The Math of Forgiveness

In the Name of God: who was, and is, and is to come. Amen.

Then 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 said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’  Matthew 18:21-22

If this morning’s Gospel reading had a title, it would be something along the lines of, “Forgiveness Arithmetic” or “Forgiveness Calculus.”  The idea for the title comes, of course, from the question Peter puts to Jesus, “How many times do I have to forgive a brother or sister who hurts me?”     

In chapter 18 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has been teaching his disciples crucial lessons about how to live together in community. He has told them that humility is more important than superiority; that they are to be responsible for one other; that every single person is important, especially those who stray and get lost; and that they are to resolve the differences between them carefully – having reconciliation as their goal, rather than condemnation.

After he has taught them all these things, Jesus begins his final and most important lesson – this lesson about forgiveness.  I love how Peter approaches the matter of forgiving other people with Jesus, don’t you?  He begins by asking, “How many times shall another member of the community sin against me, and I forgive him?”  Without waiting for an answer from Jesus, Peter proposes an answer of his own, “How about seven times?” he wonders out loud.

I am quite sure Peter thought he was being quite generous when he proposed the number seven. After all, forgiving another seven times was many more times than what the scribes and Pharisees taught. They said the number was two. If someone did you wrong, you had to give that person a second chance, but you were not obliged to give the person a third chance. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me – but you don’t get a third shot.  There’s no “fool me thrice!” So, we can see how Peter’s suggestion of seven might have seemed liberal to him, even lavish.

This is where “Forgiveness Arithmetic” or “Forgiveness Calculus” comes in. Because, when he responds to Peter, Jesus says, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy-seven times or seventy times seven!”  The point Jesus was making was not that we should forgive others seventy-seven times or, multiplying seventy time seven, four hundred ninety times. The point Jesus was making was – Forgiveness is to be unlimited!  Don’t even think about counting the number of times you need to forgive someone else– just go ahead and do it!

And then Jesus goes on to give the reason why a disciple should forgive someone who has sinned against her or him.  He says, forgive because God has forgiven you.  Of course, Jesus doesn’t come right out and say this. He tells a story instead – a parable – a parable that only appears in Matthew’s Gospel. The story is about a civil servant who is shown great mercy by a king, but who fails to show mercy to one of his equals over a much smaller matter.

This particular king decided one day that it was time to square up accounts with his servants.  So, he had his servants appear before him one by one.  As he got underway, a very high-ranking servant appeared before him who owed – according to the version of the Bible we read this morning – ten thousand talents. A talent was the largest measure of weight or currency at the time, so the servant owed the king a tremendous amount of money. In his translation of the Bible, Eugene Peterson says the servant “had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars.”  This sermon doesn’t need another math problem trying to figure the value of a talent in today’s dollars, so let’s go with what Peterson says as the amount of the debt – a hundred grand.

The man couldn’t pay up, so “the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market.” The proceeds of the sale wouldn’t have begun to cover such an enormous debt, so the king’s selling the family into slavery was a punishment rather than an attempt on his part to recoup his losses.

Facing such a bleak future, the servant threw himself on the king’s mercy, begging him to give him more time. “Give me a chance, and I’ll pay it all back – every last denarius!” Much to the servant’s surprise – and probably the surprise of everyone else in the room – the king didn’t just give the man more time, he let him off completely. He erased the debt – forgiving everything the servant owed. Amazing!

Now comes the second half of the story. Having just been forgiven his debt, the servant left the room. No sooner was he out than he ran into one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized the man by the throat and demanded that he pay the debt in full, right then and there.  The man who owed him ten dollars did the same thing to the servant as the servant had done to the king. He threw himself on his mercy, begging him for more time – and the chance to pay it all back.  But the servant whom the king had just forgiven wouldn’t do it. He had the debtor thrown in jail until the debt was paid. 

I know what’s going on in your minds – at least in the minds of you math types. You are thinking to yourselves, “let’s see, what percentage of $100,000 is $10?”  I’ve done the math for you, and the answer is 1/100 of 1%.  The debt the civil servant would not forgive his fellow servant was miniscule compared to the gigantic debt the king had cancelled for him. 

The reason to forgive the sins others have committed against us, Jesus says, is because each of us has already been forgiven a huge debt by God.  Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer together, we are reminded of this. We ask God to “. . . forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.”  The more contemporary language version we use at Morning Prayer clarifies just what we’re saying: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” 

Back in chapter six of Matthew’s Gospel here’s what Jesus says to his disciples after teaching them the Lord’s Prayer, “In prayer there is a connection between what God does and what you do. You can’t get forgiveness from God, for instance, without also forgiving others. If you refuse to do your part, you cut yourself off from God’s part.”

