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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Matthew 18:21-35
“Forgiveness Math”
September 14, 2008 - Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

         Kevin Weber meant to crack the restaurant’s safe and steal cash. It was the night after a busy Mother’s Day and the safe was full. But Kevin triggered the alarm and was caught with four chocolate chip cookies in his pockets as the only stolen goods. But because Kevin had two prior felony convictions for burglary and assault with a deadly weapon, in 1995 he was sentenced for 26 years to life in prison for stealing cookies. In California those four cookies were the third of “three strikes,” and Kevin Weber was “out.”

         California’s three-strikes law proved very popular since it was enacted in 1994. It was amended in 2000 to allow drug treatment rather than life in prison for those with a third conviction for possession, but other amendments to soften it further have failed. We like limits on what a person can get away with. Like Peter, we want to limit forgiveness.

         You might say the Jewish rabbis around the time of the New Testament were slightly more lenient than the state of California. They gave four strikes. A person’s first three sins against you are to be forgiven, but not the fourth.

         In verse 21 of our text, Peter has soaked up Jesus’ teaching about compassion. He’s feeling truly magnanimous. “Lord, how many times shall I forgive a brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Do the math. Forget California, Peter more than doubled the rabbis’ strike count and expected to be commended: “Way to go, Rock,” as Jesus offers him a high five, “what a big heart!” But Peter did the math wrong.

         “Not seven times,” Jesus told him, “but seventy-seven times.” Your translation may say “seventy times seven,” an even bigger number, but “seventy-seven” is likely what He said. It doesn’t matter, whether it’s 77 or 490, the point is that Peter is off by a whole order of magnitude in his calculations. There’s no real practical, countable limit on forgiveness. You just keep doing it, however often it’s required.

         Like calculus, forgiveness math feels way too hard. How do we wrap our heads around continuous, repeated forgiveness? Maybe you remember those inflatable life-size clown toys, the ones with the rounded, weighted bottom? You punch it and it falls down, then pops back up, ready to be punched again. Over and over. Knock that Christian down, and bingo he’s forgiven you and is up again, ready for another knock. On and on. That’s what Jesus’ math feels like. Take a licking and keep on ticking off unlimited amnesty time after time. It’s too hard. What could make you want to live like that, do that kind of crazy math? Jesus anticipated that question with a long story that is the rest of our text.

         In verse 23, the math becomes practical, business arithmetic. Pull up the spreadsheet, there’s a king who wants to collect his debts and balance his accounts. Picture the royal bookkeeper sitting in the corner with his laptop, tapping away, calculating who needs to pay what. The audit has barely begun when in verse 24 appears the biggest debtor of all. He owes ten thousand “talents.” That was a lot of money.

         I read it as “ten thousand bags of gold.” It’s at least 300 tons. The NIV, in an edition published in the 80s, has a footnote that reads, “That is, millions of dollars.” King Herod had an income of about 900 talents a year. In today’s currency it might be a billion or a trillion dollars. What ever it is, it’s an impossible amount. You’re not going to draw it out of an ATM. You’re not going to sell a little stock to raise the cash. You’re not going to be able to pay it. That’s the point.

         On one level, parables are just good stories. Suspend your disbelief and take it for granted. This dude owes a billion bucks and there’s no way on earth he’s going to come up with it. So he suffers the consequences. In verse 25, the master, the king, orders the man to be sold into slavery, along with his wife and children and all his possessions.

         Again, just go with the story. Jewish people didn’t sell debtors into slavery in Jesus’ time, much less women and children. But they had heard about Gentiles who did. It’s not fact, it’s fiction, but it’s fiction with a point, a true point. That’s what a parable is.

         By verse 26, the servant debtor is desperate. He falls on his knees and begs, “Be patient with me…,” and he lies through his teeth, “and I will pay back everything I owe you.” No way. No one but a king could come up with ten thousand talents. We can do the math. At common wages, a denarius a day, it would take a 164,000 years to earn that much. The math is impossible. But the master has his own way to count.

         Waving his hand in verse 7, the king cancels the debt. He nods to the little man with horn rim glasses and the laptop and with a stroke of the delete key it’s all gone. He’s free to go. His master had compassion and forgave him the whole incredible amount.

         If this parable were an opera, we would be at the end of the first act. You see the king sitting there on this throne with a kind, beneficent smile, hand outstretched in kindness toward his servant. The poor wretch is kneeling at his feet, weeping in abject gratitude for the mercy he’s been shown. The whole cast recaps their arias in a blended medley. The king sang his call for punishment, then the servant a sobbing plea for patience, the royal accountant a little tune about the beauty of his figures, then the king’s tune becomes a soaring hymn to mercy. The music swells on the word “mercy” and the curtain comes down on the poignant scene.

         With verse 28, we come to the second act. We move from the palace to the street, where the happy, forgiven man has come upon another man he knows. This one owes him, a hundred denarii, maybe about 1/600,000 of the debt that has just been cancelled. For a moment, we get the impression that this act will be much like the first. The first servant begins to sing the king’s punishment song, demanding payment. The second man falls down on his knees and starts the aria that begs for mercy, using almost the same words in verse 29, “Be patient with me and I will pay you back.” But this act ends differently.

         Just as he begins the musical transition from punishment to mercy, the forgiven man chops it off and belts out even louder the punishment theme. He grabs the kneeling fellow by the arm and drags him down the street where he’s turned over to the jailer. Then he stalks off in satisfaction humming the king’s first cruel song. All around you hear low murmuring discords as the other servants begin to talk among themselves. The curtain drops as we glimpse them hurrying back toward the palace to tell the king what happened.

         The final act, beginning in verse 32, has us back in the throne room of the palace. The first servant is kneeling there once again, this time in abject terror. Once again the king sings about mercy, but then begins a series of musical questions: “I gave you mercy, shouldn’t you have given mercy? I forgave you, shouldn’t you have forgiven him? I had pity on you. Where was your pity? Where was your mercy? Where was your forgiveness?” Then his face flushes with anger and in a deep, rich baritone, he begins the punishment song again, one grand final aria of judgment. As the music rolls we see the unforgiving servant dragged out to jail. We hear his screams fade away as the curtain comes down the last time.

         It’s a marvelous libretto. Jesus was a great storyteller. The moral, the point is obvious. He hardly has to add the words of verse 35, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Just like the other servants in the story, we see for ourselves the massive disparity, the moral gap, between the huge, undeserved forgiveness of the king and the petty, mean spirit which refuses to forgive a comparably small debt owed by another.

         Jesus taught the same rule in the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer. We say and pray those beautiful words: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy,” “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Now we see the dark side of those truths, a frightening tale of what it means not to be merciful; the consequences of failing to forgive our debtors. Forgiveness is hard math. Canceling debts owed to us is hard is not easy.

         Forgiveness math is even harder than one story, even a parable by Jesus, can demonstrate. Peter hit it when he asked about multiplying forgiveness. It’s not just one hurt, one insult, one injury we receive from others. It’s a whole complex of meanness, disrespect, disregard, betrayal and harm we may experience. How do you calculate that? How do you forgive that? Are we supposed to make like the king in the story and just wave our hands and say it’s all cancelled, it’s all done, no one owes us anything anymore?

         Learning math takes homework. So does forgiveness. My friend Bob Roberts did his home work in his book relating Christianity to psychotherapy.[1] Roberts begins with the fact that forgiveness is not a matter of pretending nothing has happened, that no wrong has been done. If you try to forgive someone by simply ignoring what they’ve done to you, it’s not real forgiveness. The king in the story cancelled the debt, but he didn’t forget it. He reminded the servant again of what had been forgiven in verse 32, “I cancelled all that debt of yours…” Forgiving begins with the fact that a real wrong has happened.

         In Roberts’ terms, you can’t simply exonerate an offender or it’s not forgiveness. You can’t just give her excuses, say she couldn’t help what she did, or pin it on her upbringing, or find some other way to remove her blame. Forgiving means a person really is to blame. Otherwise there’s no point, nothing to forgive.

         In much the same way, forgiving does not condone a wrong done to you. It’s not just saying, “That’s O.K., it doesn’t matter. No harm, no foul.” To let a person off the hook by pretending what was wrong and cruel is actually right and kind is not forgiveness. Forgiveness begins as it did for the king, with hard math, an accounting which shows there is a real debt, a true wrong demanding payment. Only then can forgiveness be considered.

         Christian forgiveness, says Roberts, is different. The secular world, the world of psychology and mental therapy, has its own reason for forgiveness. We’re told to forgive because it’s good for us. To forgive is to let go of the anger you have toward someone. That’s true. But therapy focuses on the fact that’s it’s healing and therapeutic for the one forgiving. Anger is destructive to ourselves. So forgiveness is good for the forgiver. If you’ve read The Shack, you will remember that a man is asked to forgive his child’s murderer for the same reason, because it’s good for him to forgive.

         Yet Christian forgiveness, according to Roberts, is aimed the other way. In the parable the king forgives not for his own sake, but for the debtor’s sake. If anything, the king loses by forgiving. Jesus didn’t teach me to forgive because it’s good for me. He told me to forgive because it’s good for the one forgiven.

