Friday, June 22, 2012

Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?

Then Peter came to Him and said, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, 'Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all." Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, 'Pay me what you owe!' So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.' And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?' And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses."

- Matthew 18:21-35

In yesterday's reading, Jesus continued speaking about the "little ones" in the Church, and the leadership. This is a continuation of His dialogue to His disciples in response to the question, "Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" (see Wednesday's reading). Jesus taught them not to despise the "little ones" -- because the Good Shepherd will seek out the one that is lost among the 100, and leave the 99 to find it. He said, "He rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray. Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish." Then Jesus taught about communal discipline in the Church, and community. If one sins against another, the one sinned against should discuss it privately with the first. He said, "If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.' And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them."

Then Peter came to Him and said, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven." Jesus has just given a formula for forgiveness and reconciliation within the Church. And Peter's question is a kind of logical follow up, because Jesus' system of mutual correction began with the supposition that one person was sinned against, and gave the proper procedure to follow in that circumstance. So, Peter's question is a reasonable one to ask: how many times shall forgiveness be given? Forgiveness is a concept akin to accounting; it's like "letting go" (literally the meaning of the word in Greek) of a debt. So, to let go of a sin someone has committed against us is to let go of notions that somehow we have to collect a debt. It doesn't mean the person's behavior should not change, and Christ has indeed instructed us in the process of repentance on the part of the sinner. But "letting go" here is a part of a process of conversion on the part of the one who has sinned against another, and within a community context of repentance, among brothers and sisters. (See the verses from yesterday's reading, above.) Seventy times seven is an allusion to a great and full number, its meaning is that which is unlimited.

"Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, 'Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all." In this parable, Jesus likens sin quite literally to debt; the concept of forgiveness remains one of "letting go." My study bible puts it well: "Sin is portrayed as a debt to God, a debt originated by neglecting God's will." Ten thousand talents, it notes, is an extraordinary and impossible sum, "more than a laborer could earn in a lifetime." The master then is one to whom the servant owes an unimaginable debt, as God has given us all, even the gift of life itself. Moreover, if we could truly count the ways in which we might give offense or sin against God's kingdom, failing to live up to the mark of God's boundless love and counsel, even in ways we don't quite understand, what would the number be?

"Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt." This is the level of God's love for us. It is always there for us, whenever we return in real faith, and desire for that relationship. Asking for forgiveness is a sign of repentance, reconsideration, the willingness to change one's mind about oneself and our own behavior and ways of thinking.

"But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, 'Pay me what you owe!' So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.' And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt." The one who has been forgiven all, to an extraordinary and unimaginable amount, will not forgive a much smaller debt. One hundred denarii is equivalent to about 100 days' wages. We see the great contrast between the heart of the master, and the heart of this servant.

"So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?' And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses." Note that it is the fellow servants who are aggrieved at this servant's treatment of a brother. My study bible notes here: "Just as the king shows mercy and severity toward the servant, so does God show love and strictness toward us depending on our willingness to forgive our brothers and sisters. The love of God is manifested in paying off the debt, a remission or letting go of sins. Because God forgives us, we in return are obliged to grant this gift of forgiveness to others. When each Christian forgives from his heart, true reconciliation and healing come to the Church by God's grace."

There are so many facets and ways of looking at this particular parable. One, it places an emphasis on our own behavior. Everything is not left up to the master, but so much depends upon our own responsibility and participation, how we behave, what we do. The servant is a model for us all, or perhaps a cautionary one, about the importance of our own choices in the light of the open-hearted love of the master himself. Another facet of the story is the grief among the fellow servants, that the servant in this story should treat another fellow servant so badly - especially in the light of the loving nature of the master. All are to learn from the master's behavior, the master's love. Finally, the emphasis on personal responsibility becomes profound because Christ has taught in the verses before that we are to examine our own problems among ourselves, and that repentance is important, essential. Forgiveness doesn't mean sweeping problems under the rug, but open acknowledgement and also repentance. So, taken altogether, there is a great awareness here, an accountability, and a kind of stepping up to the plate that He asks us to do. We are to be like our Father. We are to be aware: neither doormats, nor incognizant of our own behavior. There is a system of justice in place here, of checks and balances, but one in which forgiveness is practiced "up to seventy times seven." The debt owed the master is incomprehensible, unimaginable, impossible. And yet, in relationship, it is forgiven, given up. So we are to be in our own understanding of relationship and love. All is known and accounted for, and yet there is a way to forgive. This is His Way, the Way He tells us, what He asks of us and expects of us as His servants. The leadership is responsible most of all, and for the care of the little ones, as He emphasized in yesterday's reading. How much can we be like the Master? How can we learn from His love, His awareness, His teaching?