I, for one, would love to know what was going on in Matthew’s church, because Matthew goes out of his way to point out to the members of his church the connection between their willingness to forgive others and God’s ability to forgive them. Were people holding grudges? Or keeping and settling scores? We don’t know. What we do know is that Matthew emphasizes the connection Jesus makes between being forgiven and forgiving others.  And I have to be honest – I find this to be a hard lesson.  I have a very tough time forgiving other people. I’ve read all the stuff about how holding a grudge is bad for my health. How it’s a waste of cortisol. How it’s like drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick. But it’s still hard to let go. . . . I have an even tougher time forgiving myself.

An article in last week’s Sunday New York Times reminded me of the healing power of forgiveness. It was in a special section of the paper called “Unsung History.”  The section commemorated the 75th anniversary of the official end of World War II.  The editors were observing the date – September 2, 1945 – when formal surrender documents were signed aboard the USS Missouri, designating the day as the official Victory over Japan Day.

Tom Hanks, the actor, was chosen to write the lead article for the section. He isn’t an historian, of course, but he starred in a couple of movies about the war – the movie “Saving Private Ryan” about the invasion of Normandy – and another movie released this summer on Apple TV about the battle of the Atlantic called “Greyhound”. Hanks is a screenwriter as well as an actor, so he certainly had the writing experience to take on the assignment.  The article he wrote was quite thoughtful. In it, he divided World War II into three acts – Act I (Before the War) – Act II (During the War), and Act III (After the War) – the period of time we are now living in and a time, he said, where many of the things all those sailors and soldiers, airmen, and nurses sacrificed to fight against are prevalent. He wrote: “Disinformation is now a weapon and a currency,” And “Tyrants reign around the world.”

The article that moved me most in the special section was written by Anne Harrington about Major Claude Eatherly. Eatherly was the only one of the 90 servicemen who flew the atomic bombing missions over Japan who came forward publicly to declare remorse for what he had done. Major Eatherly piloted the advance weather plane that had the task of assessing target visibility over Hiroshima. He was the one who ultimately gave the go-ahead to drop the bomb on August 6, 1945.  It was a role that haunted him for the rest of his life.

Years later, Eatherly sent a message of the people of Hiroshima. “I told them I was the Major that gave the ‘go ahead’ to destroy Hiroshima,” he wrote in a letter to a friend, “that I was unable to forget the act, and that the guilt of the act has caused me great suffering.” He continued, “I asked them to forgive me.”

As Eatherly became more visible as a symbol of peace and disarmament, the more people took sides.  Some embraced him, especially in war-ravaged Europe and Asia “where his remorse fulfilled a deep-seated desire for compassion,” and, at a major peace demonstration in New York, he was given one of four Hiroshima awards for outstanding contributions to world peace. Others questioned his claims and motives – saying that he had feigned guilt to attract attention and, perhaps, even to profit. As Ms. Harrington put it in her article, “Passing judgment on whether he was a hero for speaking out about his suffering, or a malingerer out to capitalize on his wartime experiences became a way to stake a claim within the debate about nuclear weapons.” The story about Major Eatherly is a good reminder how differently people can look at the same thing and see it so differently – and how Americans have held deeply polarized positions long before the divisions of our present time.

I have no way of judging Major Easterly’s motivations. What touched me was the reply he received to the message he sent to the people of Hiroshima. “I asked them to forgive me,” he said.  Thirty “girls of Hiroshima,” young hibakusha, or atomic bomb victims, who had survived, but had been scarred by the blast, responded for the city. “We have learned to feel towards you a fellow-feeling,” they wrote, “thinking that you are also a victim of war like us.”

You and I could differ about whether what the young bomb victims wrote to Major Easterly was an act of forgiveness.  I believe it was.  And I marvel at how these girls were able to extend forgiveness to someone whose actions caused them so much suffering.

What would it take for us to feel “a fellow-feeling” toward someone who has hurt us? The journey might begin when, by the grace of God, our wounds lead us to empathy and compassion rather than to bitterness.

Jesus told Peter that his “Forgiveness Math” was all wrong – that the answer to his question, “how many times shall I forgive?” wasn’t seven times, or seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven. The answer to Peter’s question was “unlimited times”. 

Several weeks later Jesus taught Peter another lesson about forgiveness, this time from the Cross.  Jesus looked out over the crowd of people who had put him there – the priests, the scribes and Pharisees, the Roman soldiers – and said, “Forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” 

He forgives us, too, and then invites us to forgive others and forgive ourselves.  Amen.

Sunday, September 13, 2020–preached by the Rev. Dr. Stephen Applegate
Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost