Not 7 times, but 77 times!
I feel it’s been a while since we did a more Bible focused address. The last few weeks have been very literary and poetry orientated. So, here’s an address on Matthew 18, the passages about forgiveness. It begins with Peter, who was the most senior of the disciples, asking Jesus about how many times one should forgive another member of the church. From the various accounts which mention Peter in the Bible, we’re able to build up a picture of the sort of man he was. Peter, who was formally called Simon, was a fisherman. Peter comes across as a bit foolhardy, at times a bit stubborn, says what’s on his mind, can be quick to anger; it was Peter who drew his sword and cut off the ear of one those trying to arrest Jesus in the garden of gethsemane. Peter is impulsive, brash, and as such when we hear in Matthew that he is asking Jesus about how many times it is required to forgive a member of the church - “as much as seven?” - I think we can assume that his question is not arising out of mere intellectual curiosity. He’s almost certainly asking because he’s angry with someone, and wondering if his teacher, his rabbi, really requires him to forgive completely. After all, Jesus does have a track record of subverting and reinterpreting Jewish laws and practices. Perhaps Jesus’ approach to forgiveness would be different too.
Number seven in Jewish Scripture was symbolic of completeness, seven being the amount of days in the week. So to say, ‘should I forgive seven times’ is not to be read literally, but rather should be taken to mean, ‘need I forgive completely?’. To which Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” It turns out that the number seventy-seven does appear one other time in the Bible, and to find it we need to go back to Genesis. Remember Genesis begins with a poetic account of God creating earth, filling the earth with life, putting fish into the sea, and animals onto the land, and then finally putting two people upon the earth: Adam and Eve. As the myth goes, Adam and Eve disobey God, and are cast out of paradise. When out of paradise, Adam and Eve have two sons, Cain and Abel. Abel, who grew up to be a shepherd, and Cain, who grew up to be a farmer. Cain was very jealous of his brother, and ultimately struck him with a stone, killing him. When, in the story, God finds out about this murder, he says Cain cannot ever be forgiven. Cain then goes off and has a few children, and they have children, and so on, and murdering people runs in their family. They’re certainly portrayed as bad people in the early chapters of Genesis. One of Cain’s great-great-grandchildren named Lamech we are told kills someone, at which point Lamech is quoted talking to one of his wives saying “If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly I, seventy-seven-fold.” So, Lamech is portrayed as a really bad person. Not only a murderer, but he is also the first person in the Bible to have multiple wives, which, though this practice is tolerated later in the Bible with the likes of King Solomon and his wife for every day of the year, at this stage is understood to be a very bad thing. So, if God punished Cain seven times, meaning punished Cain ‘completely’, so, he will punish Lamech seventy-seven times, ‘Completely, Completely’. He will punish Lamech utterly and completely! He will be punished beyond what can even be conceived. Lamech is who Jesus is alluding to when he uses the expression seventy-seven. But of course, he is flipping the context, not talking about punishment, but the opposite, forgiveness. So it kind of backfires on the apostle Peter. He’s angry with some member of the church, and he asks Jesus, ‘Do I really need to forgive completely?’ to which Jesus responds, ‘No, you need to forgive utterly and completely, you need to forgive on an irrational inconceivable scale’.
