I am happy to report, in case anyone was wondering, that I made my final payment on my car this past July. Like so many other newly ordained priests, after years of scraping by on a stipend while in seminary, once I got ordained and knew that I would be receiving a regular paycheck again, I decided it was time to buy a new car. And I am a little embarrassed to admit that I succumbed to the usual tactics that wise people say to avoid: I convinced myself I needed a brand new car, and then I decided that since I would have it for a long time, why not get a nicer model rather than the basic version. I fell for the panoramic sunroof which involved getting a more expensive package with features that I really didn’t care about. And soon after getting the car, the extra features did not really make that much difference to me. Who cares if the seats are faux leather? And it turns out that you can’t look out of the sunroof, no matter how massive it is, while driving. I also fell for the “what kind of monthly payment can you afford” line, rather than the more prudent “how much do you have saved”?
So after 60 months of car payments, the car is fully paid for. I no longer need to account for the relatively substantial payment in my monthly budget. Debts of course can feel very burdensome, and when they are paid off – or even better, if they’re forgiven – suddenly the burden is lifted, and you enjoy a sense of freedom.
Who has not taken on some kind of debt at one point or another in their lives? Jesus knows what he is doing when he makes use of debt as an analogy for sin in the parable in today’s Gospel, because most people can relate to it. The context is a question from Peter, speaking as he often does on behalf of the apostles: “If my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Apparently, a common rabbinical teaching at that time was that you should forgive a person the same sin a total of three times. So perhaps Peter thought that forgiving someone seven times was already pretty generous.
But Jesus responds, not seven times but seventy-seven times. Or as some translations say, seventy times seven times, which equals 490 times. Either way, does that mean Jesus telling us that we should keep track of how many times someone sins against us, so that once they hit that magic number – 77 or 490, depending on your translation – then you no longer have to forgive them? Of course not. One biblical scholar, referring to the “seventy times seven times” translation, explains that in Judaism, 49 was the number of the Israelite Jubilee cycle. In other words, on the fiftieth year after a cycle of 49 years, “the nation observed a year of rest in which all debts were forgiven and all indentured servants were set free (Lev. 25:10). (John Bergsma, The Sacred Page). 490 equaled 10 cycles of jubilees, so every 490 years there would be a “Great Jubilee”, which represented “an abundance of all that the jubilee stands for” – especially forgiveness. And in the centuries preceding Jesus Christ, there was some speculation that the Messiah would come in the year of a Great Jubilee.
So here Jesus was not only identifying himself as the Messiah, but also teaching that we are called to forgive not a set amount of times, after which we can feel free to harbor grudges to our heart’s content, but rather essentially a limitless number of times. Our forgiveness should have no limits.
And in the parable, there are of course two parallel situations involving debt: one between a king and his servant, and the other between the servant and one of his fellow servants. So, first the debt by a servant to the king. This particular translation of our Gospel says that the servant owed the king “a huge amount.” Other translations specify the amount: 10,000 talents. This was truly a tremendous amount of money – apparently one talent equaled about 34 years of pay for a basic laborer. So 10,000 talents was an essentially unimaginable amount that no one could ever hope to repay. However, the king has pity on his servant, and forgives him his debt. Then there is the second debt, the one owed to the servant by a fellow servant. This debt was much smaller: 100 denarii. Apparently, that’s still somewhat substantial – the equivalent of about 100 days wages – but it is still 600,000 times less than what the servant owed the king. However, the servant does not show the same mercy to his fellow servant. When the king learns of this, he has the first servant thrown into prison, “until he should pay back the whole debt.”
This teaching of Jesus is clear: we are called to forgive one another over and over, and not to set a limit to our forgiveness. And this is in imitation of God the Father, who forgives us again and again, whose mercy is infinite as long as we seek it. However, his forgiveness of us is predicated on our willingness to forgive others. Like the servant who owed the king the huge debt, we cannot expect God to forgive us if we refuse to forgive others.
And just as debt is a burden, so too is carrying around resentment, anger, and bitterness towards others. When someone sins against us, it’s like a burden we did not ask for is suddenly dumped on us. And then we have the task of forgiving. In the abstract, forgiveness might sound easy to do, but in reality, we all know how tough it can be. Even little things – little slights, unkind or thoughtless words – can be difficult to let go of. But truly big offenses require a superhuman, or rather, supernatural effort. We usually can’t forgive on our own – we need God’s help to do it. So the first step in trying to forgive involves asking God to give us the grace to do it. Going to the source of mercy and asking him to give us that mercy to share with others.
And forgiveness does not mean forgetting what has been done to us. We are not obliged to pretend it never happened. Forgiveness involves not letting the anger and the bitterness control you any longer, consume your thoughts, rob you of your peace, and affect your ability to live your life and love others. Forgiveness does not mean trying to summon up warm and fuzzy feelings towards the person who hurt you. But it does involve desiring what is best for them. It means desiring that mercy be shown to them as God shows it to us.
So, in addition to asking the Lord to give us the grace to forgive, we should also pray for those who have hurt us, pray for their own conversion of heart. And we ought also to remind ourselves that we do not know all of the motivations that led someone to act in a certain way; only God knows them. And just as we do not know all the possible outcomes or ramifications of our own actions, nor does anyone else know theirs. We might do something with the best of intentions, only for it to lead to something that harms someone else, without our even realizing it.
Forgiveness is the only way forward. It is the only way a society can function. It is the key to our own personal happiness and freedom. Our nation certainly needs to be able to forgive, especially nowadays. Let us remember always to strive to forgive others as the Lord forgives us.