The Freedom of Forgiveness

Exodus 14:19-31 | Psalm 114 | Romans 14:1-12 | Matthew 18:21-35

Jeremy Richards

For Brie and my first vacation as a married couple, we went to Yosemite national park. We woke up early on the morning of May 18th, 2012. How do I remember the exact date, you ask? Because, May 18th is also Brie’s birthday, and May 18th, 2012, was Brie’s first birthday as a married woman. I, inexperienced, partner that I was, thought, “Hey, we’re getting up at 5 in the morning, I already got her a birthday present, obviously she won’t expect anything…anything…like, not even a card.” Ooooooh, I was wrong.

My attempt to make up for it by taking her to an Applebees outside Sacramento after 10 hours in the car didn’t make it any better, nor did the card I bought her somewhere along the way.

To top the night off, once we got to our campsite and set up the tent, we attempted to play cribbage on the cribbage board Brie’s mom had gotten her for her birthday. Her mom was, like me, under the impression that Brie liked cribbage. Something Brie later informed me was not the case. But she gave it the old college try on her birthday on May 18th, 2012. I won, she started to cry, then told me she would never play cribbage again, rolled over, and went to sleep.

Happy birthday.

Fast-forward 5 years or so. We’re in Amsterdam on August 23rd, 2017. Guess whose birthday it is this time? That’s right, mine. And guess who failed to get me a card or a present or anything? Brie. I played it off like it was no big deal, because it wasn’t. But a few days after we got back to the States, I said to Brie calmly, “Now, I’m not mad or anything, but I’m just wondering if you remember your first birthday when I didn’t get you anything because we were going on vacation and you got really mad at me? Well, you know, this time you didn’t get me anything for my birthday because we were on vacation, so you see how that can happen?”

In essence, I was saying, “We’re even now!” I didn’t want Brie to feel bad, I just wanted to be free of my guilt.

As much as we try not to, we often add a kind of transactional element to our relationships. If someone gets you a present that costs x amount of money, you feel obligated to get them an equally valuable gift. If someone helps you move, you feel extra obligated to help them move. And if someone forgives you for something you did, you feel obligated to forgive them in the future should they offend you in a similar way.

In Jesus’ parable about the unforgiving servant, there appears, at first glance, to be a similar, transactional kind of understanding of forgiveness, except it’s more of a pay-it-forward set up than a pay-it-back set up. It appears that, since the servant can never pay the king back, he should at least forgive his fellow servant.

But I think there’s more to it than that. I think the king is doing more than forgiving a debt. At the very beginning of the parable, it seems like the king is playing by the expected rules of the world, the rules of capitalism, where money and profit are more important than people. If he can’t have the money that’s owed him, he’ll sell the servant and his family to recoup the lost money. But then the unexpected happens. The servant begs for more time to pay off this impossible number, and the master says, “You know what? Forget it. You don’t have to pay.”

In this action the master is not simply forgiving a debt (other people are gonna find out about this, no one will respect him. How can he forgive one person and not everyone?), he’s dismantling the whole system. He’s saying money is not more important than people. Those who have (the master) should give freely to those to those who don’t have (the servant), without expecting anything in return. In the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:8, “freely you have received; freely give.”

What happens between the king and the servant is not a simple transaction, but an earth-shaking event. We know this because we know the Gospel. We know about grace. We know that God operates not out of an economy of scarcity, but one of abundance. The whole system has been flipped on its head. No longer is the system based on debts and transactions, but on love and grace and forgiveness. What the master expects the servant to understand is that the old has gone and the new has come. And more than understanding in an intellectual sense, the master wants the servant to be transformed from the inside out. The passage ends with the command to forgive from the heart. Real forgiveness can come from nowhere else.

But the servant, unfortunately, doesn’t get it. He still thinks life is, fundamentally, transactional, it’s just that he got lucky (blessed?) and had his debt wiped clean. That doesn’t mean that everyone’s debt is clean, though. Does this sound familiar? Does that sound like some people we might know or see on TV who say their debts were forgiven because they said the right words or prayed the right prayer, but others’ debts are not forgiven?

So when this servant sees someone who owes him, he doesn’t see the connection between his forgiveness and theirs. In his mind, the system is still the same old one that’s always been there. So when he sees this other servant who owes him money, he operates in the old way. Debts must be repaid. Wrongs must be avenged. He has the other servant thrown into prison because that’s just how the world works…or, how it used to work.

The problem isn’t simply that he hasn’t forgiven, it’s that he hasn’t understood the nature of the king, and the nature of the kingdom, and had failed to be transformed by the grace that he has received. He’s chosen the old over the new.

When the master finds out, he must have been angry, yes, but also heartbroken. How did the servant not understand the new world the master was creating? And so, the master says, if you want to live in the old world, where debts must be paid, then see where this transactional way of living leads you, to a place of isolation and pain, a place of prison of your own making. Keep ruminating on your hate or your anger, hold a grudge, and watch it consume you.

Forgiveness is for others, yes, but it’s also for us. Anne Lamott says “not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”[1] Not forgiving means holding on to the pain, the anger, the hate. It means waiting for a chance to get even, to get revenge. But when we hang on to the wrongs done to us in such a way, we give them a power they should never have. We let them define us. They become a prison, like the prison the ungrateful servant is thrown into. While in the parable it’s the master who throws the servant into prison, I think it’s really just the natural consequence of holding on to our hate and anger. God doesn’t need, or even want us there. We put ourselves in that prison.

