Matthew 18:21-35; Luke 23:34
(C) 2002, Don Mize
Austin, a little, short, pudgy cartoon character, is walking along and sees a brick he picks up. A few steps later he sees another that he picks up. Now he has a brick in each hand, and the bricks are heavy. A car comes by and nearly hits him. Instinctively, Austin turns and throws a brick after the departing car. He goes back, retrieves the brick, and continues on with a heavy brick in each hand.
A few steps further on he sees another brick. Since he already has a brick in each hand, he stares at it longingly. Then, he has an idea. He takes off his back pack, dumps all its contents, and puts the bricks in the backpack.
Now, every time he sees a brick, he can put it in his back pack. However, soon the back pack becomes heavy, and, after a while, even the back pack is full of bricks. Now Austin again has a brick in each hand as well as the full and heavy back pack.
The bricks in our story represent grudges and resentments we carry around. We want to get even. We cannot forgive. We dump important things to make room for our grudges just as Austin emptied his back pack just to make room for his bricks. Like Austin throwing a brick at a passing car, we hurl our anger at anything that comes too close.
In an article in USA Today on 10 December 2001, Karen S. Peterson discusses conflicting positions on forgiving the 9/11 terrorists. She discusses the religious views of Christians, Muslims, and Jews as well as opinions of social workers and psychologists.1
One thing becomes clear in Peterson's article: the Christian view of forgiveness is different. Moreover, while Christians, Jews and Muslims share some common insights, once you move outside religious insights, views on forgiveness change radically. One can find blatantly stated positions that maintain forgiveness is not an obligation, that forgiveness is not morally necessary, and even that forgiveness is wrong.
A story about forgiveness
Let me call your attention to a dialogue between Peter and Jesus found in Matthew 18:21-35, and to the parable Jesus told to make his view crystal clear.
Peter begins by asking Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him and suggests that perhaps he should forgive the sinning brother as many as seven times.
Jesus replies by expanding the concept of seven to seventy times seven. Jesus says that is how much one should forgive a person who sins against him.
Then, Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom of heaven, how things operate on a spiritual level. He says that it is like a king who wants to settle accounts with his servants. I suppose we would say an audit of the books and a calling in of debts.
As the debts are being added up, a man is brought in who owes the king a fantastic amount of money. We might put the figure in millions or perhaps billions to capture the idea. The debt is huge and beyond repayment. True to the times in which the story is told, the king considers the man, his wife, his children, and his property as collateral for the debt. He orders that the family be sold into slavery, that his property be sold, and that the proceeds be applied to the debt.
The man is terrorized, and he falls on his knees begging the king to have patience, promising to pay the impossibly large debt. The king, for no other reason than he is moved by pity, forgives the unpayable debt. He merely says he will write it off the books.
But then, the story takes an interesting turn. The man leaves the king, having just been forgiven the impossible debt, and he meets a man who owes him money. The man is described as "a fellow servant," a man like himself. The man owes the forgiven man a small debt, one that is in reach of being repaid. We might say a few hundred dollars to capture the idea.
The forgiven servant is abusive, grabbing the man by the throat and demanding immediate payment. The man falls down and begs, just as the forgiven man had recently begged the king. The debtor pleads with the forgiven man for patience and promises to repay the debt. However, the forgiven man is heartless. He has the man thrown into prison until he pays the small debt owed.
Others see the incident and are upset. They go to the king and report the forgiven man's behavior.
The king calls in the man he so recently forgave and confronts him. The king tells him that he is wicked and reminds him how he had been forgiven. He did not treat his debtor as he had been treated.
Then, true to the times in which the story was told, Jesus says the king delivered him to the jailers to be tortured until he should pay the enormous debt previously to be written off the books. The man is treated as he treated his fellow servant..
Jesus finishes his story by pointing out that this is precisely how God will treat everyone who does not forgive others from the heart. Those of us who cannot or will not forgive will not be forgiven. We will be treated as we treat others.
That thought, of course, is scary, for most of us have trouble forgiving.
Perhaps we should spend a moment defining forgiveness.
Webster's New World Dictionary gives standard English definitions of forgiveness. 1. to give up resentment against or the desire to punish; stop being angry with; pardon. 2. to give up all claim to punish or exact a penalty for (an offense): overlook. 3. to cancel or remit (a debt)2
The first definition is closer to the meaning we will be discussing. The idea of giving up resentment is certainly a part of our discussion. Giving up the desire to punish in the sense of giving up the desire to cause pain is a part of our discussion. To stop being angry with a person is part of our consideration.
