Then Peter came up and asked him, “Lord, how many times may my brother sin against me and I have to forgive him: seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22)
Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a big fan of Dr Ahmad Badr Al Din Hassoun, the Grand Mufti of Syria. I pray for the man every day, and there is no one in this world for whom I have deeper admiration and respect.
Not only have I had the privilege of meeting with him more times than I can remember over the last four years, but last year I was able to introduce him to my wife, and this year to my son!
Poor Soren indeed had to sit silently as Dr Hassoun said to him “your father is a very special man, and you must be very proud of him” and you could see the poor boy squirming. No 15-year-old boy can comfortably eulogise over the virtues of his father! What touched me in that meeting though, was not what the Mufti said to Soren about me, but rather what he said to me about Soren – namely, that Soren reminded him of his own son, Sariya.
Dr Hassoun’s son, Sariya, was murdered by rebel insurgents on October 2, 2011 in an ambush on the road between Idlib and Aleppo. As his father is keen to point out, Sariya had not been involved in the political turmoil at all and had no interest in politics. He was killed solely because he was his father’s son.
Evidently, no one had really expected the Mufti’s son to be targeted. What was even less expected though was what followed at the funeral, where Dr Hassoun delivered a eulogy where he spoke of forgiveness and reconciliation!
You can listen to it on YouTube if you haven’t heard it. I watched it again yesterday. It’s about 20 minutes long in all, and it’s towards the end where he says:
“Those who are listening to me, who killed my son, Sariya, I’m addressing you.
May God preserve you from heartache, and may you never experience the agony that you have caused us.
I am asking God to inspire you to repentance before you leave this life, so as not to be your accuser on the day of judgement.
I am asking God to enter into the heart of Sariya’s mother, to give her the ability to forgive you, as I forgive you.”
Forgiveness is a beautiful thing, and it’s hard not to see the presence of the Spirit of God in those who truly forgive. From a Christian theological perspective, forgiveness is the ultimate gift of God to humanity, and hence it should come as no surprise to us that those who studiously compare the religions of the world tell us that Christianity distinguishes itself by its focus on the centrality of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a beautiful thing. It is a divine force that has the power to heal individuals and nations, and yet, in Jesus’ story about forgiveness, in Matthew chapter 18, it’s a bit scary too!
“For this reason, the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, 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. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.” (Matthew 18:23-27)
Up to this point in the parable, the scene isn’t so much scary as it is crazy!
A king is settling his accounts with his slaves, and he discovers one outstanding debt of around 16 billion dollars! That’s a rough figure, of course, translated from 10,000 talents, but if a talent (which is a weight) is around 34kg and the price of gold is around $48,000/kilo, then a talent of gold is worth roughly $1.6 million, and this man owed 10,000 talents!
We get a good idea of the amount involved when we compare this story to the one Jesus tells in Matthew 25, normally referred to as the ‘Parable of the Talents’ (Matthew 15:14-30). There, you may remember, a wealthy man divides his property between his servants, giving one servant five talents, another two, and another one.
One talent was considered to be a very healthy endowment (of around 1.6 million in today’s currency). 10,000 talents is the size of a national economy, and it’s hard to envisage how the king was managing to hold his kingdom together with an outstanding debt of this magnitude on the books!
This question, of course, leads to more questions, such as why the slave who had taken the loan had been allowed to borrow such an astronomical amount, and what on earth did he need the money for? Was he planning on building the Suez Canal?
The Suez Canal came to mind for me as I read the passage, as construction of the canal did bankrupt the government of Egypt in the late nineteenth century (largely because Egypt was also trying to fight a war against Yemen at the same time). This is why, of course, the Statue of Liberty is in New York harbour!
For those who don’t know the connection, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who designed the Statue of Liberty, originally planned to erect his masterpiece at Port Said, at the northern terminus of the Suez Canal. It was to be called “Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia”. The Egyptians though had no money due to the canal, and so the project was eventually relocated to New York.
This is particularly noteworthy, I think, in the light of the current debates about immigration that are raging in the USA, just as they are here. There’s a wonderful irony, I think, in the fact that one of the USA’s key national symbols was originally intended to be an image of burgeoning nineteenth century Egyptian womanhood!
For our story though, the relevant connection with the Suez Canal is the fact that it cost 100 million dollars to build, which was double the original budget. Even so, the slave in the parable could have built more than 160 Suez Canals on the strength of what he borrowed from the king! It is a ridiculously large amount of money. Indeed, the only thing more ridiculous than the amount of money that was borrowed, is that fact that the king, out of apparent pity for his slave, forgives him his entire debt!
