Calculus of Forgiveness"

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Christ reshapes what forgivness means and why it's important

Forgiveness: everyone agrees that it's good. In the Old Testament, God sets the example for humanity by repeatedly extending forgiveness. But how far should forgiveness go?

In Biblical times, the rabbis had ideas of their own to teach, or often not so much of their own but those who went before them. Ideas were passed down from master to pupil and from generation to generation, even about forgiveness. Some of these rabbinic ideas have remained to the present day. For example, second-century Rabbi Jose ben Jehuda said: "If a man commits an offense once they forgive him, a second time they forgive him, a third time they forgive him, the fourth time they do not forgive him." It was a popular saying at the time of Jesus, too. Or there was this from third-century Rabbi Jose ben Hanina: "He who begs forgiveness from his neighbor must not do so more than three times." These were the sort of proverbs a Jewish boy knew, and Peter the fisherman, the disciple of a new rabbi, probably reached manhood with them ingrained in his mind.

The time came for Peter to put those sayings to the test. What did his rabbi say about this issue of forgiveness? A constant theme in the teaching of Jesus was forgiveness, and surely Jesus would stretch generosity further than the other rabbis. "Lord," said Peter, "how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as (Hmm, well let's see, more than three — lots more, we'll double it, that makes six, and add one for good measure; let's say, seven times) as many as seven times?" (Matt. 19:21). Actually, seven is a good number, too — a Biblical number that stands for the grace of God. Proudly, perhaps, Peter announced from the depth of his understanding and the generosity of his heart that seven times might not be too often to forgive a man.

Peter might have been impressed by such generosity of Spirit. I think we might well be impressed, too, for a person who turns the other cheek seven times is seldom found. But Jesus was distinctly underwhelmed. No, not seven times. "But seventy times seven" (Matt 19:22). [1] Peter had missed the point. How can you forgive someone three times but not four? How can you forgive someone seven times but no more? What Peter was talking about wasn't forgiveness; instead, it was a suspended sentence. Think about what must happen. Someone hurts, offends, upsets you, apologizes, and then you say, "I forgive you." Outwardly, you say that, but inside, there's a mental note: that's strike one. A second time they do it, and, of course, you turn the other cheek, but inside, the counter has clicked again: strike two. You see where this is heading. What does it matter, three times or seven times? It makes no difference because, one day, there is going to come an eighth time. It isn't forgiveness when it gets to number eight; it wasn't forgiveness back at number one. It was postponed condemnation, repentance on probation.

What Peter was talking about wasn't forgiveness; instead, it was a suspended sentence.

This so-called "forgiveness" is entirely unlike the teaching of Jesus. He spoke about forgiving your brother from your heart (Matt. 18:35), and not just any heart, but rather a heart indwelt by the Spirit of Christ. Jesus' forgiveness is the seventy times seven variety, which means that this forgiveness is forever, truly divine, and keeps no count of past wrongs. It is, therefore, complete forgiveness.

Forgiveness from a changed heart means when you are offended by someone and they're contrite, you embrace them. That's the power of forgiveness: it remains ever-hopeful to yield restored and enhanced relationships. Jesus teaches that this forgiveness is possible among those who have been renewed by divine forgiveness itself. They could even love their enemy by way of the power of forgiveness. The disciple of Jesus lives ever on the cusp of forgiveness, ever inclined toward reconciliation.

Peter and Jesus had different ideas about forgiveness. Peter's approach was to take what's coming to you and grin and bear it for as long as you can until you've had enough, then snap. That's the best human effort can engender. Jesus, on the other hand, taught a change of heart characteristic of the kingdom of God. For Peter, a person was self-justified with limited forgiveness: "You had every right to snap. They took it too far." For Jesus, justification by another—the power of forgiveness—begets a merciful spirit, so that one lives and prays, "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." That's a new kind of humanity endowed: forgiveness to others flows from faith in the God who justifies on behalf of his Christ.

Today's society is completely immersed in the approach of Rabbi Jehuda. "If a man commits an offense a third time, they forgive him, but a fourth time they do not forgive him." We don't say that in so many words, but we've adopted sayings just like it. "Enough is enough." "That's pushing it too far." "You've done that once too often." But it seems that this sudden transformation from pliable victim to ruthless avenger is an expression of a shared value, a bit of humanity that links us across the continents, across the centuries back to the ancient Rabbi Jehuda himself and to the disciple Peter, who guessed "as many as seven times." Jesus and Peter thus represent opposing poles: the will and ways of God and will and ways of men; Jesus verses Jehuda; Peter's law of limits; and Christ's unlimited gospel.

So here is a difficult thought: Might we resort to the idea that there must be a limit to forgiveness because what we call forgiveness was limited to begin with? Might problems accumulate and grievances aggregate because they're not put away, not completely forgiven?

Tolerance can be demanded by law, and it is, but it never touches the heart; it can't change man's disposition, and neither can reparations.

Tolerance can be demanded by law, and it is, but it never touches the heart; it can't change man's disposition, and neither can reparations. But God's Spirit can and does through his Word and sacraments, on account of Christ, and this ideally yields not reparations but reconciliation. That's a different kind of law — the law of the Spirit, the law of grace (Rom. 8:2). In fact, St. Paul calls it the law of the spirit of life.

Jesus did not only teach boundless forgiveness, he exemplified and accomplished it, and he did so for us. He showed it in a completely unrealistic, impossible story. In the story, God's part is played by a king who pardons his servant a debt of 10,000 talents. It's more of a joke than a parable, a sort of surreal humor.

There was this king, who had a servant who got into debt. Now the humor of this may be lost on us because we don't know what a talent is, but his debt ran to 10,000 talents. That's funny. 10,000 talents is a colossal sum of money. It's very hard to calculate the exchange rate, but it has been reckoned that 10,000 talents would be more than the Gross National Product of most countries today.

When Jesus spoke about a servant with such a debt, perhaps people saw the funny side of it. A servant spends 10,000 talents of his master's money — as if! But it gets worse. The servant is called to repay the debt, but when he pleads to the king that he cannot, the king…wait for it…lets him off. That's okay, don't worry about blowing my Elon Musk fortune. It's cool with me. But it gets even sillier. The same servant, who has just been forgiven this unimaginably whopping debt, straightway sees a fellow servant who owes him a hundred denarii. That's just a few dollars. Now, here's the extraordinary bit: the servant who had been forgiven the huge debt insists on payment of the small debt, threatening prison, and selling the children into slavery and everything. Is that going to happen? No, this is the most ridiculous turn of the parable. But the humor abruptly stops with the last line, which shows us that the story is true in every detail. "So will my Father do to you." 

The huge debt, the 10,000 talents, that's for real. That is the figure Jesus used to describe the seriousness of our debt to God – our offense for which we ask forgiveness. It has a point, it is not just an arbitrary figure. Ten thousand talents was no trivial amount, even to a king. It made a difference; its loss hurts him. The rebellion in our lives is no trivial thing that leaves God untouched. No, we grieve the heart of God. In our confession of sins, we speak about those with which we have ever offended God. Language fails, but it matters. It matters like the loss that would hurt the king. And it is impossible for any of us to repay it. We can't do it.

And that is why it is remarkable that God freely forgives that debt on account of the grace and mercy shown to us through Jesus Christ, who takes our debt away. He doesn't suspend it but cancels it entirely. And in doing this, God shows us the measure of the debt, our own 10,000 talents. He shows it by the cost at which he forgives us. God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died to expunge our treason, to expiate our sin and guilt. We are ransomed, not with perishable things such as gold or silver – no God can make limitless supplies of those, and I suppose it costs him nothing. No, not with gold or silver, but with the precious blood of his Son. Suddenly, 10,000 talents seems inadequate because Christ is of infinite worth. Yet the Father hands him over for you. 

Suddenly, 10,000 talents seems inadequate because Christ is of infinite worth. Yet the Father hands him over for you.

And suppose, then, you—you who have been born anew of Christ's Spirit in Holy Baptism, who've had your heart revivicated in his likeness—suppose you should see someone who owes you a hundred denarii? Don't misunderstand this – a hundred denarii is a lot to an ordinary person. When someone hurts us, it is a lot to us. But we have been shown a new way to see it and, with a new heart, a new way to handle it. Suppose we do not measure it by how much their selfishness affects us, but rather suppose we measure it against what we have done and been in the sight of our Creator. Now you tell me, what is really the bizarre thing, the surreal and incredible thing? To forgive, or not to forgive? Four times? Seven times? No, seventy times seven times. And it is this Spirit of Christ in us that should cause wonder in the eyes of the world, that in our midst we have forgiveness.

[1] The Lord instructs on forgiveness per se, that is, what it means to forgive and be forgiving, not counting occasions. A text note from Jeffrey A. Gibbs helps, “Since Jesus is speaking hyperbolically, the numerical answer is not important. Either translation makes the point that the number is so large that one should not try to count the times, but always continue to forgive” (Matthew 11:2—20:34, Concordia Commentary [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2010], 930).