Sermon Lesson: Matthew 18:21-35 (NRSV)
Psalm: Psalm 114 (NRSV) (KJV)
Bible Passage (Gospel of Luke): Luke 22:54-62 (NRSV)
Bible Passage (Book of Genesis): Genesis 1-2:4 (NRSV)
Bible Passage (Book of Exodus): Exodus 21:23-25 (NRSV)
Author: Reverend Averill Elizabeth Blackburn
I know that I am sometimes a bit of a broken record. Whenever I come across a parable, many of you by now can probably tell I want to bang my head against the wall because Jesus has a tendency of being cryptic. His disciples and followers rarely understood the truly important messages he tried to give them, and when Jesus wrapped his truths in parables and stories, modern readers often can’t decipher them because they are set in a culture and religion that we have difficulty relating to.
Jesus’s meanings, so often puzzles in themselves, are buried in the puzzle of first century Palestine.
When we come across a parable, it’s actually like being given a series of nesting dolls. We unwrap the cultural references and societal mannerisms and historical realities … only to find another layer, beautiful, perfectly crafted, and just as baffling. When we manage to decipher this level, another, smaller doll.
So, I hope you understand when I write, “Thank God, this one is actually straight forward!” – until the final twist that only a believer can decide for him- or herself.
We must begin, however, with the first layer: the story, the society, the manners, the customs, the religion, etc.
The message beneath, the story of universal forgiveness is central to the Christian faith and so – many of us – already understand at least the basic concept of the heart of what Jesus is saying.
The rest, the slaves, the coins, the king – all wrapped in narrative – are a bit fascinating as we learn more about the world of Jesus.
Let’s Start with Peter
Peter has a rather dreadful reputation in the New Testament. Remember, he denied Christ three times before the cock crowed (Luke 22:54-62). Even becoming the first bishop of Rome (or pope) and one of the most important leaders of the earlier church didn’t quite make up for it in many people’s minds even millennia later.
Peter is the one who first comes to Jesus with the question: “how many times should we forgive a person in the congregation?”
Please note that Peter is asking how often he should forgive in in the ekklesia (for more on this term, see mini sermon #18), not how often he should forgive his fellow human being. Peter is talking about fellow believers… This is fascinating because it indicates that there are likely clear rules within the culture of first century Palestine on how often people should be forgiven. Peter is asking for clarification as the ekklesia is a new classification of people, separate from Gentiles (nonbelievers) and from other Jews.
Peter isn’t asking this because he doesn’t know social and religious customs. He’s not asking because he’s too stupid to figure it out by himself. He’s asking because the followers of Christ are in new territory, they honestly have no way to know.
And when you don’t know? Today, we ask What Would Jesus Do? Two thousand years ago, Peter (and other believers) had the luxury of actually asking Jesus Christ in person.
Why Jesus mentions the Number 7
There are two reasons, one possible quite literal and one figurative (and clearly religious).
Earlier I mentioned social convention and religious precedent. There were rules and customs the Jews of first century Palestine lived by. Many of them we can see acted out in parts of the Gospels. Some are hinted at when Paul writes letters to the early Christian communities outside of Israel. Most of them are detailed in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament) and are known as “laws.”
Seven might very well actually be a reference to one of these laws, or a custom that evolved from a law. It wouldn’t surprise me.
However, seven has more of a religious significance.
Second Point: Seven as Sacred Number
There are numbers that have always been held as sacred since the beginning of recorded Biblical history.
If we remember, in Genesis 1-2:4, God created the heavens and the earth in six days and on the seventh day rested. The seventh day is even “hallowed” or, in modern English, “holy.”
Since then, it has been considered the perfect number and the number of completeness.
When Jesus says that Peter should not just forgive a member of congregation seven times, he’s saying that the complete amount of forgiveness, the total sum of forgiveness a person can hold in his/her heart is not enough. A believer must forgive more.
It should not just be complete or perfect – it should be overflowing and never-ending.
Mathematically, 77 is 7×11, but thinking of 77 in such a way does is a disservice. We should consider 77 as two 7s side by side… the original 7 just continues … with another 7 placed beside it. And it could continue beyond that … to 777.
I realize that is more of a visual explanation and in modern mathematics doesn’t make sense, but all you need to know is that there is a 7 – it is complete, it is perfect – but that is not enough. There must be double the completeness. Double the perfection. A 7 is visually joined with a 7. Also, say it out loud: “seventy seven.” You’re saying “seven” twice. You’re doubling it vocally.
I’m Confused – No More Numbers
No more numbers. Just know that something that which is “complete” is finite. If you increase it, the forgiveness has the potential to be infinite, or eternal.
That is what Jesus wants. He wants believers to forgive each other unconditionally and eternally. There should be no limit. We are human. We are imperfect. Our forgiveness, however, should not be.
It’s a tall order and every person throughout history (believer or not) has struggled with this (whether or not they admit to not being able to completely forgive). This should not discourage us. God’s forgiveness is infinite (although there is a caveat in this parable). God shall forgive us even when we fail to forgive, or so I choose to believe.
The struggle makes us human.
Infinite forgiveness is the ideal. Just because it seems unattainable doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
This story is a bit drastic: we should realize this upfront.
The reason that it is drastic is to make a point.
