Forgiveness gives new life

Life without reconciliation is bad idea—in fact, it is no life at all. People have made this experience for centuries, and it is still highly relevant today. Here is a somewhat different take on a well-known parable.

It is already after midnight when a wife writes a letter to her husband in prison: “I forgive you now and always. You are in such great conflict and anxiety, from which I would gladly deliver you with my own blood. Could there be any hatred at all that would prevent me from forgiving so small a sin committed against me, when it is compared to the many great sins for which I implore forgiveness every day from my heavenly Father?”

Jan Rubens was behind bars in Antwerp. He had been accused of adultery, and in the year 1570 this was punishable by death. The letter of his loving wife so moved the judges that they ultimately suspended their sentence: after two years of incarceration, he was released. He went home to his wife and their children. In 1577 the couple had another son, whom they named Peter Paul. He became the world-famous painter, a genius who painted hundreds of pictures that fill museums today. If there had been no forgiveness, there would not have been a Peter Paul Rubens either…

In search of the limits of willingness to reconcile

A unique chance: no leafing through legal texts, no researching treatises on morals and ethics, no, just an opportunity to check with Jesus directly and answer the all-important question of the scope of our willingness to forgive—it was just such an opportunity that Peter took some two thousand years ago. In conversation with Jesus he wanted to know at what point it was finally alright to dispense with the idea of forgiveness. He had learned about love for his neighbour, as it had so often been described by Christ, and knew that more was expected of him than merely “an eye for an eye”. So he approached Jesus and very generously offered him even more than rabbinic tradition recommended: his proposal was to forgive his neighbour not only three times, but seven times.

Was he hoping to receive praise from Jesus or merely hoping that seven times would really be more than enough? The motivation behind his question is not recorded, but the answer of Jesus certainly is: not only seven times, but seventy times seven times. Unlimited. At all times. No matter what has happened. Without limitations!

The king is really upset

And then the gospel of Matthew relates the story of the unforgiving servant. A king wants to settle accounts with his servants. One servant owes him an incredible 10,000 talents of silver. We do not know how this sum had been amassed—presumably through tax liabilities that were to be collected by the servant. It was a sum that no servant could ever hope to earn in all his life, and in this case, a sum that the servant would never be able to repay. The king gives orders that the servant, his wife, his children, and all that he owns, is to be sold. The servant hears this order, falls to his knees and implores the king for mercy. Ultimately, the king is so moved that he grants grace. The servant’s debt is annulled.

As is so often the case in life, many things are interconnected, and Jesus goes on to relate that this self-same servant—who has just been freed—goes out and finds a fellow servant who owes him 100 silver pence. He takes him by the throat, chokes him, and orders him to repay this debt immediately. This fellow servant pleads for a little more time, but does not receive any mercy. The first servant has him thrown into jail. The king learns of this and is really upset. He has the previously pardoned servant arrested.

A concept for personal life

Peter had his answer—presumably a different one than he was hoping to receive. How pleasant it would have been for him if Jesus had told him that it would suffice to forgive his neighbour only once or only three times. After all, this would have been more than what others did. But Jesus was describing the limitless and infinite kind of willingness to forgive.

Now Peter had something to reflect upon—and all sorts of work ahead of him. And the Christian of the twenty-first century would likewise do well to reflect upon the required limitlessness of our willingness to forgive and find in this a foundation for life. Jesus is our example.

Whoever receives grace …

Readers of the gospel are quick to shake their heads over the supposed foolishness and pettiness of the unmerciful servant. Actually, the essence of the parable is so very clear. And yet, there are always opportunities to act like a modern-day unforgiving servant and forget all about the divine grace we have received in our own lives. After all, the idea of unlimited willingness to forgive becomes uncomfortable and surreal when people stop talking about it in theoretical terms and begin to think of it in very concrete terms: for example, when it comes to dealing with disappointment, insult, and personal attacks.

Ten thousand talents of silver—an image for the unrepayable mountain of human debt against God. It is sinfulness, man’s inability to draw near to God again on his own, to gain victory on his own. God grants mankind grace in the sacraments and through the sacrificial death of Jesus, just as the king granted grace to the servant in the parable.

Just as God’s love and grace for mankind is unlimited and knows no limits, bounds, or expiration, so too should the love of human beings be toward one another. If we receive so much grace ourselves, who are we to deny grace to anyone else? Forgiveness gives life, new life, eternal life.

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Oliver Rütten
Divine service, Doctrinal statements