Note: Each Thursday, I'll be looking at one of the lectionary passages for the upcoming Sunday. Today, we're looking at Matthew 18:21-35.
How many times should we forgive someone that sins against us? Seven times seems more than generous. Peter wanted a hard and fast rule. Jesus gave him an astronomical number and a story.
Something that I have always glossed over is that the second man--the one thrown into prison by the first--does not deny his debt. He begs for forgiveness, mercy, time. Yet the one who was forgiven an exponentially greater debt doesn't want to hear any of it. Even though he sang this exact same tune and was forgiven, this man throws the one that owes him a smaller debt into prison. It's important to note that the second man is not belligerent. He tries to make amends. Yet grace is not extended to him despite the great grace that was shown to the one that throws him into jail.
Forgiveness is a critical component of faith. It is to be in the Christian's DNA. Yet sometimes forgiveness gets conflated with forgetting it ever happened, not criticizing the one who did wrong, and returning the relationship to normal. This can be dangerous. The Ray Rice incident has brought domestic violence back to the top of the national conversation and I can't help but think that this warped view of forgiveness is often the basis for people encouraging others to stay in abusive relationships. "Just forgive him. That's what Jesus said." The story is turned into a hard and fast rule.
Immediately before this passage--and therefore almost certainly related--Jesus discusses how to engage someone in the church that sins against you. It is a measured and relational approach: first you go and discuss it with the person, if it persists then you bring people along to discuss, and only if you go through every channel you have then you break off fellowship with the person.
Forgiveness is still there, but it also acknowledges the damage that is done when someone hurts us. Think about the inciting incident of sin (I want to clarify that I'm talking generally here and am no longer referring specifically to abuse) as a natural disaster. The longer it rages, the more damage is done. Forgiveness offers an opportunity for a break in the clouds. If reconciliation occurs, then the relationship can continue. The storm is over. It doesn't mean that both parties pretend like nothing happened. Relational debris litters the ground. There is still clean-up to be done.
And if the storm rages on? If they don't ask for forgiveness? If they recognize no wrong? You forgive from your heart--as the text says--but you can and should also move to a safer place. In some instances, you need to get to a safer place as quickly as possible. As Christians, we must look out for one another and provide storm shelters to those in need.
I have greatly digressed from where I was going, which was the story. The point of the seventy-seven times and the parable are not a hard and fast rule, but a way of life. God has forgiven us of an infinite debt. As a result, we are to be people of grace. As God has sought to make peace with us and as God has sought to reconcile with us, we are to do the same with others. Reconciliation is a two-way street, but we are to do all that we can to forgive and rebuild when relationships are broken.
This is a posture of grace. We are not to hold grudges. We are not to withhold forgiveness to teach lessons or to make someone suffer. Doing such a thing hurts both us and the one from whom we are withholding forgiveness. We extend grace for God has shown us grace upon grace upon grace.