Proper 19(A): It Ain’t About Math!
By: The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell
So how many is it?! How many times are we REALLY supposed to forgive someone who has wronged us? Is it 77 times (as the New Revised Standard Version has it)? Or is it “unto seventy times seven,” the literal translation of the Greek εως εβδομηκοντακις επτα, which comes to 490 pronouncements of forgiveness? Christians everywhere are dying to know, Jesus! What are we supposed to do?!
This is the question that seems to pervade the hearts of so many of the Christians I know. It’s a kind of militarism that approaches faith not as a relationship with Jesus, but as a task that has a check-list of dos and don’ts, and so long as we stick with the dos we’ll be fine. It is especially symptomatic of parishes—particularly dying ones. In these cases, the priest stands in for Jesus, and time after time the people frustratingly shout: JUST TELL US WHAT TO DO!! It’s not about grace. Not about love. Not about relationship. It’s about just getting by and doing what we’re supposed to do.
My militarist brothers and sisters hear Jesus’ words and figure they’ve got it figured out. Jesus says to forgive 77 times—or 490—so that’s what I’ll do, and I’ll keep a running count just to make sure I get the number right.
Sorry, folks, but it ain’t about math! And it ain’t about the logistical kerfuffle of doing what we’re “supposed to do.” It’s about the very nature of forgiveness and the way that we approach our relationship with Jesus and our neighbors.
Peter thinks he’s being generous—like, super generous—when he wonders if he should forgive up to seven times. The rabbinical custom, after all, was to forgive up to three times, and then punishment would befall the individual were he or she to sin a fourth time (this is referenced in both the first and second chapters of Amos). Peter not only doubles this expected number, but he adds one to it, perhaps knowing that seven is considered the “perfect number” and is the number associated with God. Good ole Peter, always going that extra mile to please Jesus!
Yet in response to this seemingly logical question, Jesus throws out εως εβδομηκοντακις επτα, which as stated before is not even quantifiable! It could mean 77, or it could mean 490. Poor Peter just wants to know what he’s supposed to do, like so many of us. That, Jesus points out, is not the question you should be asking. To illustrate this point, he tells a parable (because this is Matthew’s Gospel, so of course he does!).
In the parable, a tyrannical king is owed 10,000 talents by a servant. That sounds like a lot, right? It isn’t a lot. It’s an impossibly ginormous astronomically absurd lot! A single talent was the equivalent of 15 years’ wage in first-century Palestine! The amount this servant owes is the equivalent of 150,000 years’ worth of income! The folks hearing this parable would have literally LOL-ed at such a comically high amount. Of course the servant can’t pay it! Thus, when the servant asks for forgiveness from the king the ludicrous amount is forgiven.
But then the servant runs into someone who owes him 100 denarii and demands he pay what he owes. You may be expecting now that this is a teeny tiny amount, right? Not so. A single denarius was worth a day’s wage, thus the amount the servant is owed is just over three months’ wages, which is not an insignificant amount. Yet when compared to the 10,0000 talents that he owes the king it seems next to nothing, meaningless. The king, therefore, reneges on his offer of forgiveness, and because the servant does not show mercy as he did, the servant is sent away to be punished.
To Peter and other militaristic folks who think that faith is about doing what we are “supposed to do,” Jesus is offering another reality. Stop asking questions like how much I should forgive! Because one who is counting the number of times he or she says, “Yeah, you’re forgiven” isn’t actually forgiving anyone at all, but is just biding time until Jesus offers the reward! Furthermore, the parable isn’t saying that we should just keep forgiving and forgiving without even thinking about it; after all, how can our heart truly be in it if we just keep hitting that “forgive” button? The entire exchange with Peter and subsequent parable are part of an invitation into a new way of being.
Peter thought seven was a pretty high number. The servant thought the 100 denarii was a pretty high number. Neither means anything in comparison to the 10,000 talents—the allegorical image Jesus uses to illustrate the magnitude of everything we owe to God. We squabble over matters we think are huge, but in the context of God they are tiny. We scream at the young man in the McDonald’s drive-thru who messed up our order and demand a refund. We refuse to speak to someone because of a petty squabble from years back. Meanwhile, we have the nerve to ask Jesus, “How many times should we forgive? What are we supposed to do?” We don’t get it. We never have.
But Jesus offers us the chance to get it. Even now he still offers that to us. He offers us the chance to think of forgiveness not as something of which we keep track or something we just keep doing without thinking but as something we should do in the context of our relationship with God. If God loves us so much that God continues to forgive us whenever we ask it, can we not to do the same?
But Peter and the militarists cry out that folks don’t deserve that much forgiveness. Take a lesson from the recently released (and AMAZING!) Wonder Woman film. As she battles Ares, the god of war, who tells her humanity does not deserve her protection, Diana of Themyscira tells him, “It’s not about deserve. It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love!” God doesn’t measure forgiveness in what we deserve but in love. Why can’t we?!
So let us move away from this outdated and false paradigm of quantification and the question of whether a person deserves so much forgiveness. If we are truly in relationship with God, a relationship built on love, then we will forgive as God forgives, not as humans forgive; which is to say, with conditions and a calculator. Love doesn’t work that way!
As C.S. Lewis put it: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” One can’t go wrong with ending on a quote from that guy! May our forgiveness be grounded in the love and forgiveness God has shown us.
The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell is Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Asheboro, North Carolina. He is your typical Transformer-collecting, baseball-playing, theatre-loving, moonshine-drinking priest from the coalfields of Virginia. He runs the blog Father Prime (www.fatherprime.blogspot.com), where he wishes and works for a world transformed.