Rev. Katherine Todd
If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”
Then Peter came and said to him, “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.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
I listened to an interesting podcast by Radiolab this week that showcased the power and disconnect of words. The interviewee had spent years in Africa and there learned that the word, “Seriously” means something quite different there than in America. Here, we use the word to explain that we are not joking, there’s no nonsense, we are serious. In Africa, he most often encountered the word used when a bribe was expected. Someone would say, “Are you serious?” or “How serious are you?” And so he quickly learned.
Zooming out from his own experience, he witnessed John Kerry’s diplomatic statement in Africa, over a breach of faith and national cooperation. And when Kerry opened the floor to one question from an African Journalist, that person asked if Kerry was “up there doing lip service” or if he was “serious.” Kerry immediately sounded a bit perturbed, as he felt himself to be quite serious about the matter. But this journalist was found after-the-fact and asked about his use of the word, “serious.” And in fact, he was asking whether or not there would be financial implications – sanctions or what-have-you – because of the incident. The word serious was referring to money…yet again.
This story was told to highlight the nuance and subjectivity of language, from culture to culture, from ancient times until today.
And this example so beautifully illustrates the same need we, as Christians, have: to research and understand the culture and language of our Biblical texts.
Today’s reading quotes Jesus as telling Peter to forgive his neighbor that sins against him, “seventy-seven times.” And this sticks out to us like a sore thumb because it is odd. It seems so random: why seventy-seven?! But a closer look at the culture of ancient Hebrews reveals meaning, hidden in various numbers.
The number seven was perhaps the greatest power number of ancient Judaism. It alluded to creation, good fortune, and blessing. And reinforcing this belief-system, two Hebrew words for luck – gad and mazal – actually mean 7 and 77 respectively. All things 7 were powerful, lucky, blessed.
And so this opens to us a much greater understood meaning of Jesus’ words here to the listeners of his day. Hearing that he was to forgive his offending neighbor seventy-seven times would immediately cause him to think of luck and blessing, power and creation.
Could the subtle message then be that when one forgives, again and again, that such a one is blessed, lucky, powerful?
Does this not sound like something Jesus would say?
Jesus was continually challenging conventional wisdom – debunking it, turning it on its head. And here it appears he is doing no differently; people have always felt more powerful when holding a grudge against someone else, but Jesus is instructing that power and blessing come through forgiveness.
That is radical.
That is world-altering.
This sounds like Jesus!
And then Jesus goes on to share the parable of the Unforgiving Servant. This servant owes a great deal to his lord and cannot yet repay it. Though the lord plans to sell he and his family, the servant begs for mercy – asking for more time to repay the debt. The Lord has compassion on the servant and forgives the servant his entire debt! But then the servant leaves that place and goes to demand payment from those below him, who owe him money. So when the lord gets wind of it, he reprimands the servant for not extending the mercy he has received to his own debtors. The servant was shown great mercy for his debts. But the servant does not extend mercy to his own debtors. And this decision to follow greed over mercy leads the servant to a worse fate than before…
And I am intrigued here because Jesus has gone from talking about forgiveness to talking about debts.
Now in my mind, those are two different things. Forgiveness might be for a debt, but it might also be for a lie or an accident or an injury. Forgiveness is much broader to me; whereas, a debt is usually just financial.
But recall the language in our own Lord’s prayer – also the words of Jesus: “Forgive our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Forgiveness is again tied to debts. And so we garner a larger definition of debts. The Greek word for debts refers not just to financial obligation – thought it certainly does cover that. Debts also refers to something owed, an offense, or a sin. …and thus we have the various renditions of our Lord’s Prayer!
So putting all these insights in context, we find Jesus instructing Peter to forgive, time after time after time, with the understanding that blessing and power will be his, as he forgives. And Christ then gives them all an illustration to show that because we have been forgiven, we must also forgive. We are called to forgive sins, offenses, and actual financial debts – as the lord of the parable has done.
And so what does this mean for each of us?
Psychology has long claimed the destructive power of holding a grudge. But psychology has not yet ventured into comment on the power of holding a financial debt, of remembering what one owes us.
In Luke 6:34-35 we read:
“ If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”
God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
GOD is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked…
Again we have Jesus’ words, and again Jesus speaks about money. And this time the meaning is not so veiled, as in the special Hebrew number 77. Jesus outright says, “Lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great…” Wow.
Jesus is speaking clearly about the power of NOT keeping a debt…even to those least deserving.
It is easiest to relegate Jesus to the disembodied, spiritual realms of our lives, but Jesus was alive, flesh and blood. Jesus spoke about hunger and greed. Jesus spoke about sin and unfaithfulness. Jesus spoke about taxes. Jesus spoke about money.
And Jesus is stating – both in powerful, cultural subtleties and in direct form – that blessing lies in forgiving others of what is owed us.
THAT is where power is.
THAT is where luck is.
THAT is where blessing is.
This message is still just as counter-cultural as it was when Jesus spoke it.
This message still makes us uncomfortable.
This message still rubs up against our financial strategies and wisdom.
But this is Jesus’ message: forgive all those who owe you – money, an apology, a service – and see if blessing and luck and power do not follow you!
The Kindom of God is made real among us
When we forgive, as we have been forgiven.