Changed by a Promise I Cannot Keep

Today Jesus invites us from the economy of the world into his economy of grace.

The word “economy” comes from a Greek root meaning “household” and the management of a household.  And Peter, in our gospel story today, is asking Jesus about the management of our Christian household.

“Peter came and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’”

Of course, Jesus does not mean that we should forgive each other literally seventy-seven times and then stop.

He means that we should quit keeping count all together.

A better translation is actually seventy times seven times.

Jesus might as well have told us to forgive each other a gajillion times.

Jesus is saying that we’re coming at our relationships from the wrong perspective when we are keeping score of how many times we forgive each other.

He illustrates his point with a very pithy parable.  Because we don’t use the same money system as the people in the Bible did, we need a little translation of the numbers.

The debt that the slave owed the king was ten thousand talents.

One talent was 130 pounds of silver, or about fifteen years’ worth of labor.  So ten thousand talents would have taken 150,000 years for the slave to pay off, clearly completely impossible to pay back.

So we see the magnitude of the debt forgiven.

And the debt the slave is owed, that he tries to extort from his fellow slave, is about one hundred days of labor.

That’s a significant debt, but nothing compared to the first one.

It would be like one of us suddenly having our house, car, and student loan debt all paid off at once, and in response punching someone in the face for owing us a nickel.

The ending of the parable is pretty frightening, especially when we put ourselves in the place of the extortionate slave.

It’s all too easy to see how we fit into the picture.

Jesus is basically reminding us of how much God has forgiven us and then wondering how on Earth we can judge and hold grudges against each other.

But we do judge each other and we do hold grudges against each other.

So it’s a little scary to read: “Then his lord summoned him and said to him, `You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

If that doesn’t wake you up in your pew, I don’t know what will.

David Lose makes the excellent point about the ending of this parable that when we are living in a world of keeping score and ticking off debts, we are already in a hell of our own making.

When we spend our time calculating the bottom line value of other people, when we evaluate them for what they have done to us and what they can do for us, we are slaves to the economy of the world.

We have narrowed the possibilities of interaction with other human beings into a cold and harsh calculation of tallying up faults and virtues.

The never-ending balancing act of how many times this person has made me angry versus how many times this person has made me happy is slavery and a hellish way to live.

Jesus is inviting us out of this economy of the world and into the economy of grace.

And the economy of grace does not keep score.

One thing we lose and must mourn losing when we enter the kingdom of God is fairness.

There is justice in the kingdom, but in the end it is superseded by mercy, and mercy is not fair.

Mercy is consciously deciding not to be fair, not to make someone pay the price for what he or she has done, and what Jesus is telling us today is that viewing each other in terms of what we owe is missing the entire point to begin with.

What makes me struggle with this parable and with Jesus’ straightforward requirements of us is the reality that I know for a fact that it is impossible to generate the emotion of forgiveness.

There are people in my life that I know I have not forgiven as Jesus would ask of me, and I don’t know what to do about it.

I want to be able to forgive, desperately so, but I’m stuck on the hurt they have caused to me and to people I love.

I’ve thought about forgiveness a lot because I struggle so hard with it in these one or two relationships in my life.

And I have started to think of forgiveness as a process rather than an event.

We can have the desire to be forgiving without the emotional power to do so yet.

And so we can pray for God to help us move toward forgiveness, one small step at a time.

I have started to think of forgiveness a bit like baptism.

When we are baptized, especially if we are baptized as babies, we and/or our sponsors on our behalf are making promises we cannot possibly live up to as three-month-olds, or six-month-olds, or even sixty-year-olds.

When we are baptized, we have the desire to live into the promises we make, but we don’t yet have the ability.

And yet the promise we make, the promise we can’t yet fulfill, changes us and brings us into a new place as new people.

I’ve begun to think of forgiveness the same way.

I don’t mean forgiving the little hurts, I mean the big awful things that eat away at our hearts for years at a time.

Like baptism, we can make the commitment to forgive even when we don’t yet have the ability.

Then over time, that promise comes to fruition as God works in us and we explore more and more deeply the economy of grace.

And making the commitment, saying “I forgive,” even when we don’t emotionally mean it yet, changes us.

It places us on new ground, a new place where the hurt of holding onto the transgression against us can start to be replaced by the hope of one day attaining free and full forgiveness, releasing ourselves from the painful past.

I’m not there yet, to that place where forgiveness of life-changing catastrophes flows forth from me with effortless joy.

In many ways, I’m still trapped in the economy of the world, the place where we endure torture as slaves to the mechanics of debt and commerce in our relationships.

But I believe in the economy of grace, and I believe that Jesus is calling me to live into it, one small step at a time.

When we know that Jesus asks us to forgive, we can sometimes trap ourselves in a new hell of hating ourselves for not yet being able to forgive.

In that way, we are behaving like the wicked slave again.

God has forgiven us freely and fully, and yet we still turn around and exact hateful vengeance on ourselves.

As we strive to treat other people as valued partners in the economy of grace, we need to remember that God has invited us into that grace as well.

As we strive to learn to forgive others, we might consider also learning to forgive ourselves.

As baptized Christians, we are new creations in Christ, baptized, healed and forgiven.

We might consider acting like it’s actually true.

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