How often must I forgive him? As many as seven times? – Mt. 18: 21

   Notice the mind-set behind this question. The emphasis is on the limits of forgiveness. When can retaliation begin? At what number can I strike back? The suggested number of seven is rather generous. Most people start getting even at two. The problem with this is that the opposite of forgiveness is not a measured response in kind, but an escalated revenge. Here is an illustration:

In the latest version of the movie “The Untouchables,” starring Sean Connery & Kevin Costner, Connery’s character gives this advice to Costner: “If Capone sends one of your men to the hospital, send one of his to the morgue.” In other words, without forgiveness, there is only increasing violence, & this is what comes natural to unredeemed humanity.

   With Peter (as with so many of us) forgiveness is a temporary, stalling strategy. If it works, fine. If it does not, there are other ways. When the fallback is revenge, we may fall back too quickly. Jesus wants a full commitment to forgiveness as the only way. Why should we agree with Him?

   The story in today’s Gospel opens with an accounting, a revelation of debt, & a judgment that destroys the life of the servant & his family. He has made a huge mistake that cannot be repaid. It will put him & his family in bondage forever. He begs for more time to repay, but even if this is granted, his life will still be dominated by his mistake. It is so huge he will be eternally in debt, much like paying the minimal amount on a huge credit card debt. [Note: in our Lord’s day there were no bankruptcy laws much less bankruptcy lawyers.]

   Suddenly, the unexpected happens. Compassion appears & it releases a flow of mercy in the King. The human condition of being mired in sin may call for mercy, but it does not cause it. Mercy comes from the heart of God. It frequently causes shock, & it changes everything. The man is both released from bondage & forgiven the debt. This is the first day of the rest of his life.

   We are like him. Our own attitudes & actions have put us in bondage to sin, & there is no way we can get ourselves out. We may pretend that all we need is more time, but the truth is that no amount of time is sufficient. We cannot do this by ourselves. We need a whole new start. Then we experience the mercy of God, a mercy beyond our bargaining & our pleading. It severs the ropes that tie us to our sins & lets us go free. Instead of being indebted to sin we are now indebted to God, & that too has it consequences.

   Notice that in the parable, the servant has been forgiven, but he has learned little. As soon as the chance presents itself, he fails to forgive a fellow servant who owes him much less than he owed the King. Immediately, violence emerges: he throttles the man. The forgiven sinner does not forgive in return. His wickedness consists in his failure to pass on to others the mercy he had received from God. His mind is only on the missing money & so no mercy flowed. What can we learn from this story?

   Most of us do not see clearly our entrenched sinfulness. We are too mediocre to owe a huge amount. Not being murderers or rapists, we see our indebtedness in more manageable amounts. To realize our sinfulness we must appreciate how sinful experiences claim us. They continue to extend their influence long after the actual offense has ended. The “huge amount” may be their power to dominate us & bring our future under their control. Negative experiences infiltrate our mind & heart & constrict our freedom. They become a bondage from which we cannot free ourselves.

   Forgiveness, you see, is not primarily overlooking past sins or cancelling a debt. It is about breaking the hold of our mistakes & giving us a new future. God does give us time, but not the time of endless minutes but endless opportunities. If we bolt out of our prison & go on with life exactly as before, without understanding or appreciation, then the King’s mercy dries up & we lose the mercy we have received from God. This is not because God has changed His mind, but because another spiritual law has become operative: the measure with which we measure will be measured unto us.

   If we understand truth, we will not ask “how many times.” We must allow what has happened to form & influence us. If we do not deeply grasp both the bondage to our mistakes & the unmerited forgiveness, we will not persist in the freedom & the future we have been given.

   Everyone is tied to their past failures until a future is bestowed upon them.  These failures may be small, but they hamper freedom. Our hope is to remember clearly the conditions of our liberation. If we forget them, we will return to bondage. This will happen long before we are reported to the King. It happens the moment we put our hands around the throat of our debtor. We are once again sold into the slavery of revenge, retaliation, & reprisal.  AMEN!