I was talking with some friends some time ago, and one of the topics that came up was plans for lent. Do you give up something like chocolate or coffee for lent? Do you give up meat, or all meats but fish. One of my friends said he was going to donate a meal a day to an organization that feeds the hungry. I committed to read a Christian book by an author who has a different approach to Christianity than I do, and who is not homework — which has proved more difficult than eating vegetarian for a few weeks. The most profound idea came from the person who said: “I want to give up a grudge and forgive for lent.”
Now this was a new idea for me that inspired thought. While I was not in a place to judge the spiritual needs of my neighbor, I really was curious what it would mean to give up a grudge for lent. Usually, when people give up something for lent is it something more visible, and something that they can reasonably pick up again on Easter Sunday — like the time I gave up chocolate, I ate a whole chocolate bunny on Easter Sunday. A grudge is something that is not as visible as coffee or chocolate. It is also something that does not survive neglect very well. We have to feed grudges by enumerating the grievances. If we don’t feed a grudge for seven weeks, its bound to starve at that time. My friend who gave up that grudge for lent surely will not be able to pick it up again.
Of course, if we truly believe what Jesus said, that we should forgive not only 7 times, but 77 times, we really should not wait until lent to give up a grudge. Grudges show a failure to forgive — often they show a failure to even resolve the issue. One of the nefarious things about a grudge is often every grievance that we list and feed the grudge with are factual. One thing about living with community is that every day presents itself with something new that we can forgive — and, in the act of living in community we also offend others, often without even knowing we had done so. Jesus spoke of forgiveness very often.
Of course my culture is not only Christian, but includes a secular culture that does not value forgiveness. Whether we like it or not, American culture is a culture of grudges and revenge. Sometimes we seek to get even by punishing the person or persons who committed the offense until we get back what we lost. We seek revenge even when we are not sure who we want revenge upon. For example we are currently in two wars seeking revenge against a handful of people who died over a decade ago. Some of us speak of a God that acts the same way we do, as opposed to acting as Jesus taught us. Some of us speak of vengeance as a virtue and cannot see how forgiveness is part of a just world but forgiveness is the way that Jesus taught.
We all need forgiveness too. Sometimes I appreciate a lesson that I’ve learned from our Anglican friend. There are certain parts of the Christian ideal that we have a lot of problems with. There are some sorts of sin that our communities can all easily confess. These are the sins that destroy communities, break down relationships, and prevent the church from functioning as the church. Every Sunday, Anglicans around the world confess these sins in this prayer:
Most merciful God,we confess that we have sinned against thee in thought, word, and deed,by what we have done,and by what we have left undone.We have not loved thee with our whole heart;we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.For the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ,have mercy on us and forgive us;that we may delight in thy will,and walk in thy ways,to the glory of thy Name. Amen.
Jesus not only talked about forgiveness, but he compared our behavior to the behavior of a man who’s king forgave him literally the largest imaginable debt: a debt of a myriad of talents. The literal value of 10,000 talents is about 300 tons. Assuming that these are talents of gold, that would be worth, according to the current price, 15 billion dollars. The figurative value is more like a trillion dollars. It is a debt that one cannot imagine an individual obtaining without seriously harming the nation that he serves. This servant was a poor servant to king and country.
One might say that this servant was very responsible and that he failed at his responsibility. When asked to fix the problem was not able to and asked for mercy, The king did not punish this servant but instead forgave the great debt. Such clemency means that someone, or a lot of someones had to take quite a loss. It also means that the king was not able to show that he dealt with who was responsible for the issue. 10,000 talents is a huge legitimate grievance. When the king forgives, there are many who may have the right to be angry.
But in this parable, the servant quickly finds someone who owes him 100 denarii. Denarii are silver coins a little larger than our quarters — so it was about a pound and a half of silver coins. As these were not pure silver, the metal value would be about $420 in today’s money. Perhaps a better way to look at it would be that it is what a day laborer could expect to earn for a day’s work — which brings the value up to between 5,000 and 10,000. Whether a few hundred, or a few thousand dollars, the point was that the unmerciful servant who owed a debt which could only be accumulated in the name of a nation, put a man in prison for small debt.
When we pray the Lord’s prayer — we pray that God will forgive us our debts as we forgive others. We pray that we will become the standard of mercy and forgiveness that God uses when judging us. This is tough for me, because I hope that God will be more merciful to me than I am to others — but the parable is the same as the prayer. While the king forgave this debt — when he heard of the servant’s behavior, he changed his mind. He judged the unmerciful servant with the same lack of mercy and threw him in jail until that impossible debt was repaid.
One last thing that I find remarkable about this passage is that it seems very much connected with the idea of what it means to be Church. Right before this parable Jesus gives advice on how to act when offended and how the community is to deal with grievances. Its not always easy to understand how Jesus suggests mercy, and another time casting out a person who will not admit that he’s wronged the community. Its not easy to understand when to cast out — and when to let the wheat and the weeds grow together — but I digress, we do the best we can.
What stands out is that right in all this about grievances and forgiveness, Jesus says the verse I believe tells what is the most basic definition of Church. “wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” When people are together there are grievances — and in order for the community to survive, we must learn the way of forgiveness.