all. Like, if that brother said he was sorry and didn’t want to be put out of the church, Peter would have to say, “I forgive you.” And then again if it happened again.

This is a sort of appalling realization that dawns on so many of us, as we sit in the pew under Jesus’s heavy mercy. ‘How often am I going to have to do this?’ we mutter to ourselves under our breaths. Jesus, again, looking deep into the eyes of Peter, and into yours as well if you will listen, says, ‘the perfect number of times.’ Go on forgiving your brother over and over and over. Don’t you worry, you’ll always have more opportunities to forgive your brother. Or sister, for that matter, if you want to be picky about it.

Then he tells this horrible little story about two people who are both subjects of a king. The one owed an impossible amount of money. It wasn’t a number of dollars or denarii that could be paid by a man in his position, even if he played the stock market. When he promised to pay what he owed, it wasn’t a promise he would be able to keep. The other owed a good amount of money but was a figure that probably could be paid back with hard work and persistence.

The two men and the two amounts neatly illustrate a person’s relationship to God in contrast to her relationship with other people. The kind of debt we owe God cannot be paid back with a lot of effort. It is because it is a treacherous debt, a kind of sin of the creature against his creator that is so deep, so total, so wicked that no small sacrifice or even hard work can undo it.

And yet, the kinds of sins we commit against each other because we are not holy and are no gods, while they might be deep and terrible, in many cases are, with some elbow grease and good intentions, mended. Not always, but lots of people are able to sort out their differences and forgive each other who don’t care a wit for the King in this story.

So for the King to forgive his servant a debt that the servant could never have repaid means the King will be absorbing the offense entirely. We know that Jesus, the King, absorbed it in his own Body and paid it in his blood. The servant, leaving the presence of such a merciful Person, taking with him such a gift, should never have been able to find the strength to choke his fellow servant, no matter the amount owed or the sin committed. He was meant to dig down into the darkness of his soul and find the transforming light of forgiveness and turn around and let that money or offense go. It would have been hard, but it would have also been possible.

So there you are. If you can’t forgive and be forgiven, you can’t be a Christian. You can’t understand what we are all doing here. Jesus goes first, by forgiving you. When you ask him for help when you can’t find it inside yourself to do likewise, he always gives that help. He never says no, but also isn’t going to make an exception for you, just because it’s hard and painful.

Have a nice day!

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