Our gospel reading for this morning follows right on the heels of our gospel reading last week. You might remember that last week, Jesus was giving his disciples instructions for how to go about resolving conflict with each other. He laid out this long process to follow: first, if you have a problem with someone, go and talk it out with just that person. If they don’t listen, then take someone else with you; if they still won’t listen, then bring the matter before the church; and if even that doesn’t work, then let that person become to you “as a Gentile and a tax collector” – which by now, as followers of Christ, we know actually means: love them all the harder.
Reconciliation and right relationship are of utmost importance to God. It’s no accident that the two greatest commandments we receive are to love God and to love our neighbor. There is power in relationship – as Jesus said in our gospel reading last week, if even two or three are gathered and in agreement about something, God is there among them. And throughout the long history of God and the church, we have seen that God will go to any length in order to restore relationship with us – even taking on human flesh, suffering, and dying in order to bring about reconciliation. This is the God of love in whose image we are made. And this is the path of Christ which we are called to follow.
All this talk about loving one another sounds really lovely – and it is – but in real life, it’s not always as easy as it sounds. And so it’s not very surprising that immediately after Jesus gets done saying all this, the disciples have a few more questions for him. Of course Peter is the first one with his hand up, and he asks Jesus: “Okay, so I totally get that if another member of the community wrongs us, we go through this whole process to try to reconcile with them. But, like… what if it happens again? And again? I could get behind forgiving someone, say, a half dozen times. But seven? Jesus, do we have to forgive someone as many as seven times?”
I think Peter’s question is a really relatable one. I mean, you all know what it’s like to live in community – or in a family. You know the same old fights you have with your spouse or with your kids or with your parents over and over again. You know who the people – or groups of people – are in the community, who just get under your skin and find ways to tick you off over and over again. There might even be some of them in the church! You know who the people are whom you struggle to forgive. And so, with Peter, we might ask: how many times is enough?
The response that Jesus gives probably isn’t all that surprising, but I doubt it was what Peter was hoping to hear. “Seven times??” Jesus says, “Oh no – more like seventy-seven times!” And in case Peter thought he was joking, Jesus tells this parable to further underscore his point.
In typical Jesus fashion, the scale of this parable about debt and forgiveness is way larger than life. In the story he tells, a wealthy king is settling accounts with his servants, and one servant is brought forward who somehow owes the king a debt of 10,000 talents. Now, 10,000 talents may sound like a lot – but, believe me, “a lot” doesn’t even begin to cover it. One talent was worth approximately 6,000 denarii. And one denarius was a whole day’s wage for a laborer. So one talent = 6,000 days of work. This math actually sheds a bit of a different light on why this servant refused to forgive the debt of 100 denarii that was owed to him – turns out, that’s actually quite a bit of money. But it pales into insignificance next to the debt he owed the king. Just one talent was 60 times the amount this other servant owed him. And he owed the king 10,000 talents – that’s an amount equivalent to 60 million denarii.
Jesus exaggerates this story on purpose; it’s not meant to be about real life – Jesus uses exaggeration as a way of saying to his listeners: Pay attention; this is important. The king in this story was well within his rights to pursue the debt he was owed to the furthest extent of the law. And for that matter, so was the servant who was owed 100 denarii. Neither of them broke the law by their actions. Yet the king chooses to be merciful and to forgive the servant the massive debt he owed, allowing him to continue to work and live his life. But the servant, who has basically just become 10,000 talents richer through the forgiveness of his debt, refuses to forgive someone else even a tiny fraction of that amount.
I suspect that Jesus is telling this story in order to reflect our relationship with God. God, the creator of everything in the universe, has given us literally everything that we have. God is like the king in the parable who is owed this unimaginable debt. And we, as God’s servants, can’t even really be owed 100 denarii, because nothing we own is truly ours – it all belongs to God. God has lovingly given us the earth and every good thing we could ever want. But in return, we all too often allow ourselves to be consumed by selfishness and greed and arrogance; we demand from each other the things that we think we are owed. We fail to notice how unevenly the things that God has given to all humanity end up getting distributed.
And like king in the parable with his servants, God calls each one of us to account; God confronts us with the unimaginable debt we owe, debt that we could never even hope to repay. And when we fall on our knees like that servant, full of repentance, God – who is rich in mercy – forgives us every. last. cent.
And the reason God does this is really quite simple: love. At the end of the day, God loves us and cares more about having us around, about being in relationship with us, than about exacting the cosmic justice we so rightly deserve. God cares more about being in right relationship than about being proven right. This is why Jesus is so outraged by Peter’s question about how many times he has to forgive his neighbor. Because what Peter is really asking here is: when am I allowed to give up on a relationship and write someone off? And the answer Jesus gives him is basically never – because God never gives up on relationship with us. Never.
None of this is to say that forgiveness is easy – it’s often not easy at all. And it’s also not to say that we have to forgive in situations where there has been no repentance. In situations where someone has truly hurt us, forgiveness is often more a matter of liberating our own heart. But forgiveness is absolutely crucial for reconciling broken relationships. We see in our first reading from Genesis just how powerful and transformative forgiveness can be.
This is the very tail end of the story of Joseph – you know, Joseph the amazing technicolor dream coat guy. You may remember that Joseph’s 11 brothers hated him so much for being their father’s favorite that they literally stripped him and threw him in a pit and planned to kill him; Joseph’s life is saved at the last minute only because his brothers decide to make a buck and sell him into slavery instead. Horrible. Joseph ends up rising from slavery into power in Egypt – and when years of famine strike the whole land, everyone has to come to him for grain, including his brothers.
Today’s text takes place well after Joseph’s emotional reunion with his brothers and family. Their father, Jacob, the family patriarch, has just died. And now Joseph’s brothers are wondering whether he has really, truly forgiven them, or if they’re all about to get a heaping helping of what’s coming to them. So they go to Joseph and beg for his continued forgiveness. Joseph weeps at their words, and then they start weeping, and then they all weep together – and Joseph reassures them that his forgiveness is real and he promises to provide for them and their families.
The grace and mercy Joseph shows his brothers is truly astounding. It’s exactly the kind of grace and mercy that God shows toward us. Because, like the king and the servant from Jesus’ parable, Joseph would have been well within his rights to seek severe punishment for his brothers for their terrible deeds. But by choosing mercy and forgiveness, Joseph literally gets his brothers back – he gets his whole family back. Seeking out vengeance and punishment might have been right under the law, but it would have given those relationships no chance to heal. Instead, as Jesus phrased it last Sunday, Joseph “regains” his brothers by choosing relationship with them over holding onto a grudge.
This is what Jesus is imploring his followers to do in our readings from today and last week. He is calling us to care more about being in relationship with our neighbor than about being right or being in control. If this sounds like something I have said before, that’s because it is and I have – and I’m sure I will say it many more times, especially, in the midst of all that’s going on. It’s so easy to get caught up in who’s right or wrong about the pandemic, about how to handle the biggest problems we face, about whose ideas are right or wrong for this country and this world. But it can make us miss what’s most important. And that’s that when this pandemic is over, when this election season has ended, when all the dust has cleared, we will still be left with each other.
Forgiveness and reconciliation and love for all our neighbors are not just what God asks of us – they are also the only way that we can ever hope to move forward as a human race. And I suspect that that’s why God asks these things of us. Because we need each other. We belong to each other. And so we are called to find a way to be reconciled with one another, for the sake of the one who chose – and who keeps on choosing – to be reconciled with us.