No “Yeah, buts”

Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

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

When I was kid, my Dad had a saying that he would sometimes use – rather abruptly, I thought – to end arguments, usually when he had already said “no” to something we kids wanted and we were coming up with reasons why he should say “yes.” It was a very short phrase: “No ‘yeah buts’.” I don’t remember the exact genesis of that, but I’m sure it grew out of the fact that my brother and sisters and I would inevitably use the phrase “Yeah, but…” to introduce our disagreement, looking for a loophole in what we had been told.

Today’s Gospel follows immediately from last Sunday’s and continues with Peter asking for…clarification. Like last week, this passage is about dealings between members of the community. We need to approach the two readings as a single conversation.

In last week’s Gospel, Jesus set out a communal process that includes naming the sin, repentance, forgiveness, and support of the victim if necessary.

But after being given the process reconciliation should follow between believers, Peter says “Well, how many times do I have to forgive someone who sins against me?”

Considering what has just been said, Peter is saying. “Yeah, but…”. Something we do all the time. It seems we can always come up with a “Yeah, but…”. We want loopholes. Peter is looking for a loophole.

Peter asks “How many times must I forgive? Seven times?” After all, seven in Jewish numerology is the number of completion, the perfect number. That should be enough, right?

Jesus answers “No, seventy-seven times.” Some translations make it “Seventy times seven.” Either way, it’s a lot more forgiveness than Peter had counted on. And who is actually going to keep count of a number that high?

Effectively, Jesus is saying “You must forgive every time.”

Then he follows up with a parable.

In the parable, a servant owes his lord some money. The size of the debt that the servant owes his lord is significant, to say the least. Ten thousand talents in the idiom of the time meant something like “the largest amount of money you could ever imagine.” A ridiculously large debt, one that a servant couldn’t possibly accrue over a lifetime. We might think in terms of a debt of billions of dollars. Remember that Jesus’ parables often use ridiculous situations to make a point. As we shall see in a moment, this huge amount is critical to the parable. We should also note that selling a debtor and his family into slavery was forbidden by Torah, but was perfectly legal under Roman law. The disciples would have seen this immediately. The lord in the story is not a “good guy.”

But he does relent when his servant begs for mercy. He not only relents, he forgives the debt! Ridiculous!

So all is well, and good, right? Not quite. The forgiven servant is owed money by one of his fellow servants. It’s much smaller amount, but he can’t pay up either.

A denarius was basically a day’s wages for a common laborer, so 100 denarii might be around 3 month’s wages. Maybe a few thousand dollars today. A pretty small debt compared to 10,000 talents! The comparison in size of debts is ludicrous, and is meant to be. Jesus used this kind of hyperbole a lot – comparing something tiny to something huge. Straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel. Take the log out of your own eye before you try to take the speck out of your brothers. A camel going through the eye of a needle.

But the forgiven servant refuses to forgive his fellow and has him thrown into prison. And word gets back to the lord, who is NOT pleased. He takes drastic action.

You see, the lord’s forgiveness, while it didn’t have to be earned, did impose some responsibility on the servant.  The servant was forgiven a huge debt. It was his responsibility to forgive a much smaller debt.

In the same way, God’s grace — God’s forgiveness – is free, yes. But free grace doesn’t mean that there is no response necessary from us. Gifts in the Mediterranean world of the time tended to be like that. Even when freely given, they assumed a responsibility on the part of the person receiving the gift. They formed a bond between giver and receiver.

God’s grace forms a bond with us. Yes, grace and forgiveness are freely given, but when we accept, we enter into a covenant with Him — an agreement that we will show the same grace to others that He has shown to us. And there is no loophole. No “Yeah, buts” are allowed. We must forgive.

How often does God forgive us?  Every time.

How often must WE forgive each other? Every time.

What does God forgive? Everything.

What must we forgive? Everything.

Now, forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting. Nor does it mean standing meekly by when the behavior is repeated. Nor does it mean that we can ignore evils done to others. The scriptures are very clear that we must always come down on the side of justice, on the side of the oppressed. If we see an injustice, we are bound to speak out, to work to see that justice is done.

But Peter and Jesus aren’t talking about that kind of situation. They are continuing the conversation from last week, about the sins we commit against each other within the Christian community. Peter says “If another member of the church sins against me…”. And the parable states right out that if we do not forgive others, we leave ourselves ope to judgment.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we just say it’s OK that they did that to us. What forgiveness means is that we will not seek retribution for what someone might have done. We will not seek revenge. We will no longer put any emotional resources into what has happened in the past. We set the other person free from that, and we set ourselves free.

In forgiving, we relinquish any control the incident has over our own lives. Punishment may still happen to the other person, but we don’t seek it. And we don’t take pleasure in it happening. The Germans have word for that: Schadenfreude. It literally means “harm-joy.” It’s a feeling of happiness when something bad happens to someone else – usually someone we don’t like. When we forgive, we give up Schadenfreude.

We set ourselves free from all of that. We will not hold that person to account. EVER.

By extension, the matter no longer has any hold over the community. We forgive for the good of the person we are forgiving, for our own good, and for the good of the church.

How often does God forgive us? Every time.

How often must WE forgive each other? Every time.

What does God forgive? Everything.

What must WE forgive? Everything.

To be a Christian is to forgive, as God forgives us. Forgive everything, every time.

Thomas Merton said

In the end, it comes down to the old story that we are sinners, but that this is our hope because sinners are the ones who attract to themselves the infinite compassion of God. To be a sinner, to want to be pure, to remain in patient expectation of the divine mercy and above all to forgive and love others, as best we can, this is what makes us Christians. 

My Dad might add, “And no ‘yeah buts’.”

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