“THEN,” Matthew writes, “Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’
Jesus has just pushed us hard – we waded into this last Sunday – on how the disciples were called to be community. And it was uncomfortable. Relationships in the church are a precious commodity, and we are called to do the hard work of being family together. To keep at it, to pursue each other like the shepherd went after that one lost sheep with the ninety-nine hanging out there back on the hillside.
But Peter, bless his heart, couldn’t let it go. I am not sure here whether he had a clarifying question – ‘I know you’re talking about forgiveness, but when are we off the hook?’ My suspicion is that it wasn’t a theoretical question. My suspicion is that he had someone, or a couple of people, in mind. Maybe you would, too. “How often should I forgive?” How about seven times, he says, which anyone who has worked to forgive knows is an awful lot.
No, Jesus says. 77 times. He tells a story about a king settling accounts with his slaves. He begins with one who owes the king 10,000 talents. A talent was the largest monetary unit of the time, the wages of a manual laborer for fifteen years. Ten thousand is the largest possible number – the Greek here is myrion, the root of our word “myriad”). This is literally the largest number. The annual tax income for all of Herod the Great’s territories was only 900 talents per year. It’s like saying someone who cleans the halls of Facebook owed Mark Zuckerberg ‘a bazillion dollars.’” There is NO WAY that the servant can repay this debt.
The kings orders him sold, along with everyone in his family and everything he has, which is interesting, because as we have just learned, even if he did sell off everyone and everything he has ever known or ever had, the amount would still be insufficient. As the verdict is rendered the slave drops to his knees and grovels and begs and pleads. He hears the words come out of his mouth even though he knows he can’t ever pay: ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ Simply, the text reports: out of pity, compassion, the king forgives.
This is unbelievable. If the story stopped here we would have a rich and convicting story that would allow us to praise God’s for God’s gracious generosity towards us. I’d preach that sermon. But Jesus, never one to let anyone off the hook, then turns – that same guy, who had just been forgiven a bazillion dollars, stumbles out, with this incomprehensible weigh lifted from him, and looks up. He sees a fellow slave who owes him 100 denarii. This is 100 times the daily wage for a laborer, which is no small thing, but is nothing compared with what he had been forgiven. This same slave, WHO HAS JUST BEEN FORGIVEN, seizes the other slave by the throat – the physicality adds to the emotion. ‘Pay what you owe,’ he spits. The irony is stunning, and I think we’re supposed to feel the weight of it. The guy who has been forgiven an incomprehensible debt cannot see his way to acknowledge that as he crushes his neighbor for much, much less. The first slave ignores the same plea he just made – Matthew has this second slave use almost exactly the same language as the first before the king. He refuses, has him thrown in jail.
You can feel the listening crowds’ fury as we are drawn in – this story always makes me angry, too, and we cheer. The other slaves feel the injustice, too, and tell the king who pulls him back in: ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ The question hangs there in the air for a moment, as he is taken away to be tortured. Aha!, we rejoice. Justice has been done. We step back and breathe – we would never have missed the boat like the second slave did. He got what he deserved. Jesus takes a deep breath and looks us in the eye: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
This is a tough one. Not tough as in ‘difficult to understand’, but tough as in ‘not too hard to understand but really, really hard to do.’ An important part of the gospel is to tell the truth about who we are versus who God calls us to be. Jesus is trying to make sure his disciples understand they have big, huge, glaring blind spots. He’s placing two situations beside each other so that they could see the gaps, see the places we are blind. On one side is the king – perhaps God –astoundingly, stunningly gracious, forgiving a debt larger than we can imagine. Take any burden you’ve borne, no matter how heavy, and imagine it gone. And then right up beside it Jesus says that that same person, that same slave who has just been showed mercy beyond measure, debt forgiven – massive weight lifted – TURNS RIGHT AROUND and crushes his neighbor who owes him practically nothing compared to what he has JUST been forgiven.
Christ calls us to examine the space between those two stories, I think as an effort to begin to explore the ways we are so blind – to ourselves, to each other. Sometimes we are willfully blind and sometimes we aren’t, but let’s take intent off the table entirely. We all have blind spots. We rented a car for our trip to Dallas a few weekends ago. It was a small SUV and the angles were different, and there was a pretty big blind spot when you look back to try and merge or change lanes. It took some adjusting. Luckily, it had one of those fancy sensors – whenever another car was beside you a light blinked, and whenever you moved closer to that lane the car beeped at you. It was a warning to be careful – you’ve got something in your blind spot we think you haven’t seen. Look out.
Jesus looks us in the eye and asks us, “Might there be a time in your life when you have neglected to show grace to another? Might there have been a time, no matter how aware you might be of God’s grace in your life, that you did not treat the person in front of you with that same measure of grace? Might there be a gap between God’s grace and the grace you try and live with?” We all have blind spots to check. I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to get caught up in what I’m doing, my priorities, my schedule, and that focus keeps me from seeing what is important to other people sometimes. I don’t pay attention to my neighbors. I tend to bring my own opinions into conversations so I don’t listen well. I’ve got my own biases, my own views, and those views color the way I see almost everything. I’ve got blind spots of things I want to have and achieve, stuff I want, always more. And wanting to do well and be well and have more money and have more time have people think well of me. Those things are both the most natural things in the world and also keep me from seeing the God-createdness in other people.
We’ve got blind spots as a church. As a society. We barely see, if at all, the immense privileges we have over so much of the world. Ridiculous. We barely see the privilege that comes with being white, being well-educated, having access to the education and opportunity and health care we have access to. We barely notice, if at all, the ways we stereotype others, the assumptions we make about anyone the slightest bit different from us, straight or gay, black or white, background or nationality. We keep our focus so tightly on ourselves that we miss the neighbors right beside us in church – we’re all carrying heavy burdens. Every one of us. We miss then down the street, on the other side of town. I bet you’ve got your own list of blind spots, and I’d love to hear them.
Finally, Jesus turns back to the disciples. So my heavenly Father will to do you – the torture and thrown in prison thing – if you do not forgive your brother and sister from your heart. I don’t think he’s talking about hurling you in a place with chains and a devil in red with a pitchfork. I think Jesus knows that when we don’t forgive, when we don’t move towards others with openness, it crushes US. And we MUST, we MUST, remember the grace God shows every single part of God’s creation, maybe especially the folks we aren’t inclined to show grace to. And pray that we might be given the courage to show that same love and forgiveness to each other, to everyone we meet.
May it be so. May it be so. All praise be to God. Amen.
 The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 382.
 Tom Long, Westminster Bible Companion: Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), p 211.