Genesis 50:15-21; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
When I was 17, my boyfriend at the time gave me a box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day. I kept the chocolates in the room I shared with my sister, not hidden, but not exactly on public display. A couple days after the holiday I noticed that a few additional chocolates seemed to be missing. I didn’t have to look far to discover the culprit.
She had to buy a replacement box of chocolates for me. Shortly thereafter, I came home to discover my chocolates, which where hidden this time, were fewer in number than I remembered. Furthermore, there was tooth mark in one of the chocolates. No intensive sleuthing was needed… I knew who did this.
As I recall, the scenario happened a third time, but I confess that I did not make it to forgiveness a third time. Seven times? Ha! Seventy times seven? Double-ha! I couldn’t even forgive three times in a row.
That brings us to an interesting point in Jesus’ words to Peter here. This takes place after Peter has been told that Jesus will use him and those who come after him to build the church. Then Peter has heard about taking care of the lost sheep and welcoming people back into the fold. And now Peter definitely thinks he is demonstrating to Jesus how compassionate a leader he can be.
To forgive once is human, twice is amazing, three times seems nearly impossible and kind of foolish. So Peter thinks he’s going out on the limb of grace and forgiving seven times. In the context of last week’s passage, Peter is asking if a congregation should welcome and forgive someone up to seven times.
Seven is a holy and special number in the Bible as it held strong significance in the Middle Eastern world of the time. However, Jesus says seven doesn’t even come close to the forgiveness we are expected to give. We are to forgive someone seventy times seven times. Jesus doesn’t mean that we should then keep a little tally sheet until we hit 490 (seventy time seven) because keeping such a record is not really in the spirit of forgiveness.
Yet when we hear about this kind of forgiveness, our minds make a leap (or at least, mine does) to actions that seem unforgivable. We think of murders, abuse of children, manipulation of good faith, and so many other actions. So we have to be clear about what forgiveness is and isn’t and what it does and does not do.
Forgiveness does not offer an excuse for bad behavior. It does not pretend the scars do not exist. It does not eliminate the consequences of some actions. Forgiveness does not mean continuing to put yourself or someone else in harm’s way. The king’s forgiveness of the servant did not eliminate the absence of the money. However, it removed the burden from the servant and cleared any relationship barriers between the servant and the king, though because of their positions- they remained unequal.
However, when the servant met his fellow slave who owed him a debt, miniscule in proportion to the debt he had owed the king, he threw this second slave into prison until he could pay the debt. When the king hears of this, he rescinds his debt forgiveness and throws that servant in prison as well.
When we do not forgive our brothers and sisters, we ourselves become imprisoned by our debts, our trespasses, our sins. We miss out not only that specific relationship, but on the fullness of other relationships because we are held back by our fears, concerns and anger that we retain.
When we become obsessed with retribution and justice, we also miss out on the forgiveness aspect of a relationship. But consider the words of Paul, “We do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the living and the dead.”
Our lives are not our own and, more importantly, no one else’s life belongs to us either. We are all accountable to God and God’s word calls us into accountability in our relationships with all people.
After the third round of chocolate stealing, I caught my sister. It’s important at this part of the story to know that she would have 14 years old at this point, old enough to know what she was doing. When I found the missing chocolates the third time, I pushed her on the floor and held her down with my knees. Then I forced fed her the chocolates from the box, especially the truffles.
It was awful and not really my proudest moment, or hers. To this day, neither she nor I can eat truffles. My strong desire to punish her in a mean way ruined that sweetness for both of us.
Forgiveness does not usurp the role of courts or laws. As Paul says elsewhere, we are not called to sin so that grace may abound. Instead we are called to something more difficult. Releasing each other from the prison of wrongs where we trap one another and ourselves.
When we pray, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” it is not conditional. God does not only forgive us in proportion to how we forgive one another. Instead, we are praying for the ability to forgive, in some small way, in way that we have been forgiven.
We are asking to have some measure of strength to forgive a fourth time and a fifth. We’re asking for the wisdom to repair relationships that are broken and wisdom in how to act for the good of those around us. We are asking for the Spirit to intercede for us, with sighs to deep for words, so that we can again taste the sweetness of freedom in God’s forgiveness of us through Christ.
It is hard enough to comprehend all that God has done for us. Our beings, our time and our possessions are all gifts from God. We are not called to return them or to use them for the earning of salvation. We have received them, in addition to love, mercy and forgiveness, as free gifts from God.
When we imprison one another by the chains of unforgiveness, we lose our ability to taste and see the goodness of the gifts of God. God has forgiven us far more than 490 times and will continue to do so in the future. Through the power of the Spirit, God also helps us to forgive one another and to remind each of the forgiveness we have received.
To paraphrase a certain movie, forgiveness is like a box of chocolates- if you keep it to yourself, it will make you sick.