The point of this parable is that God has freed us from sin, both our own sin and sin done to us, so that we might live a full and abundant life. No longer do those sins – ours or other people’s – define us. And through Jesus, God didn’t simply forgive a debt while keeping the system the same. No, God inaugurated a new way, what Jesus called the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God. In this kingdom, our relationship with God and our relationships with one another are not transactional but grace-filled. Despite what some pastors and theologians may say, Jesus didn’t come to simply pay a debt, but to abolish a system, a theology, a worldview, that enslaved people, using “sin” as an excuse to legitimize violence and exclusion.

That is not the way of the kingdom of heaven. Instead, in God’s kingdom, “all is grace” to quote St. Theresa of Lisieux. In this kingdom people are more than their debts, their sins, their wrongs.

The movie Hacksaw Ridge tells the story Desmond Doss, who, because of his religious convictions, refuses to fight in WWII but wants to join the army in order to be a medic. At one point in the movie, because he won’t touch a gun, he’s in danger of being court-marshalled. When he has a chance to defend himself, he says, “With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it don't seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together.”

Forgiveness is the first step in putting the world back together, in a world hell-bent on tearing itself a part – a world that repays evil with evil, and usually not equally, but for every offense a greater offense it returned. Payback always comes with interest.

It’s this very pattern of escalating revenge that Jesus is challenging when he says we are to forgive “77 times.” Jesus didn’t just pull this number out of thin air, but it’s a reference to an obscure passage in Genesis 4:24, in which Lamech, Cain’s great-great-great grandson says, “If Cain is avenged 7 times, then Lamech 77 times,” meaning, “Whatever someone does to me, I’ll repay them 77 times worse.” This is the way it’s been since Genesis 4, and it’s still the way most of the world operates. But that’s not the way we’re supposed to be as followers of Jesus. Jesus gives us a new way, one that’s defined by forgiveness, not revenge.

There’s no room for revenge in the kingdom of God.

However, there is room for justice. While revenge and forgiveness don’t go together, justice and forgiveness do.

We often read this passage with an assumption that forgiveness means pretending the wrong-doing never happened – pushing all our pain and hurt deep down because God forgave us, so we better forgive others. After all, the last part of this passage is frightening! The servant is condemned to torture for the rest of his life, because there’s no way he’s going to be able to pay back that debt. We don’t want that, so we can almost feel coerced by this passage into quickly forgiving people, and forgiveness, we think, means living in denial, as if the wounds caused by others aren’t there, even though they continue to hurt us, refusing to heal.

That is not what forgiveness is – it’s NOT turning a blind eye to wrong doing. Interpreting forgiveness in this way has done so much damage. The most obvious examples being the countless people, usually women and children, who have experience domestic violence, who finally get the courage to tell their pastor or another church member what is happening, and are told by the pastor or church member that they need to forgive the abuser because God forgave them, citing this very passage.

There are other, similar examples, when people have been deeply, deeply hurt by other people, and their pain and trauma are ignored by those close to them. They are told to simply “forgive” by Christian brothers and sisters who are too busy or too scared to take their pain seriously. Forgiveness becomes, in these cases, a free pass for those who have hurt others.

That is not what forgiveness is.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean pretending the wrong done to us never happened. This parable makes it clear that forgiveness still involves naming the wrong, and repentance on the part of the offender.

In neither case does the one who is owed pretend there never was a debt to begin with.

The master says outright that the first servant owes him money. At the beginning of the parable he has the servant brought to him and demands that he pays back what he owes. The servant doesn’t deny the debt, but begs the master to give him more time. In a similar way, the first servant, after he has been forgiven his debt, finds another servant who owes him money, and, once again, names the debt that is owed. And, once again, the second servant doesn’t pretend he doesn’t owe any money, but instead begs, as the first servant begged the master, for more time.

What I’m trying to say is that just as the servants who owe a debt always admit that debt, and never try to hide it, so those who have done wrong must admit that they have done wrong, and should not try to hide it. Sin must be confronted, when it can be, and those who have done wrong must be held accountable, even when they are forgiven.

I hate confrontation, so it’s easy for me to pretend I haven’t been hurt when I have. But then I ended up holding on to the offense. It’s taken practice, but I’m learning to tell people when I get offended, not to make them feel bad, but to restore our friendship.   

But what about when we can’t confront the one who has wronged us, either because they’re unwilling to talk, or we don’t know them anymore, or we are too traumatized, or any other number of reasons? What do we do when we can’t name the sin and confront the one who hurt us?

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about genuine love, and in the time for response Mitch said something I think we can all relate to. He said he didn’t know what love for an enemy looked like, especially one you never see face to face. How do we love our enemies? And Brie gave her two cents, and said she didn’t know either, but it must start with seeing them as human, and loving them, and then going from there.

In short, I think Brie was saying that there isn’t a blueprint for what love looks like in every situation, it’s more like a posture we take towards our enemies. That’s why we rely on the Holy Spirit to show us what love looks like when unique situations arise. We start with love, and we let the Spirit show us what that love looks like in action.

In a similar way, I think forgiveness is about a certain posture we take. We can’t say what it will look like in every context. It doesn’t mean we don’t seek justice for the oppressed and the abused – which includes ourselves when we are the ones who are wronged – but it means that we won’t hang on to our anger and hate forever. We might hang on to them for a bit, because forgiveness always takes time, it’s a process to be worked through, but we won’t be consumed by our anger and hate. We won’t follow the way of Lamech, we’ll follow the way of Jesus. We won’t be imprisoned by the wrongs done to us, but we’ll walk in the freedom of the God who created us, who called us, who adopted us – freedom from hate and revenge and debts owed, the freedom that comes from forgiving and being forgiven – because freedom is what we were made for.


[1] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith,