Romans 18: 21-35 (full text at end of post)
This passage is a continuation of the one last week, where Jesus lays out a vision of reconciliation within the church when conflict erupts. If you remember, Jesus’ vision for his church is:
When a conflict occurs, first speak privately, hoping to bring peace in quiet conversation.
If not, have a larger conversation with members of the church, so that more viewpoints are heard, and more witnesses to speak to the conversation itself.
And if needed, the conflict may be required to become an issue for the entire church to resolve, for what affects some in the Body of Christ, affects all.
Did you notice this week’s passage was about conflict in the church also? Once more we are addressing how the people of God are to live together.
Immediately after Jesus tells the disciples he will be with them always, Peter asks Jesus: so exactly how many times do I have to do this? Seven times?- that sounds good, right? That’s a LOT! This whole conflict resolution thing sounds like a hassle, and I only want to do it at the MOST seven times, but you’re OK with that, I’m sure. It’s almost funny if it wasn’t so human.
Jesus must have really disappointed Peter with the answer: There is no end to forgiveness. Seven is a special number in Judaism; associated with God and holiness, thus seven times seven or seventy-seven, is a metaphor for perfection or infinity.
Peter wants to get a number established, so he can quantify this process, tame it, get it under his control. Have any of you ever been in a situation where the hurt from a conflict is deep, the pain from it almost is physical, and you either need to forgive or be forgiven. There is no “control”- both sides of that table feel like hell on earth.
A few years ago, my father died very suddenly, of an aortic dissection. At the time, my brother and I were business partners, who worked together beautifully. We finished each other’s sentences, rarely needed to check with each other when making decisions because we thought so much alike. But with grief comes great emotional pain, and we managed to hurt each other in our different ways of dealing with the blow of losing a parent.
It took months before we managed to talk it out and come to grips with the mangled communications and expectations we had on the day of the funeral. All I know is that time in between was painful for both of us, it hurt to the bone. It wasn’t until we sat down, talked honestly about what was said, what was assumed, what was expected, etc, and each acknowledged and repented of our own actions, and then forgave the other, that the rift healed.
In conversation this week at GA about this passage, the question came up- in forgiveness, are we also required to forget? Wipe an incident from our minds? I really don’t think so- what happened, happened. When I remember the day of my father’s funeral, and I often do- the memory does not hold the same emotional pain, because that distress was drained when repentance and forgiveness occurred. It is simply a memory of an occurrence, and actually a reminder to me to be careful, because people who very much love each other can still easily inflict hurt.
I’m sure many of you have heard stories of forgiveness that are almost hard to believe. The Amish families who forgave the killer who took the lives of 10 school girls in Pennsylvania is an example. We wonder how anyone could ever let that go, release the anger, move out of the storm of emotional anguish. I can’t speak for them, I have not experienced that kind of situation. But even in moments of letting go of a small hurt, what often begins the forgiveness process is less a logical reckoning of blame and credit, but more a kind of exhaustion, a need to stop hanging onto that which pulls us into a dark place.
That exhaustion is how we start to unwrap our own hands around the issue, close our eyes in simple weariness, and let God take over. In our depletion, we realize the act of forgiveness is, in many ways, beyond us. We need God’s grace and mercy to act for us.
Forgiveness has a cost; it seems to take part of ourselves when we forgive. I wonder if that’s what the cross is all about. We talk of Jesus dying for our sins, which seems at first to be such a violent, non-sensical image: why kill Jesus? what does that do? But perhaps that death is the cost to God- that a part of God’s self dies in the effort of overwhelming grace and mercy displayed to us.
We are to forgive, because we have been forgiven. Jesus makes it quite clear that in gaining mercy for ourselves, we have created a new life in Christ, one which continues the circle of reconciliation.
I’d like to end with a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr, my favorite theologian.
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”
Romans 18: 21-35
21 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?”
22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’
27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, 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.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.
31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’
34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”