Welcome to Lent.
Lent is a strange season. Last week, I told you that it is traditionally a time of fasting and repentance. It is a time to think about who we are and who God wants us to be and how we get from the former to the latter. It is a time of contemplation…
…a time to contemplate our mortality with ashes on our heads and the whispered words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
…a time to contemplate our transgressions with prayer and self-denial and the words of a voice calling us to reorient our lives, “Repent, and believe in the good news.”
…a time to contemplate how utterly reliant we are on divine grace, “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.”
It is a time to slow down, to think about the things we have done and left undone, and ask God to forgive us.
And that doesn’t quite fit into our modern lives. It doesn’t quite mesh with our modern sensibilities. We don’t usually think of ourselves as people who need forgiveness. I’ve talked about this before: other people might need to be forgiven—they might even need us to forgive them—but we are good people who occasionally do bad things, and usually for good reasons.
But the truth is that if the test of my morality—if the standard of justice—is what I have done for the least among us, the most marginalized and oppressed… or, worse, if the test of my morality—if the standard of justice—includes the things that I have failed to do for the least among us, the most marginalized and oppressed… well, then I am desperate for mercy.
Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.
In today’s reading, Peter asks a question. It’s a question you’ve probably asked. It’s a question we’ve all asked. If someone sins against me, how many times should I forgive them? How many chances should I give them? How many do-overs and mulligans and I-promise-this-time-will-be-differents do they get?
And Peter suggests he will be generous: “If someone sins against me, how many times should I forgive them? As many as seven times?”
And that does sound like a lot. We live in a world of three strikes laws and zero-tolerance policies. Seven times sounds like a lot.
But Jesus tells Peter to go past even that. There are some variations in the ancient texts of Matthew here. Maybe Jesus says, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Maybe Jesus says, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven times… four hundred ninety times.” But, either way, that’s more than a lot.
And I remember once, when I was a kid, sitting on the steps to a chancel in a church, listening to the children’s sermon, being told that Jesus offered these numbers because he knew that we wouldn’t keep track.
You see, if we were supposed to forgive someone seven times, we might count. And when someone sinned against us the eighth time, we might say, “You have sinned against me eight times, and I have forgiven you seven times, and now I’m done. You are cut off.”
But if we have to forgive someone seventy times—or seventy times seven times—we would lose count. We would have to ask ourselves if we had forgiven them enough. And we would err on the side of forgiveness.
And there’s something there. But there’s also more.
You see, in Jesus’ world, seven was a number of perfection. It’s the number that it takes to get something right. So forgiving someone seven times is good; and forgiving someone seventy-seven times is better; and forgiving someone seventy times seven times is even better. How many times should you forgive someone? Until they get it right. Until you get it right.
After Jesus answers Peter, he tells a parable. He underlines his point.
Once upon a time, there was a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. The first slave who came before the king owed the king ten thousand talents. That is a huge amount of money. Imagine the amount you would make in, say, 150,000 years. It’s about that much.
The king asked for his money and the slave didn’t have enough. So the king ordered that the slave and his family and all that he had should be paid in order to settle the debt.
And the slave pled, “Lord, have mercy.” And the king, who had already lent him ten thousand talents, had pity on him. The king, who had already lent him ten thousand talents, released him from slavery and wiped the debt clean.
Now, that slave went out and found another slave who owed him 100 denarii. that’s a big amount of money. Imagine the amount you would make in a little more than three months. It’s about that much. Not as much as the first slave had owed the king… but nothing to sneeze at.
And the first slave demanded his money, but the second slave didn’t have enough.
And second slave pled, “Friend, have mercy.” But the first slave, who had lent him 100 denarii, had no mercy. The first slave, who had lent him 100 denarii, had him thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.
And when the king heard about this, he took the first slave and said, “Are you kidding me?! You begged for mercy and I—I, who had already lent you ten thousand talents—gave it to you. But you couldn’t do the same for your friend and neighbor?”
And the king had the slave thrown into prison to be tortured until he could pay the debt… that he would never be able to pay.
Now, this is not an image of God that I like. This is not a picture of Jesus that I like. This is not an image of love.
This is an image of God that says, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you… because it will be done unto you.”
But here’s the thing: [SLOWLY] one of the things that we need to be forgiven for [PAUSE] is how bad we are at forgiveness.
Let me say that again: one of the things that we need to be forgiven for is how bad we are at forgiveness.
It the test of my morality—if the standard of justice—is what I have done for the least among us, the most marginalized and oppressed… or, worse, if the test of my morality—if the standard of justice—includes the things that I have failed to do for the least among us, the most marginalized and oppressed… then I am desperate for mercy.
I am the slave kneeling before the king pleading, “Lord have mercy.”
And it is a matter of my faith that God has responded to my pleas be releasing me from my slavery to sin. It is a matter of my faith that God has responded to my pleas by wiping my debts clean. And no matter how many times I wander off to find where demons dwell, every time I turn back to God and cry, “Lord have mercy,” she does.
God responds to our pleas by forgiving us… again and again and again… even when our debt is 100 denarii or ten thousand talents or our very souls.
And yet we who are forgiven hold onto our grudges. We take pride in our punishments. We live in a world of three strikes laws and zero-tolerance policies. I am still angry at people who I haven’t seen in twenty years. I am still angry at people who I have never met.
And there is a place for anger. And there is a place for recognizing our own wounds.
We are all, every one of us, on the receiving end of mercy. We are all, every one of us, on the receiving end of more mercy than we can imagine and more mercy than we will ever be asked to give out. And, knowing that, how can I deny to someone else a portion of the grace that I have received?
If someone sins against me, how many times should I forgive them? Until my forgiveness changes me. Until I become what God has called me to be.
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.