Seventy seven times. That is how many times we are told to forgive someone who sins against us. And you get the distinct feeling that Jesus does not expect you to actually keep count. Seventy-seven just expands Peter’s suggestion of seven to a much greater extent. In practicality, Jesus instructs Peter to forgive whenever he has the chance. Seven times, you can keep track of. Seventy-seven… the point is that you’ll lose count. Easy enough, in theory.
But then the slave parable starts and things get more complex. Here is my standard disclaimer that the Bible’s discussion of slavery is uncomfortable. I don’t see it as Jesus endorsing slavery. He was a “freedom to the captive” kind of guy. I see him using a metaphor his disciples would understand. One that rightly makes us uncomfortable.
The parable begins with a king who wants to settle accounts with his slaves. One slave owed the king ten thousand talents, which is an unfathomably large amount of money. It is roughly 60 million days’ wages for a laborer. 164,000 years’ wages. It is practically impossible that a slave could owe someone that much money. Like the seventy-sevenfold forgiveness, it’s not a realistic number. It’s a number that is chosen to exceed comprehension.
So then the king’s forgiveness of the debt, which is analogous to God’s forgiveness of our sins, is a release from something that the slave could never work his way out of. So massive is this debt that it is practically infinite. What I’m saying is that this didn’t really happen. The story exists to teach. The slave’s only path to freedom was forgiveness. He cannot possibly earn it under the terms of the agreement. The agreement will have to be set aside out of compassion. He is free by grace. It is an inconceivable turn of events.
And so, when that slave turns around and demands that another slave pay the 100 denarii that he owes him and then has him imprisoned when he cannot pay, the king is dismayed. 100 denarii is 100 days’ wages. A chunk of money, but fathomable. The slave who has just been granted freedom from a crushing debt load can surely overlook a 100 denarii debt, but chooses not to. He chooses not to extend the same grace he has been granted.
Let me suggest, then, that today’s Gospel teaches us a spiritual practice. You could, I suppose, start counting the times you forgive somebody and stop at seventy-seven. That would be the very literal response to this passage. But I think forgiveness as a conscious act is a pathway to grace.
I’ll explain. What is it that compells the king in the parable to free the slave? It is his plea “have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” There is a moment there of actual personal connection, across the economic divide and the enormous gap in power and status that separates these two men. The king sees the slave as a man who is completely vulnerable.
This is not our first reflex. When someone owes us money, we are prone to regard them as that sum of money. When someone has sinned against us, we are prone to regard them as that sin. To see them as more than a debt, more than a sin, we need intentionality. Instincts aren’t enough, and we need to learn to see people’s humanity on purpose. And that is what the practice of forgiveness allows us. It is a thing we do on purpose. We set out to forgive someone, and that posture, that intention to forgive, makes the human connection possible.
Of course, forgiveness is not easy. People endure profound trauma at the hands of others. People do things for which they do not, by any reasonable system, deserve forgiveness. And people feel pain that we should not ask them to overlook or set aside out of some sense of moral piety.
So what then, of forgiveness in the most painful situations? I think that the suffering we feel when we have been harmed and cannot forgive is in fact the torture promised at the end of the passage.
In the parable, the king locks up the slave he had forgiven, so he may be tortured until he pays back the debt. It is a parable, and was never understood to be a true story. When we carry the pain of having been hurt or demeaned or neglected, it is real suffering. When that pain is held inside, either because we cannot figure out how to do anything else with it or because we choose to harbor it, it colors the rest of our experience. Bitterness begets bitterness. We carry shame that we are victims, that we have been taken advantage of.
Forgiveness can interrupt these cycles of shame. But it takes practice. God freely forgives us of our sins. They are that debt we could not pay back. And yet we are forgiven. And our attachment to the eye-for-an-eye ways of the world keep us from really internalizing that forgiveness.
Forgiveness has a strange logic to it. It isn’t numerical. Instead of settling the score or collecting the debt, forgiveness decides to erase the board. It feels, like so many things that have divinity behind them, foolish. It feels weak, especially if we are hurting. To not seek vengeance is, in the eyes of our culture, weak. And yet, it is the only path to freedom.
The decision to forgive does, it is true, free someone from their indebtedness to us. At least if they can accept the forgiveness. And it is also true that they have not, strictly speaking, earned that freedom. But debt creates cycles of debt, and forgiveness can create cycles of forgiveness. A person who has been forgiven, and who is serious about it, has their outlook changed. They can choose, as the slave in the story should have, to perpetuate forgiveness.
Whether they do that or not, the person who forgives is free also. You are free from the self-imposed need to exact repayment or vengeance. These are things that imprison your spirit as you hold tight, in a defensive crouch, to your pain and your offendedness.
I want to be clear that we honor pain and the offense others have caused. Even as we work to forgive, we do not forget. Forgiveness is not a return to how things were before. Forgiveness is not a return, but a letting go, so that things can start to move forward.
It’s hard work. In the Bible, forgiveness happens in a few short lines, but underneath them is transformation and grace and people confronting things within themselves that are incredibly hard to confront. God, through forgiving us, allows us to not be imprisoned by our past, and also models for us a way of choosing not let the past entirely determine our future.
Through forgiveness, we choose to search for the path of grace, first and foremost by recognizing that we can choose what we do with our pain. Working through these tangled emotions, gradually untangling the knot, is the process of forgiveness. As we unravel our pain, we unravel our shame. In learning to forgive, we learn to forgive ourselves as well. We learn to free ourselves from the prison we put ourselves in.
This, I know, is a lot. The possibilities that God opens up with grace can be overwhelming, especially if we are already feeling overwhelmed. Hence the wisdom of the simple practice. Forgive seven times. Then forgive seventy-seven time. Forgiveness is not saying, “I want to be your best friend now,” much less is it “those things that hurt me never happened.” Forgiveness is saying “God chooses not to bind either of us to what you did, and I am working to choose the same.” It is not glamorous, and it will not make you rich. But it can make you free to love with all your heart, which is what God created you to be.