Tuesday of the Third Week of Lent
We live in a culture steeped in the logic of retributive justice. That is the idea that justice consists in punishing someone who does something wrong. Feature-length films, cable television shows, even some (at least to me) shocking bumper stickers and T-shirts push a hard, mean, and often violent message that goes something like this: Mess with me and you are going to pay big time; and, by the way, I’m going to enjoy making you pay.
The text before us says something entirely different. In it, Peter asks Jesus an important question: If my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him?
First, we have to pause for a minute and note that Peter has figured out Jesus’ teachings enough to know that, according to the logic of God’s kingdom, the response to one who sins against us is forgiveness. That is in sharp contrast to the message of the typical US blockbuster film, which would be something like “blow their stinking head off!” More than that, Peter proposes not just forgiveness but forgiveness seven times over. That’s a lot! But not enough for the kingdom. Jesus replies not 7 times—77! In other words, we are called as followers of Jesus to forgive and forgive and forgive—to the point that we lose count.
That’s countercultural enough. But there is more. The story of the king tells us about a man who was heavily indebted to the king. And the king was ready to sell not just him but his whole family into slavery to get what was owed. But then he didn’t. When the man utterly humiliated himself by begging for patience on his hands and knees, the king was moved. And the debt was forgiven. And the man was liberated.
That is not the message of our culture, especially these days. We just seem to be getting meaner by the minute. Moreover, knowing so well from the messages of our culture that the “right” response to people who make a mistake, or do something wrong, or do something against the law is to punish them, we can easily internalize that idea of justice to the point that we struggle to accept or live into the forgiveness that God generously extends. A second challenge that the Gospel text poses to us today is to embrace and live fully into the forgiveness that God offers—not just 7 times. Not even just 77 times. But always.
What would it mean for us, for our loved ones, for our city, for our world if we could live fully into the admittedly ridiculous gift of God’s grace? How much closer to God’s kingdom would we collectively be if we could just fully embrace the truth that we are forgiven? Liberated? Free from the burden of our sin?
Finally, the story that Jesus tells is not of a man who cannot accept grace but, rather, of a man whose gratitude for the gift he has been given is so shallow or short lived that in no time he turns around and denies the grace he has been given to one begging him for a pardon. And, as we learn from the text, it doesn’t go well for him. In this story, Jesus is posing yet a third powerful challenge. We do receive God’s grace and it is on us to live in gratitude. The bottom line is that we don’t deserve the ridiculously generous grace we receive from God. And yet we receive it anyway. And that means that we are charged each day with remembering that and extending ridiculously generous grace to others.
Because we live among sinners (like ourselves), we are not going to be able to find a way to escape slights, injustices, or sins of others. We are not going to be able to secure our absolute safety. Bad things will happen to us. We will pay prices we shouldn’t have to pay.
And what is the word to us from Jesus (the Son of God—without sin—who died on a cross)?
Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive so many times that you can’t keep count. Oh, and to do that you need to start by forgiving yourself.
- Sue Trollinger