J- remembers bits and pieces of that day. Just a toddler, he recalls playing on the floor with his mother, T-. She had bought some cheap plastic dinosaurs for him at the dime store (or the Dollar Store in today’s language), and she looked on as he marched them around and pitched them in battles with his little hands.
It was hard for her to get down on the floor. She was pregnant with J’s little sister. Very pregnant. He and his mother were always talking about having a little sister, how they would play together, what to name her.
“Take your toys and play in your room.” His mother said this abruptly. Maybe he argued. He’s not sure. The next thing he remembers is playing with those dinosaurs in his room and hearing his father’s loud, angry voice.
Some time elapsed. His mother Jane came into the room, closed the door, and sat down with him. “It’s okay,” she said, “it’s okay.” It didn’t feel okay. There was something menacing in the air, and although that invisible menace sometimes receded, it would never vanish altogether. It always threatened to flood the air again.
Years later J’s older half-sister told him what she had seen hiding in another room. Their father had come home drunk. He had struck T- and knocked her to the floor. While T- was lying there, he kicked her repeatedly in the stomach.
His sister’s account of that day connected some dreadful dots for J-. Memory being what it is, J- had no further recollection of that day or how it fit into the days that followed. Instead, he recalls being told later that there would be no baby sister. She had gone to heaven.
Once J- had heard his half-sister’s story, he knew that his little sister hadn’t simply gone to heaven. She had died that day or soon thereafter at the violent hands of her own father.
It took T- almost ten years to leave her husband. She worked on forgiving her abuser for the rest of her life. J- is still working on it.
Forgiveness doesn’t happen all at once. Especially for deep, enduring injuries to our hearts and our souls, we forgive again and again over time.
At first it seems like we’ll never get past the horror and the pain. Forgiveness seems to be a process, a process we sometimes struggle to get started. But once we do, and we make some progress, we will seem to be doing just fine. No bitterness or resentment or irritability. And then we hear a song from back in the day, see a movie that touches a nerve, or just have a vivid memory out of nowhere. The old hurt and humiliation and fear come rushing back. We struggle to forgive again.
J- and T- are not moral failures. Their struggles have not resulted from harboring grievances. On the contrary, they show us how forgiveness actually works. Forgiveness can take time and perseverance.
Peter once asked Jesus how many times we have to forgive somebody who sins against us. I suspect that Peter had repeat offenders in mind. Spiritual hero that Peter takes himself to be, he answers his own question. “Count me in for seven times!” That exceeded the expectations of the day, which was to forgive three times.
Peter is working with a superficial notion of forgiveness. He seems to view it like a toggle switch. You forgive and move on, like turning a light on or off. Jesus sees things differently. For some wrongs done to us, forgiving is something that we have to do over and over, going more deeply every time. These are the cases that will stretch our souls and expand our hearts.
That’s what Jesus was saying with his response to Peter: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:22)
Forgiveness has nothing to do with making excuses or letting people off the hook. Without honestly holding someone accountable, there is no forgiveness. Refusing to retaliate is the beginning of forgiveness. But only the beginning.
The hoped-for end of forgiveness is reconciliation. As I wrote last week, reconciliation is a two-way street, and it does require genuine contrition and amendment of life on the part of the wrongdoer. But it also requires something very costly from the injured person.
The cost of forgiveness is something like this. We recognize that even the one who has hurt me the most is not reducible to their worst actions and most offensive attitudes. They are redeemable, and God’s own creation will not be complete without this person as a new creation. My redemption is bound up with everybody else’s redemption. We can’t vote anyone off the island or throw anyone out of the lifeboat. And yes, that’s costly.
But insisting on the prerogative to send our offenders into permanent exile is even more costly. And that is where the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant comes in.
To illustrate his point to Peter, Jesus tells a parable about a recipient of debt relief. A king writes off a servant’s enormous debt. The newly debt-free person walks out the door and bumps into somebody who owes him a relatively trivial amount. The debt-free servant blows his stack, throttles his debtor, demands repayment, and throws the debtor in prison because he can’t pay.
The generous king hears about this episode. So, he in response to the servant’s refusal to forgive a debt as he himself had been forgiven, the king sentences the servant to eternal prison and torture. (Matthew 18:21-35)
Some assume that the king is an analogy for God. The message they take away is that God forgives us and, unless we forgive as we have been forgiven, God will cancel his forgiveness and punish us instead. Given what Jesus has just said to Peter, this interpretation has serious problems.
The king in the parable refuses to forgive the unforgiving servant. And yet, Jesus has told Peter that you can never give up on forgiveness. No one is disposable. Everyone is irreplaceable. We can’t throw anyone away because God doesn’t throw anyone away.
God is perfectly aware that our inability and unwillingness to forgive is one of our chief spiritual struggles. We probably need forgiveness for our lack of forgiveness more than anything else. The God whose Son tells us to persevere in forgiving seems unlikely to solve the problem of our unforgiveness toward each other by threatening to withdraw forgiveness from us.
Instead, I think the parable says something more like this. Clinging to our grievances casts us into a prison of our own making, a prison in which we feed upon the poison of our own bitterness and resentment. Jesus dies on the cross to set us free from precisely this prison.
Which brings us back to J- and his mother T-. As you’ve probably assumed, these are not their real names. I’ve changed some of the details of their story and omitted other details to preserve their anonymity.
This is not a story that wraps up in a neat bow. Before she died, T- had moved past active rage and habitual bitterness. She no longer actively fantasized about her ex-husband’s suffering and humiliation. In fact, she rarely thought about him at all.
J’s story is still being written. His father has died. The anger and bitterness of J’s youth gave way initially to a sense of loss for the relationship with his father that might have been. Eventually, J- realized that he was beginning to develop the habit of letting go.
Somehow, letting go seems to have made space for God to do what God does. God does even more than heal wounds. God makes those healed wounds the source of compassion and courage.
Forgiveness is a process. A growth process. With God’s help, we become more than we were before we were wounded. We become someone who loves imperfect people in an imperfect world.
This essay is a reflection on Matthew 18:21-35 from Proper 19, Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary (coming up September 17, 2023). As usual, I’m posting in advance of the church calendar to help out preachers, teachers, and curious listeners.