We have a king (or lord) and we have two slaves.
The idea of a king is easy for us to grasp, even though we in modern day America don’t have a monarchy and most monarchies that we are familiar with are constitutional monarchs. Think, for example, of Elizabeth II of England. She makes her television addresses, she advises the Prime Minister, but she can’t actually cut off anyone’s head just because they didn’t make her tea correctly (unlike familiar historical tyrants like Henry VIII, who are often fond of cutting off heads).
The Greek for “slave” or “servant” here is (transcribed into our alphabet) doulos. I have written a great deal on this subject, but a slave in this sense is not like historical American slavery. We can see from the story that these slaves can possess property such as money, can lend it, can be in debt. Slaves had rights (though they were quite restricted), were often educated, had days off, and were protected if they were Jewish.
Although this is a gross simplification, a slave in this sense is like an employee with an ironclad contract to the king to work and serve him. S/he can’t ever get out of the contract, but if the king steps out of line, the lawyers will step in and take him to proverbial court.
The basic story of this story is that a slave owes money to the king (his overlord), the king is going to sell him and his entire family in lieu of payment. Yes, this is unusually harsh (and could conceivably happen), but Jesus is creating a stark contrast. It is meant to be drastic so that we (those who are told the parable) fully grasp the idea of mercy and forgiveness.
The slave begs for clemency, it is granted.
This same slave turns around and when another slave owes him money, he refuses to forgive and throws the man into prison.
The first slave is given forgiveness and yet he cannot forgive himself – or he is too greedy and selfish to even think of forgiveness.
As such, when the king learns of this, the first slave is punished or, more specifically, he is tortured. The first slave receives worse than if hadn’t been forgiven. Peter would have known that a slave who is tortured until he can pay the original debt is, in fact, a sentence of never-ending torture. How can anyone pay a debt when they are being actively tortured? It’s a Catch-22. Because the first slave could not show forgiveness once, his punishment is eternal – or infinite.
The lesson? forgive infinitely (77) or be punished by God infinitely.
This is a promise of divine reckoning.
God is love. Jesus tells us again and again. It is etched in our brain. True Christian love includes forgiveness. If God is love, and we mirror God’s love, we must love infinitely and thus forgive other believers infinitely.
It’s an extremely tall order and the order is explicit: you must “forgive your brother or sister from the heart.”
But what should we think of divine punishment?
There are many ways to interpret this.
My own grandfather was a “hellfire” type preacher and could scare me from the pulpit into eating all my broccoli when I was a small child. For those of you who know me, I refuse to eat anything green even to this day (except mint jelly). No one living can make me eat broccoli – and various people have tried.
Those who believe in hellfire do believe in divine judgment quite literally.
There’s the Catholic idea of purgatory, where a person has to work off each sin for seven years in order to go to heaven. (Please note that the number of years is seven.). Dante’s second book of The Divine Comedy is the Purgatorio – and no one wants to end up there, for those of you who haven’t read it.
Let’s not forget the Old Testament adage “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:23-25). Many still operate by this philosophy, so why not God?
Perhaps this is a scare tactic. Sometimes the threat is enough to make anyone fall into line (for example: threatening to withhold dessert unless a child eats all her broccoli). Maybe Jesus knows that the disciples – that Peter – won’t understand the truth, so is using hyperbole with a dash of good old fashioned Biblical imagery.
Or, perhaps Jesus is just as manipulative as the above suggestion but this is more of a motivator than anything. Now, I prefer positive motivators. That’s how I got almost exclusive use of my Norwegian grandfather’s Subaru after he died. I had to keep my grades up for an entire semester in college and various other conditions before being handed the keys when I was 20. Motivators – both positive and negative – can be highly effective.
It could be neither.
Perhaps this is language and metaphor that Peter can understand – because this is how God has been portrayed for centuries upon centuries. Jesus came to correct the idea that God was a harsh taskmaster, and came to tell us that God was love. God only wants love, but the message isn’t getting through. Parables aren’t working. Not even the twelve understand. Perhaps Jesus fell back on familiar Old Testament rhetoric… to convince Peter and the others to truly love and forgive their fellow believers.
Maybe God is not love as Jesus claims and this is the evidence. He might be harsh and cruel and like rules and laws (even though Jesus tells us that this is not the case).
It could be something else entirely, although this is certainly not the last interpretation.
Maybe this is God loving us. Maybe God loving us means he will ensure that we are the best we can be. This parable isn’t saying that God won’t forgive us. Remember, the king forgives the first transgression. It’s the duplicity of the first slave that instills the wrath. God cannot forgive unkindness, wickedness, and horribleness. His love for us is to ensure that we are forgiving, that we forgive as we have been forgiven.
After all, just because the king punishes the first slave doesn’t mean that he does not truly love the slave. He is simply disappointed (albeit to the extreme).
The beauty of being Congregationalists is that we are beholden only to God and to no one else.
My belief and interpretation of the passage don’t matter. Yours does. It’s what you think, what you believe.
There is no correct answer, or at least not one that I can definitively point to. It’s quite conceivable that only Jesus knows the answer to this conundrum.
Then again, perhaps Jesus is being mysterious again – placing a puzzle within a puzzle within a puzzle, etc. – and we simply have difficulty grasping his meaning, even after two thousand years.