Forgiveness and the Yes-Buts (Matthew 18:21-35)

I grew up among very pious, very . . . practicing . . .Christians. By “practicing” I mean that in my extended family, we would never have thought of having a meal without prayer; most of my extended family attended church regularly. My family PRACTICED Christianity, as did nearly everyone we knew.

But what did that MEAN in terms of behavior that would have been different had my family and community been . . . . well . . . any other religion . . . or none at all? How did being Christian change anything?  You see, even as a kid I was a rationalist in that way—I expected to SEE the results of a belief.

Take as an example the subject of forgiveness. Now, where I come from, we hold grudges . . . forever. It’s one of the things we pride ourselves on, we country folk: we don’t forgive and forget. And so feuds go on—sometimes for years; sometimes for lifetimes; sometimes for generations. Such long-term feuding certainly sounds biblical, but does it sound “Christian”?

Here is one teaching, in the King James Version, from Matthew 18:21-22:

Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?

Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

Interestingly enough, the term “brother” here is probably better translated “church,” which the New Revised Standard Version uses. The New International Version translates the term “brother or sister.” Here is my shot at a translation:

Then came Peter to Jesus and said, ‘Lord, how often will my sisters and brothers sin against me and I forgive him? Seven times?’

Jesus said to Peter, ‘Yes, seven times. But also seventy times seven.’

Here’s where we get into the “yes buts” that allow the fish of forgiveness to escape the net—if that metaphor even makes sense! Are we only required to forgive those in our congregation? Or all Christians? Or all people? I will leave that to your imagination and share the parable that the author of Matthew follows up the above saying with:

For this reason the kingdom of heaven can be compared to a certain king who settled accounts with his slaves.   When the king had begun the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed ten thousand talents. The slave could not pay, so the king ordered him to be sold, along with his wife and children, so that the king could get his money. That slave fell down in supplication and said, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything I owe!’

The king was moved by compassion and had the slave set free and forgave him of the debt.

Then, that same slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves, someone who owed him a hundred pennies, and he took the slave by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’

Now, the fellow slave fell down at the first slave’s feet and begged, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything!’

But the first slave would not do that. He had his fellow slave thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.

When their fellow slaves saw what was happening, they were moved to compassion and went to the king and told him everything that had happened.

The king called the first slave and said to him, ‘O you wicked slave! I forgave you all your debt because you asked me to. Shouldn’t you also have had compassion on your fellow slave, even as I had compassion for you?’

The king was angry and sent the slave to be tortured until he had paid the entire debt.  

This is how my Father will treat you if you do not forgive sisters and brothers in your heart.” 

Ouch! Makes you think about forgiving!

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