In Matthew 18, Jesus outlines a three-step approach that’s all about staying connected and speaking directly to each other. It’s a recipe for healthy communication, for patience and caring even when we disagreed.
And then Peter, perhaps processing what Jesus has just said, asks a question about forgiveness. “How often should I forgive? Would seven times be enough?” And Jesus answers, “Not seven, no…seventy seven times (or sometimes translated as seven times seven meaning over and over.” In other words…over and over and over again, as often as it takes.
And then he tells a parable, as if to underscore his point. It’s a parable about a King who forgave a slave a debt that was owed. When the slave turned around and refused to forgive his fellow slave, and I quote here, “in anger the king handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.” And, so as to be perfectly clear about the meaning of this parable, Jesus ends with this, and I quote…”in the same way, God will also do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Whoa. Harsh. No ambiguity there. “Do unto others as you would have them to unto you.” Period. Full stop.
And suddenly I remember standing at the bottom of the stairs in the parsonage when my girls were little, yelling for them to come down to do something…pick up their toys, stop bickering, I don’t know…there must have been a million times I stood there calling up the staircase. Maybe Jesus, like a frustrated parent, felt like he needed to say, “What about this don’t you get? Please don’t make me say it again...”
Because forgiveness is hard to do. It doesn’t come naturally to us, apparently. When we’re wronged it often feels unjust, and we get comfortable nurturing the anger and resentment. The need to receive some sort of compensation for our loss is very strong. That “eye for an eye” thing get’s going and just seems to take over.
In this uncharacteristically harsh parable, Jesus is underscoring this message making it pretty clear that this forgiveness thing is important…essential…at the core of what God calls us to do. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Forgive others as you have been forgiven.
We all know how difficult forgiveness can be, on a personal level, among even those people we love the most. Especially those. There’s no denying the challenges it presents, even to the best of us. But expand your thinking to consider the larger impact of such radical forgiveness on a community as a whole…whole families, whole communities, whole countries, the whole world. I think that will help us to understand why Jesus so harshly underscored his point in this parable about forgiveness.
In African culture there’s a concept called “Ubuntu.” Ubuntu is hard to translate, but it basically means “I am who I am because who you are.” That is…we are connected. What happens to me happens to you, too, and visa versa, and we are not all well unless each one of us is well.
Bishop Desmond Tutu explained it like this, “One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality –Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”
And so, this whole forgiveness thing and how clearly important it is to the community that Jesus was preaching…the Kingdom of God he was describing and inviting all of us to join him in creating. I don’t think that we, so deeply embedded in Western culture, really have the words to describe or even fully understand what Jesus was describing. We’re all about freedom and individualism. We’re all about individual acknowledgement and personal achievement. And so often, the message of our culture is “what’s in it for me?” and “how much can I accumulate.”
Jesus’ message about forgiveness was as radical when he first told this parable as it is to us today. In God’s Kingdom, all are not well unless every single one is well. How often have we heard this from Jesus? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." "Forgive as you have been forgiven" "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do..."
This kind of counter cultural forgiveness is what truly binds a community together. It leads us to see Christ in one another, ties us together with selflessness and empathy. Just imagine if it was what framed our community decisions, our direction, our actions.
As pastor Presbyterian Pastor, Alan Brehm has written(1), “It seems to me that, in order to pray the prayer, “forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors” and mean it, we have to practice “Ubuntu”—we have to acknowledge that we share a common humanity even with those who wrong us. When we can look at those who inflict pain on us and see brothers and sisters, then we can begin to forgive as we have been forgiven. Then we can begin to set them and ourselves free from the vicious circle of bitterness, hatred, and violence, and move into the freedom of forgiving as we have been forgiven.(2)” Then we can live our lives as forgiven and forgiving people, over and over again, as often as it takes.
(1) Alan Brehm, http://thewakingdreamer.blogspot.com/2011/09/forgiving-as-we-have-been-forgiven-mt.html
(2) Tutu & Tutu, Made for Goodness, 150-51