Jesus then not wanting to lose this teaching opportunity takes this idea further. Hitting as they have upon this idea of total forgiveness, he wants to say that the Kingdom of Heaven is like that. Remember, whenever Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God, he is not talking about abstract metaphysics, about realms beyond this life, he’s talking about a reality we can manifest and make real in the present. So, Jesus gives us a mini-parable, about a king expunging the debt of one of his slaves. It’s interesting I think that even though Jesus is talking about manifesting qualities of the Kingdom in the present, he’s unable to conceive of a reality without slavery. He of course doesn’t condone slavery in any way, but neither does he at any point condemn it. The institution of slavery is just so much a part of the fabric of Jesus’ world, that imagining a social progression beyond it is inconceivable to him. From Peter’s original question to this mini-parable, we can see that sinning against someone is equated to being financially indebted to someone. This word, ‘sin’, like much religious vocabulary is problematic, because the word carries so many associations for us. The word ‘sin’ is so often used to emotionally manipulate people, used by religious authorities to subscribe a particular pattern of behaviour. For our purposes here though, we can think of sin as anything which acts against relationships. In this way, we need not think of sin in grandiose terms, as disobeying the pre-ordained laws of God, but simply a breakdown of relationship between one person and another. A relational dysfunctionality between yourself and another. So what is the worst sin you can commit against another? Well it would have to be a sin which you could not take back, which you could not make amends for, which could not be forgiven. Murder ticks that box. It doesn’t matter how forgiving a victim of murder is, he or she is unable to forgive. Unless like Jesus, you get in under the wire and forgive while the murdering is taking place. Anyway, when sin is thought of in this way, as a breakdown in relationship, the comparison to debt makes a great deal of sense. A breakdown in relationship easily leads to a further breakdown in relationship, just as debt easily leads to further debt. This idea of sin being like debt is a recurring theme in the Bible. Think for example of the Lord’s prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…” Or, as it is more commonly translated today, ‘forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors’. Debt is a good analogy for sin, because it’s like a swamp; people in debt accumulate more debt, interest mounts, they’re sucked down into a spiral. Having uncontrollable debt today can be a debilitating thing. There are many people in the west constantly treading water, trying not to be swallowed by their ever-mounting debt. And that’s in the West in the 21st century, where there are some failsafes in place, some support available, the option of filing for bankruptcy, etc. If you were in debt in the Roman Empire, in the first century, you were put in a work camp until you paid off your debt, or someone paid it off for you.
So, returning to the parable, the king expunges the slave’s debt. The passage says the slave owed ‘ten thousand talents’. Now, ‘ten thousand talents’ is an astronomical amount of money, it’s a joke amount of money, it’s equivalent to saying something like ‘the store clerk owes a billion dollars’. So this reference to ‘ten thousand talents’ is performing the same rhetorical function as the number seventy-seven. Lamech is to be punished seventy-seven fold, while the slave is in ‘ten thousand talents’ worth of debt. But the King forgives the debt, and releases him. The idea here then is that when, and if, we manifest the Kingdom in the present, we create an environment of perfect freedom. We release one another from our accumulation of failings, we don’t keep a record of one another’s wrongs. That feeling you get when debt has been lifted off your shoulders is perpetually present. We feel at liberty, as if a world of possibility has been opened before us. We’re no longer walking on eggshells, worried we will offend or disappoint, we’re free to be ourselves, free to be in good relationship with one another. This is very difficult way of being in our world. We so naturally think about our relationships in transactional terms. If someone’s a bit snappy with us, we’re a bit snappy with them. If someone’s trying to play us, we’ll play them. If someone’s a little bit nice to us, we’ll be a little bit nice to them, and so on. What would it be to just let all that stuff go, and to just be lovingly present to one another.
But it’s more difficult than that. It’s a pleasure to be lovingly present to someone being lovingly present to you. It’s a lot more difficult to be lovingly present to someone being a prat. But to do that begins to interrupt the cycle, and manifesting the Kingdom is all about interrupting the cycle. By interrupting the cycle, relationally dysfunctional behaviour begins to show up as bizarre, and that is what this parable is trying to highlight. The slave, having been forgiven a billion dollars of debt, shakes down a fellow slave who owes him one hundred denarii. Now, one hundred denarii is still a sizable amount of money, but nothing compared to the ‘ten thousand talents’. It’s equivalent to, say, half a year’s average salary, so like 12/13 thousand pounds in today’s money, something like that. He came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ If we’re in the crowd listening to Jesus’ parable, we are shocked by the behaviour of the slave. Such love is shown to him, and he still has such unkind selfishness in his heart. And that’s because that is the reality of manifesting the Kingdom. It is a slow process. It takes time to really work into people’s hearts. Habits and behaviours are not changed overnight. It takes time to confound a hurting person with love, and sometimes we are not even the appropriate person to give that love and support; it is sometimes just our calling, to forgive someone their debts and then remove them from our lives. And such a decision is never easy, it takes real discernment and reflection. Manifesting the Kingdom then is not down to an individual, it’s down to a community. A community listening and being open to the spirit moving amongst them, the spirit of love, and freedom, and compassion, and forgiveness. And the odd thing is, what a community looks like which is open to the spirit, and endeavouring to manifest the Kingdom, is almost the exact opposite (of the image that comes to mind) of the stereotypical religious community. A living community of this sort is not conforming to one way of being in the world, it’s not about uniformity, or being submissive. It’s about living, curiosity, being our own individual selves, being awakened to the vibrancy of life. Embracing one another in a community of acceptance and forgiveness, that is what we must enact together, make real together.