         That’s why Christians forgive when there is repentance. The servant in the story got down on his knees to signal he was sorry, that he was repentant. At least he said that he would mend his ways and try to make things right. Forgiveness offers a chance for the repentance to become real, for there to be a true change in the other person’s life. It’s for their sake, not for ours.

         There is not always repentance. The person who hurt you may not apologize, may not even think any wrong was done. You can still forgive for the other’s sake. Verse 27 says the servant’s master had compassion on him. Maybe he got to thinking about the wife and the children and all they would suffer. Maybe his heart softened and he simply felt sorry for this poor clod who had gotten himself in such a mess. We can forgive each other out of compassion, even when there is no repentance.

         We may also forgive for the sake of relationship. In verse 35, Jesus talked about forgiving our brothers. It means our sisters too. There are relationships we value so much that we forgive so the relationship can continue. Even without repentance, we forgive a person so that we can remain connected, remain friends, or spouses or fellow church members. You forgive your child just because he’s your son, she’s your daughter. Those relationships are more important than the wrong that has been done.

         From our parable today we learn to forgive because of our own complicity. We are sinners too. Like the servant, we have our own big sins, huge debts of wrong we owe. And God through the marvelous grace of Jesus Christ has forgiven us. Christ died for us and forgave us before we ever repented, before we were even born. Because we are forgiven sinners, we want to offer that same sort of grace to others.

         Christian forgiveness focuses outward, on the other person. In compassion, in relationship, in the complicity of our own sin, forgiveness seeks the healing and repentance of another. Yes, there is some healing for ourselves when we forgive, but the ultimate aim of forgiveness is change in the one we forgive. We let go of our anger in the hope and prayer that another person can find new life.

         Of course, it’s still hard, hard math. I confess that I’ve struggled with forgiving others more than anything else in Christian life. I can pull still pull up in my mind the scenes of my own hard-heartedness. My first year in graduate school my fiancée dumped me for another guy. Then two years later, after she was married to the other fellow, and after I’d met Beth and we’d been happily married for few months, she called me, wanting just to talk, wanting to be friendly and find out how I was doing. I couldn’t talk to her. I couldn’t be kind. I said a few words and hung up. Forgiving at that moment was just too hard.

         Forgiveness is like math. You don’t start with quadratic equations or differential calculus. You learn to add and subtract, multiply and divide, solve simple equations, before you move on to the complex stuff. The same is true of learning forgiveness. We must practice with the little things, the small slights, the petty insults, the almost insignificant hurts we experience all the time. Learning to let go of anger for those will help us move on to the harder things, the hurts of a lifetime, the pain that goes on and on, the wrongs that wound us to the core. Those will take time. Those will take more homework.

         Let this parable send you back to the books to do that homework. Let it move you to practice small forgiveness first, to let go of anger and accept little apologies gracefully. Only then let it begin to worry you with the truly difficult problems, the ones that will take days and weeks and years to work out.

         Forgive me for needing to say it, but like school homework, failure to do homework in forgiveness carries a penalty. That’s the awful warning of the last few verses. There is judgment and consequence for those who presume on God’s grace but fail to extend it to others. That judgment is partly self-inflicted. If we fail to give mercy, we have not effectively received it. Forgiveness not shown is forgiveness not known. God’s grace, like the forgiving of a billion dollars, is limitless, but that kind of grace is meant to reappear in our own hearts. Where it does not, we’re accountable. That’s why we need to do the homework.

         So my suggestion for today, for right now, is to start doing the math. Remember and take account of one small wrong that has happened to you. Write it down. Recall the hurt, the anger, the pain you felt. Don’t take on a big thing. Don’t take on a person who wounded you for life. You can get to that. But for right now, write out a little sin against you that you can forgive.

         Do the math then. Start erasing the wrong in your mind. Hit the delete key in your heart. Let go of the anger that you so rightly feel. If you can, think of a way to show or tell that other person that he or she is forgiven. Start speaking to her again. Write him a note. Make a phone call. In whatever way you can, complete the assignment the Lord has given us. As Colossians 3:13 says, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

         Then remember, the Lord did forgive you. A warning is in this parable, but there’s also amazing grace. Jesus told Peter to forgive 77 times, and then told a story in which the character representing God went far beyond that. In Jesus, God cancels every debt, no matter how large. He’s cancelled all of yours, every bit of it. He’s even cancelled the debt of the debts you haven’t yet forgiven in others. It’s all forgiven. We’re free. God teaches us to forgive by the example of His own incredible forgiveness. Let’s learn the lesson.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] Robert Roberts, Taking the Word to Heart: Self and Other in an Age of Therapies (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), pp. 189-204.

Last updated September 14, 2008