“An Impossible Necessity” Cunningham

Rev. Laura Cunningham

Pastor, Western Presbyterian Church

June 26, 2016


In Jesus’s parables in Matthew, the consequences become increasingly dire for the characters who don’t understand. Leading up to this particular parable, Jesus has been telling his followers about how to confront someone who has done something wrong. But then the implication is that this process requires forgiveness. If you’ve ever struggled to forgive, you can relate to Peter… 

Matthew 18:21-35 – Forgiveness

21 Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

23 ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him;25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” 29Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt.

31When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt.

35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

Forgiveness: the parable reminds us that forgiveness is impossible to get our heads around, yet absolutely necessary.

If only it were that easy…

In the preceding passages, Jesus has talked to the disciples about some of the finer points of forgiveness, and just when Peter seems to be getting his head around it, Jesus goes and tells a parable. This parable of impossibly large sums, with considerable consequences, is not just about forgiving dirty socks on the couch. The terms in this parable of the unforgiving servant border on the unimaginable.

How do we get our heads around something that it’s impossible to imagine but so central to Jesus’s message? Consider an amount we can say but scarcely comprehend its magnitude: one trillion

In case that doesn’t mean anything to you, a billion is one thousand million – that’s one with nine zeros; a trillion is one million million – one with 12 zeros. By most estimates our national debt is over 19 trillion dollars – not that that’s any help, because that’s not something anyone can get their head around. If you traveled the earth’s equator 40 million times you would travel one trillion miles. One trillion seconds is longer than all of recorded history – about 32,000 years. I can say this, but I can’t really fathom that.

In our scripture passage this morning, Peter comes to Jesus and asks him a question that makes it look like he’s able to conceive of forgiveness. He seems willing to forgive seven times (that’s actually a lot if you think about it) – seven representing completeness, or total willingness to forgive an action, or pardon a debt, or restore a relationship.

Jesus tells Peter seventy times seven, but he may as well have used a trillion. “If you think you can conceive of forgiveness, try this,” Jesus says.

Jesus then tells another story about the kingdom, where the king is settling accounts with his servants. One servant owes 10,000 talents, but it may as well be a trillion. We have no idea how or why a servant could incur that much debt, only that repaying it is impossible. And for some reason, the king has compassion, the same word here for Jesus’s own compassion, and he forgives an impossible, inconceivable amount.

Quotation websites have a plethora of short quotes from people like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Maya Angelou saying things like “If we really want to love, we must learn how to forgive,” and I’m sure all these things are true. But these short sentences fool us into thinking that we can understand the magnitude of what Jesus describes.

Recent, horrific tragedies give us a window into the difficulty of forgiveness. Just a few weeks after the Pulse shooting in Orlando, we observe a year since the Emanuel Church shooting in Charleston, where victims’ families and survivors have talked about the difficulty of forgiveness.

Last November Time magazine wrote about the family members of victims and survivors of the shooting, who became known collectively for their forgiveness of the young shooter, yet who in reality were not all ready to forgive. You may remember the hearing that took place just two days after the shooting when Nadine Collier, who lost her mother Ethel Lance, offered her words of forgiveness. She describes being so angry, she couldn’t remember the name of the young man who had killed her mother, yet in her words: “You have to forgive people and move on… When you keep that hatred, it hurts only you.” And what she said that day was “I forgive you.” Yet even in the last two weeks, her sister who also happens to be a pastor, Sharon Risher, talked about how Nadine’s words didn’t represent the whole family, and that she still hadn’t forgiven Dylann Roof. Risher told Reuters: “I’m not bitter… but I’m just not ready to forgive you if you don’t even act like you want to be forgiven.”

Anthony Thompson, a pastor whose wife Myra was shot while she was leading the bible study, has offered forgiveness to Roof if he will repent; Thompson has spent more time working on issues of gun violence than thinking about the shooting itself.

Waltrina Middleton, a pastor who lost her sister DePayne Middleton Doctor, mentions that the focus on the forgiveness by the press flattens the complexity of the process, and says the portrayal of the situation “took away our rightful narrative to be hurt. I can’t turn turn off my pain.”

This kind of forgiveness, even when it comes quickly, is not easy. It often takes time, and may never fully be accomplished. Yet the parable also reminds us that we can’t forget it, that we do so at our own risk.

Remember the servant whose impossible debt has been forgiven goes out and finds someone who owes him one hundred denarii – about one hundred days’ wages – big, but not impossible to imagine. Not only does the servant demand repayment – he does so violently. And in turn receives a violent punishment himself.

Jesus ends this passage about what his Father will do to those who don’t forgive, and it sounds violent, too – a little scary. But instead of being prescriptive, it’s descriptive – telling the truth of what happens when you can’t forgive someone else, especially for the big things. As hard as it is to forgive someone who has really done you wrong – not just owed you three months’ wages – someone who has hurt you unimaginably, in ways that even you cannot get your head around, forgiveness is important, not so much for the forgiven, but for the forgiver.

Theologians and psychologists have distinguished between external forgiveness – forgiving someone verbally, having a relationship restored – and internal forgiveness – being able to forgive someone within yourself, and then moving on. The family members and survivors of the Charleston shooting seem to be talking about both external and internal forgiveness, but still come down in different places. By the time we reach the end of this passage, internal forgiveness – from your heart – seems to be what Jesus is talking about. Psychologists tell us, and this parable seems to confirm, that happens when you see the common humanity of the one in debt to you, of the perpetrator. For Jesus this seems to be the key.

I had planned on a summer of sermons focused on parables, but forgiveness gives enough material for a whole series, especially this summer, because as today’s Outlook section in the Post points out, we may be seeing the effects of what happens when you cannot forgive, when people remain in the victim role, regardless of the justice of an event, and when, just as the unforgiving servant in our parable, we fail to connect our situation with the situation of another. Leon Wieseltier’s essay, while a little more convoluted than this parable, points out what happens when a whole community continues to focus on their pain, this community being formerly middle class white folks, who now find themselves disillusioned, unable to see beyond their own pain, easily swayed by false promises, living a life in which they are not only tortured, as in the parable, but inflict that torture on others. While Wieseltier and I understand pain differently, what he ultimately points to is correct, that we inflict our pain on everyone else.

Can we forgive? The parable leans that direction, but is ultimately inconclusive. But is forgiveness necessary? For our own sake, for the sake of a world that has to learn to live together, by a power ultimately larger than our own ability to imagine it, the grace of Christ, may it be so.