Is the king’s behavior rational? Is it even moral? They say that when you owe the bank a million dollars, you have a problem, but when you owe the bank 100 million dollars, the bank has a problem. In this case, it’s not only the king who has a problem but his entire kingdom, surely! Is it responsible for a leader to simply forgive a debt that could be crippling your entire country?
Of course, it’s just a story, and perhaps Jesus was just being tongue-in-cheek. We know how Jesus loved to use hyperbole, speaking of camels going through the eyes of needles (Matthew 19:24) and removing the plank out of your own eye before picking the speck out of your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:45). Perhaps this is just another example of Jesus’ sense of humor. If so, there’s a transition into black humor in the second half of the story.
“But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slave who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.” (Matthew 18:28-30)
The behavior of this man – forgiven an impossible debt but showing no mercy at all to his fellow slave – is outrageous, and yet not unbelievable.
I’ve spoken to counsellors who tell me of women who stay in physically abusive relationships because they believe that if they just keep on giving, eventually their partner will catch on and respond in the same way, but they don’t.
Kindness is not always repaid with kindness. Love does not always generate love. By showing mercy to someone, there are no guarantees that the forgiven person will show mercy back to you, or to anybody else.
The Mufti’s story, that I mentioned previously, is a case in point. When the police eventually caught two of the men who killed his son, Dr Hassoun went to the prison and offered forgiveness to the men and asked the judge to have mercy on them. Apparently, the men didn’t want his forgiveness and the judge told him that they’d killed a lot of other people apart from his son, so the judgement wasn’t his call!
Not every story of grace and forgiveness has a happy ending, and today’s parable certainly does not have a happy ending.
“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. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.” (Matthew 18:31-34)
And so, what seemed to be a story about a compassionate and merciful king ends up with the king raging and everybody else in gaol! The final solution of the king to his country’s national debt – that the torturers will somehow manage to extract the money out of the unmerciful servant – is not only irrational but macabre. Aren’t Bible stories supposed to have happy endings?
Biblical scholar Daniel Via compares the parables of Jesus to windows that we look out at the world through – windows that change the way we look at things – and then, all of a sudden, you catch your reflection in the window! The question is, where in this parable do you catch your reflection?
I know for myself that there’s a part of me reflected in the king at the end of the story. It’s the part of me that wants justice!
There’s a rough justice meted out on the unmerciful servant at the end of the story. Indeed, it is fitting that he should be slowly tortured to death! Not only did he destroy his country’s economy, but he failed to respond with a minimum of grace to his fellow servant, even after mercy had been lavished upon him! He gets his come-uppance, and there’s a part of me that is glad to see that happen!
Let’s not pretend we aren’t all the same in this regard. We believe in justice. We like to see people get what they deserve!
Yes, I know we all get a warm and fuzzy feeling when we read of Jesus saving the life of that woman caught committing adultery. Jesus says, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her” (John 8:7), and we like that because we envisage a poor, defenceless woman, but if it was a man who had been caught molesting a child, I think we’d be saying “here, Jesus, hand me the first stone!”
There is always a tension between justice and mercy, and I can understand why, in Syria, while the Mufti is always urging people towards forgiveness and reconciliation, there are regiments of soldiers who have watched the atrocities committed by ISIS over so many years, and whose slogan is “We do not forget. We do not forgive.”
We have to let go, to some extent, of our thirst for justice to make room for mercy, just as we have to recognise too that showing mercy and forgiveness will not always mean that everything is going to turn out OK!
Even in the case of Jesus Himself, showing forgiveness while dying in agony – “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34) – did His final display of mercy have a transformative effect on those he forgave? We don’t know.
I believe in the power of forgiveness. I believe that forgiveness can change the world. Yet whether, in any particular case, showing mercy on someone is going to have a transformative effect is hard to determine. The only thing that is unambiguous in all of this is Jesus’ crystal-clear command that we have to forgive people anyway!
If people owe you more than they can ever repay, forgive them anyway! Whether it’s likely to make things better, or whether it’s likely to have no effect whatsoever, forgive them anyway. If you don’t want to end up like the tortured servant in the parable, forgive them anyway, for “so my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:35)
That’s scary stuff, isn’t it? Is that graphic warning a part of Jesus’ use of hyperbole? I’d say it’s Jesus way of giving us a good shake and reminding us that forgiveness is serious business. We must learn to forgive from the heart – a learning process that begins when we see ourselves reflected in the character of the unmerciful servant.
“Lord, forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
First preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on September 17th, 2017