In the Name...
Once upon a time there was an elephant who worked in the forests of India moving logs with his trunk. His owner took good care of him but was too poor to buy enough food for him. So each evening, on the way back from their work, the two of them would make a round of the houses in the village. Most people gave the elephant something to eat, but one day they made a stop at the tailor's house. The tailor came out, took his needle and gave the elephant a sharp jab. The elephant and his owner went away in silence.
Some months later, a devastating storm hit the area. Many trees and heavy branches fell. Many houses in the village collapsed. The elephant and his owner went to help in the rescue. All day, the elephant lifted debris and enabled those trapped beneath to escape. Then, they arrived at the tailor's ruined house where he was trapped. As instructed, the elephant lifted up a heavy log so the tailor could crawl out of the ruins. But as soon as the tailor was free, the elephant released the log and crushed the tailor.
The moral of the story is that even though elephants have good memories their memories do not store forgiveness. Today's scriptures, however, remind us that forgiveness is what makes us different to elephants.
Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive somebody who has offended him and he tries to answer his own question by suggesting seven times. This is actually impressive because the common Jewish teaching of the period was that God only forgives three times - three strikes, you're out - and if that's God's limit, why should we be any different? Peter, however, in more than doubling it shows that he's beginning to understand that Jesus is teaching new and exciting things which go beyond the accepted norms.
And I can imagine Jesus was probably very pleased with Peter's attempt to understand, although he noted it contains a major flaw. Peter seems to assume, as do most of us when we've been wronged, that he could be completely in the right. It's not that Peter doesn't understand mercy, it's that he doesn't understand conflict. And neither do we.
Whether it's between nations or individuals, there is a human tendency to regard ourselves as the innocent party. Our point of view is always the right one. The other fellow is always wrong.
So Jesus tells a parable.
A ruler finds that one of his servants owes him 10,000 talents - $3 billion in today's money - absolutely impossible to pay. The ruler demands justice. The servant falls at his ruler's feet and pleads for an extension. It's pathetic, really, because the servant cannot bring himself to admit the reality of the situation. There's no way to get out of that debt. He's living in denial, in fantasyland.
And punishment for debt in ancient times wasn't just getting a bad credit report. The unfortunate debtor could expect treatment which makes the Mafia look tame. An ear or nose cut off, arms or legs broken or removed, boiling oil, maybe if one was real lucky - death. And the punishment was usually in proportion to the amount owed. So a fellow who was 3 billion in the red could expect indescribable, unimaginable horrors in his future.
Something, however, touches the ruler. Could it be he realizes that in allowing this servant such freedom, such spending authority to get into this trouble in the first place, that he himself contributed to the situation? He would seem to be the aggrieved party, but should he take some responsibility himself? Yes. The servant messed up, but the ruler wasn't exercising proper oversight. And so he forgives. The ruler must live with the consequences of his own actions. And so, he accepts the loss.
Now, at this point, you would expect to see the forgiven servant dancing in the streets. Instead, he seeks out someone who owes him a small sum and demands immediate payment. When that fellow is unable to produce the funds, the servant exercises his legal rights and has the debtor thrown into prison.
The ruler learns of it and is furious. He was prepared to admit that he bore some share of the forgiven servant's guilt. How could that servant then have been so blind and self-centred not to realize he should have acted in the same way? His actions have made a mockery of the ruler, so, go directly to jail, do not pass "Go", do not collect any forgiveness. Prepare to be tortured.
There's quite a lesson here. We need to remember parables are metaphors. And torture is a very good illustration of what the refusal to forgive others does to us. It is very bad for our health. When we say "Pay me what you owe”, and live bearing grudges, our blood pressure goes up, we may develop ulcers. It can lead to depression and bitterness. And it makes us useless for Christian service.
Because, if we think we're always right, if we forget the things we do which are hurtful to others, even unintentionally, we lose a sense of compassion. Perfectionists are notoriously intolerant.
Jesus told the famous parable of the lost sheep to a group of people who, as the Scripture puts it, "trusted in their own righteousness." And the point of that parable was that there are no 99 good sheep. They don't exist. Everybody is the one lost sheep who needs a Saviour. All of us are indebted to each other for something. All of us are unjust as much as we are just, victimizers as much as we are victims, sinners as much as we are sinned against. We should never think we're perfect.
I mean I know I'm not perfect. I'm just never wrong. Unless I'm arguing with Sue. Hmmm. You see what I mean.
It's important to note, by the way, that forgiving is not the same as condoning. It was wrong of the tailor to hurt the elephant, it was wrong of the servant to hurt the ruler, it was wrong of Adam and Eve to hurt God. These acts, and trillions more acts throughout human history, remain wrong. That doesn't change. Sin is always a Bad Thing. It always hurts someone. But the incredible news, the Good News, in fact, is that while sin hurts, its power to hurt ends when forgiveness is applied to it.
I love the line from “Fiddler on the Roof” where Tevye says, if we all lived by an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, the whole world would be blind and toothless.
God has forgiven each of us of a debt greater than 3 billion dollars. That debt no longer has the power to harm our relationship with Him or anyone else. It has been nailed to the Cross. It has been buried in the tomb, and it will not rise again.
So, how should we respond? To look at each time we have been wronged and consider our role in creating the circumstances - or just grumble about how much everybody owes us? Indeed, "Pay me what you owe" is a common phrase in the world's vocabulary, but it is not part of God's language, nor should it be part of ours.
We are forgiven. We have been rescued from a fate worse than death. May we now forgive and rescue others.
In the Name...