The second definition, giving up a claim to punish or exact a penalty, is more of a legal definition, about which we will not be much concerned. The third definition involves forgiving a debt, the exact situation Jesus used in his story to illustrate how forgiveness works (and should work).
The dynamic of forgiveness
The parable illustrates the dynamic of forgiveness, using money owed to make the issue concrete and rememberable. Jesus makes clear that the underlying dynamic is empathy: putting oneself in the skin of another and treating that person as we would like to be treated. Empathy moves us beyond legalism to love.
Peter believes that he is being generous to offer to forgive seven times. In fact, based on Old Testament scriptures, some rabbis taught that one should forgive three times. After that, according to these teaching, the person is past forgiveness. Jesus, on the other hand, says that one should forgive seventy times seven.3 I follow the line of thinking that says that the number seven in Jewish writings often expresses the idea of perfection. By using the number seven and multiplying it, expanding it, Jesus is saying that forgiveness should be unending.
The analogy involved in Jesus parable also suggests that God has forgiven us an unpayable debt. We owe God much more that we will ever be able to repay. Compared to God's forgiveness of our unpayable debt, no one can owe us anything we cannot forgive. God will treat us as we treat others. If we cannot forgive, we will not be forgiven.4
The reality of sin
You will never understand the depth of the forgiveness God extends to you until you understand the pervasive nature of your sin. Most of us think of sin as "trespass" and dismiss the seriousness of our sin. We haven't killed anyone. We haven't committed adultery. We haven't dishonored our parents. Or have we? The Ten Commandments rigorously applied to our life may reveal more "trespasses" than we would like to admit.
However, the New Testament often speaks of sin as "missing the mark." We shoot at the target's bulls eye, but we miss the mark. Motive is not the issue. Our intention is to hit the bulls eye, but we miss the mark. How often in life we intend to do the right thing, but we miss the mark. Such sin infects our existence. No amount of "trying harder" can alter this aspect of our human existence. Only God's forgiveness extended through grace can heal us.
Suppose a driver kills your only child. Later, the driver is sorry. "I didn't mean to," he says. In other words, his motive was not to kill your child, but your child is dead. He "missed the mark" and the effect (your dead child) remains in spite the driver's motive.
We often "don't mean to" when we miss the mark. Yet, we hurt people, and we break the heart of God. The story Jesus tells reminds us that all sin is ultimately against God as well as against other people. (The king in the story remained involved and had the last word.) Like you being called upon to forgive a driver who killed your child, God extends forgiveness through grace (unmerited love and favor) into our sinful existence through Jesus Christ.
Of course we must accept this forgiveness, and we must live in God's accepting grace to experience spiritual healing. In Christ we come to understand that forgiveness is not an isolated act on the part of God but a way of relating to us in grace. God's forgiveness and grace are forever available to us, igniting our love for God and others. We become instruments of God's forgiveness and grace to others (our fellow servants) because of God's forgiveness and grace that transforms us.
We can find many ideas about forgiveness. A Japanese proverb says that forgiving the unrepentant is like drawing pictures in water. Henry Ward Beecher said that God pardons like a mother who kisses away the repentant tears of her child. Someone said that forgiving without forgetting is like loving without liking. Someone else said that when we forgive we overlook as a favorite child's failings.5
However, our purpose is state precisely the meaning Jesus gave to forgiveness and to answer the difficult questions, "How can I forgive?" Even when we understand that we should forgive, even when we understand the meaning Jesus gave to forgiveness, we are left with the seemingly impossible task of forgiving. Let's look at a few specific words in the Greek language of the text in order to be precise.
Strong's Greek Dictionary can help us with precise meanings of the text, not shaded by our common English usage of the word "forgiveness." First of all, in v.21, the word Peter uses for forgive means simply "to forsake, to lay aside." That is the basic meaning of the word forgive in this passage. We are to forsake, lay aside something.
Secondly, in v. 27, when the king has compassion, he is feeling "pity," feeling "sympathy" with the person who owes him the great debt. We might use the word empathy to describe getting inside another's skin, being that person, seeing things from that person's point of view. It allows us to treat others as we would like to be treated.
In verse 33 the word that is key means "favor, compassionate, to have compassion or pity on". This is precisely what the forgiven man did not do. He did not mentally put himself inside the skin of the other man and say, "If I were this man, how would I want to be treated." He did not treat the man who owed him the debt as he himself had actually been treated. He dealt with the legal side rather than the human side of the equation. In verse 34, the word debt means simply "to owe, to be under obligation."6
Back to short, pudgy Austin
Austin is still carrying his bricks, but now he has found an old scale, the sort that has a receptacle in which to place weights until the two receptacles balance. Every time Austin is offended by someone, or is cheated by someone, or in any way is hurt by someone, he becomes obsessed with balancing the scale. Instantly, an offense causes him to pick up a new brick and put it in one receptacle of the scale. Of course the scale is now out of balance, the heavy brick making one receptacle go down. Austin now goes about to get even. When he hurts the person back, he takes another brick out of his backpack and places it in the other receptacle of the scale to restore the balance.
In addition, even when Austin finally balances the scale, he always keeps the brick, carefully adding it to his backpack. After all, he must remember that the person hurt him. Such a person is not to be trusted.
It would never occur to Austin that he didn't have to keep score. Nor would it occur to Austin that he didn't have to get even. He would never consider letting an insult go, giving it up, laying it aside, or forsaking the resentment and the desire to balance the scale. He must pick up a brick every time and obsessively go about balancing the scale. He must get even. And, he must remember.
Now that we have a clearer idea about the precise meaning of forgiveness, we can see that forgiveness is a priceless jewel, a healing salve that we refuse.
A gift for the victim
Susan Cheever wrote an article in the 12 February 2002 of Newsday entitled "Handling Our Outrage Over Enron." She concludes that there is nothing she, and most other individuals, can do about Enron. However, she maintains that we can do something about our anger. She correctly says that anger is fine for a while, but anger can start eroding our lives.
She goes on to tell how she had to learn this hard lesson. She was physically attacked in her house 20 years before, and they never caught the man. She says that for months after she found her life in turmoil, filled with anger and fear. She even carried a gun for a while. She finally worked through her anger and fear, and now she believes in forgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift for the victim, she maintains, for she found that it released her and gave her back her life.7
Too many of us are like Austin, who is still trudging along carrying his bricks and scale. Austin would refuse to pick up a diamond, for he would need to put down his bricks in order to pick it up. He would refuse healing salve for all the cuts and bruises he has accumulated along the way, for he would have to put down his bricks in order to apply the salve to his wounds. Forgiveness is like that priceless diamond, but we will not put down our resentment, our fear, or our desire to get even. Forgiveness is like a healing salve to apply to the hurts of life, but we would rather cling to our resentments, chew on our grudges, and wallow in our pain.
The truth is that forgiveness releases the past, restores trust in the future, and redeems the present.
Some people are wise
When George Wallace was conducting his last campaign for Governor of Alabama in 1982, a black school teacher sat in his headquarters making phone calls to blacks on his behalf. You will remember that this was the same George Wallace who was known nationally as a racist and a bigot. When asked what she was doing there, Mrs. Carter, the black school teacher, said that Wallace had made some mistakes earlier on the race issue, but she had forgiven him. Everyone had made mistakes on the race issue, she continued. He had since done a lot for the little people of the state, and she wanted him to be able to continue helping the little people.
Wallace had by this time gone to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and asked for forgiveness. Lance Morrow, who wrote the article when George Wallace's died in 1998, remembered Mrs. Carter, a black school teacher who knew how to forgive. Remembering Mrs. Carter, he wrote how in forgiveness there was liberation for everyone.8
Forgiveness releases the past. It is the only thing that can release the past. Forgiveness also helps us to trust the future.
Trusting the future
Debbie Morris was the real life girl kidnapped and raped in Dead Man Walking, the book which became a movie. She survived, even though the two men involved had already killed another girl, and they had left her boyfriend for dead when they abducted her.
But, her troubles were just starting after she managed to survive and return home. She experienced nightmares; she relived everything that happened to her publicly at the trial; she experienced publicly in court the man who raped her throwing her kisses during her testimony describing the rape. Understandably, she became angry and resentful because of her experience. She quit high school, fought with her family, left home, and developed a drinking problem.
She lived through the execution of the man who raped her. She lived through the book, Dead Man Walking, that was about him, written to protest the death penalty. She lived through the movie version of the book.
As all this unfolded in her life, she blamed God and dropped out of church. She married, but her problems continued. She had a child, but that didn't heal her either.
She first managed some forgiveness for the man who raped her when she relived the memories again because of the publicity surrounding his execution. At some point, she went back to church, and she began to remember some things about God's forgiveness. She stopped blaming God. Gradually, over the years, she forgave people. She finally felt that for some strange reason she needed to forgive herself.
One Sunday morning in Sunday School, she realized that if the man who raped her and murdered the other girl ever got to heaven, it would be by God's grace, just as she would enter heaven by God's grace.
She read a book by Lewis Smedes entitled Forgive and Forget in which he pointed out that if monsters are beyond forgiving, then we give them power they should never have by keeping their evil alive in our hearts. That made sense to her.
After the man had been executed for the rape and murder, some would say that justice had been done. However, in a Ladies Home Journal article, Debbie wrote, "Justice didn't do a thing to heal me. Forgiveness did."9
Forgiveness can help us trust the future and leave the past behind. Forgiveness can also help us redeem the present.
Redeeming the present
Mary Ann Pappalardo had a problem with panic attacks and constant anxiety that made her life miserable. She visited psychiatrists and therapists, but nothing worked. Then, through prayer and meditation, she learned to forgive.
She grew up thinking that God was angry and everything she did was sin. She felt guilty for disrespecting her parents, but she was angry at them because they focused on her brothers. She felt neglected. She carried deep resentments buried inside her.
She finally ended up with a therapist who believed in forgiveness and who showed her how to meditate and pray. She learned how to forgive, and the anxieties and panic attacks went away. Her life became worth living.10
Forgiveness is hard. Forgiveness may often seem unthinkable. People have hurt us. People do loathsome, disgusting things. People often trigger our desire for justice, our desire to have “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” We want to get even. Sometimes we want unvarnished revenge. We want to balance the scales.
Susana Higuchi, the former wife of now disgraced President Alberto Fujimori of Peru, has long claimed that she was tortured more than 500 times by intelligence agents after she accused her then husband of tolerating widespread corruption in his administration. He stripped her of her title as First Lady and turned her over to the intelligence service.
Now, a former intelligence agent has returned to Peru and confirmed her story. Leonor La Rosa, the former agent, is her self partially paralyzed after being tortured for leaking government plans to attack opposition leaders. She has returned from four years exile in Sweden.
Higuchi showed on television scars on her temples and back of her neck left from the torture to further confirm the story. Her former husband, the former President of Peru, is in self-exile in his parents' native Japan where he is safe from extradition charges. The spy master, Montesinos, who was in charge of the intelligence service and her torture, is now in prison on charges ranging from narcotics trafficking to directing death squads. She visited him, and he asked her to forgive him.11
What will she do?
Dick Ryan wrote these words in a Newsday article as he reflected
on the meaning of
"...maybe one of these days, after too many funerals and tears, many of us will somehow find a way to go back to that terrible moment 2002 years ago when a man dying painfully on a cross was barely able to cough out his last few words that would echo into eternity, 'forgive them because they don't know what they're doing.'"12Yes, Jesus on the cross, being tortured to death, prayed for God to forgive his tormentors.
Austin is still trudging along carrying his bricks and scale. The bricks and scale become heavier and heavier, and Austin is growing more and more exhausted.
A man calls out to him, "Why are you carrying all that?"
"Why?" Austin asks, incredulously. "Because you have to. Because that's what you do."
"Why?" the man repeats.
Austin stops and thinks. "Because that's what's expected of me. Society,
"Why?" the man repeats.
"So you can balance the scales"
"Why? Doesn't all that get heavy?" the man calls down.
Austin thinks seriously as he looks the man in the eye. "You mean I don't have to?"
"No, you don't have to," the man replies.
Austin slowly lays down the bricks he is carrying. He heaves off the heavy scale. He slides out of the crushing backpack filled with bricks. He stands up straight for the first time in a long time. He stretches his arms and relieves his back. He feels good. He starts to walk a way, and then he stops. He goes back and looks up at the man.
“Thanks,” he says to the man on the cross.
3Barclay Matthew 18:21-35
4Barclay Matthew 18:21-35