‘Peter said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18:21-22) St Peter wants to know the limits on forgiveness — as one person put it: At what point does an ongoing forgiveness become meaningless? The Lord’s answer indicates that there are to be no limits. The Lord then goes on to tell Peter a parable about God’s forgiveness, in which God is likened to a King who wished to settle accounts with his servants. And so, ‘one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.’ This debt is so immense as to be unimaginable. In Jesus’ day, one day’s labour was worth about one denarius. (Matthew 20:2) One talent was worth about six thousand denarii, or about twenty years’ labour. Ten thousand talents, then, was about two hundred thousand years’ worth of labour. If we here decided to pool all our labour, with Sundays off it would take us some four thousand years to pay off this debt! This debt is so unimaginably large … and yet, when his servant pleaded with him — “Give me time,” he says absurdly, “and I will pay you everything” (Matthew 18:26); he doesn’t have that much time (C.f.: Psalm 90:10) — yet the King ‘forgave him all that debt!’ (Matthew 18:27) How utterly extraordinary! What the Lord is saying to Peter and to us is that there is no limit on how much the Lord will forgive us. So, we find in Christ Jesus, that God has forgiven us all our sins — even those we have not yet committed! God has forgiven us a whole lifetime’s worth of accumulated wrongdoing. This, too, is an unimaginable amount of debt and for which we are accountable. (C.f.: Romans 14:12) We need always to be mindful of how extraordinarily generous God is to us. For when our time comes, to us he will say, “I forgave you all that debt … And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ (Matthew 18:32-33)
Jesus uses this large sum to put in perspective the debts, the hurts, the sins, we owe to one another: ‘But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, “Pay what you owe.” This man owed him about four months’ worth of labour, which in our small-minded world is perhaps not insignificant, but in relation to the two hundred thousand years’ labour he owed and was forgiven, it is nothing. The hurts we do to one another do hurt — so much so that we are inclined to hurt back and get even, but this is not the way to life together. Instead, the Lord wants us to be mindful of the mercy, the forgiveness, and the reconciliation we crave when it is we who have fallen out with another. He also wants us to be mindful of the many times we do hurt to others, and so to be mindful of the many times we are in need of forgiveness. And then, to use this to walk ourselves back from any desire we might have to hurt back. As today’s Gospel parable points out: if we cannot forgive, then neither can we access the forgiveness we crave. (Matthew 18:32-34. C.f.: Sirach 28:3-4) To be forgiven we must learn how to forgive. For the desire for vengeance in our own unforgiving heart will so enmesh us in hate and bitterness that any forgiveness extended to us will be wasted on us. For we will be unable to embrace the reconciliation offered, and we will be left all alone and simply nursing only our own anger and resentment. (Sirach 27:30; 28:6-7) This is not the way to the life and love we desire and crave, which God, through his unbounded and merciful forgiveness, desires to give us.
We sin and hurt one another all the time. We need, then, to recognise that we are in need of limitless forgiveness, if we are to have any hope of any sort of life together. This Jesus, who has extended to us such limitless mercy, has said to us, just prior to today’s Gospel but still in the context of forgiveness, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20) The Book of Genesis tells us that we are made in God’s image and that it is his Spirit in us that breathes life into us. (Genesis 1:27; 2:7) To image God we need to be together in an ongoing way. To live and be who we are to be, we must so learn how to breathe deeply of God’s Spirit … that Spirit of forgiveness which Christ has won for us (John 20:22-23), that we may be able to be in the ongoing loving relationships we crave, and which can and do manifest the God in our midst. To be able to do this is why there can be no limit on the number of times we are to forgive our sister or brother who sins against us. (Matthew 18:21-22) For if we truly want to live, we need to reflect something of the boundless mercy that is God, and in whose image we are made. In his Sermon on the Mount , Jesus taught us: “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) One more modern version puts it this way: “Set no bounds on your love, just as your Heavenly Father sets none on his.” Or another: “Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” This is the challenge of today’s Gospel, which we must rise to meet, if we are to live. (C.f.: Sirach 28:6-7)
On a personal note, I find this Gospel challenging me over what is going on in our own day. Shortly we are to vote in a Referendum to give the First Nations’ Peoples of this Land a Voice. Our First Nations’ Peoples are greatly sinned against. The whole of this Land was theirs to enjoy, which they did for thousands of years. This has now been taken from them without compensation; they are owed a debt that is impossible to repay. (c.f.: Matthew 18:24) In the Uluru Statement from the Heart our First Nations’ Peoples have recognised the impossibility of the repayment this debt. For we, the Non-indigenous Peoples of this Land, are now bound to this Land as much as its Indigenous Peoples — for we cannot just go away; there is no ‘back’ that we can go back to. In the Uluru Statement from the Heart our First Nations’ Peoples have recognised that we are here to stay. In some senses, this is their forgiveness of our enormous and impossible to repay debt. (c.f.: Matthew 18:27) What they are saying is, “Okay, you’re here; let us treat with one another.” For their recognition of us, what they are asking of us in return (our ‘penance,’ if you like) is that we acknowledge in our Constitution that they were here first. In and through this acknowledgment, they are asking us to recognise them as equals in this Land we call Australia, in this Land that was theirs. In concrete terms, what our First Nations’ Peoples are asking of us is that we listen to them, hear what they have to say, regarding matters that affect them, that we accord them a dignity as People; that’s all! In regard to the enormity of what is owed them, this is a small something to ask for (c.f.: Matthew 18:28) in return for a real and positive first step towards reconciliation. (c.f.: Matthew 18:21-22, 33) Our First Nations’ Peoples can teach us a lot about forgiveness. In saying, “NO,” this would be us ‘seizing them by the throat and beginning to choke them’ (c.f.: Matthew 18:28) so that they can no longer even speak; we would rob them of even what little dignity is left to them (c.f.: Matthew 18:30) and compound our debt to them even further. In so doing, we would in effect be carrying on the pretence that Australia was Terra Nullius, that it was nobody’s Land, that there is no one here that we ought even Listen to. (c.f.: Matthew 18:32-33) This I am unwilling to do; I will be voting, “YES!” as a way to living generously and graciously with our Aboriginal sisters and brothers.