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Just One More Time

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, c. 1556, by Jan van Hemessen. (Painting: Public Domain)

By Tim Perry

IF YOU’VE GROWN UP in church – as I have – if you’ve spent significant chunks of your summers at church camps or Vacation Bible Schools – as I have – you know the parable of the unforgiving servant very well.

Whether it’s familiar or not, I think it’s off-putting. Unnerving. Frightening, even. And I also think it’s true, life-giving and good news. It’s all of that together. Let’s dig into it. (Matthew 18:21-35)

Peter – I love Peter – asks Jesus, “How often should I forgive?”

How many times should I forgive the brother or sister who sins against me? Seven times?

Peter in this moment represents all that is good about the typical disciple. He asks a sensible question of the Lord: Where are the limits and lines in reconciliation to be drawn? It will not do for us to cluck our tongues at poor Peter, knowing the correction that he’s in for. For, I wager, that in his desire for the kingdom, in his vision for the growth of the kingdom, in his generosity in extending the bounds of the kingdom, he surpasses many of us. I know on many if not most days, Peter here surpasses me.

“How many times Lord, seven?”

“I tell you the truth, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”

What’s Jesus doing here? Is he exaggerating for the sake of effect? Well, yes and no. The scope of forgiveness is to be boundless. Not seven times, but seventy times seven. It’s a magnification to make a point. But there’s more to it than that.

Do you remember Lamech’s boast in Genesis 4? “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” Lamech, the son of Cain, the son of the first murderer has learned the lesson of his father all too well. He has continued in the practice of exacting violent revenge, and done it in such a way that the violence will only increase. As the generations pass, the violence does increase until, in Genesis 6, the earth is so full of vengeance that God regrets creating humanity. He calls forth a flood to destroy all the evil in the world and starts over with Noah and his family.

When Jesus multiplies Peter’s offer, we hear an echo of Lamech and an invitation to the undoing of the cycle of violence and vengeance that continues up until today. This cycle is perhaps best expressed by Sean Connery in the movie The Untouchables when he tells Kevin Costner how to beat gangster Al Capone: “You wanna get Capone? Here’s how you get him. He pulls a knife; you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital; you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way. That’s how you get Capone.” It’s no accident, by the way, that this conversation is presented as both characters are kneeling in a church, while Connery’s character holds a rosary. The way of Jesus and the Chicago way cannot be harmonized.

Jesus’ call to radical forgiveness is to be understood as a call radically to part ways with “the Chicago way.” That is how deep our conversion is to go; it’s a conversion away from what seems right to a man or woman to a position that will be ridiculed, reviled and even persecuted. We are foolish when we downplay or soft-peddle the call to discipleship to ourselves or to others. Jesus’ yoke may be easy, but getting out from the old one often isn’t. Jesus knows that. And he calls us anyway.

All this to say, becoming the kind of community that Jesus wishes us to be – even when we are as on board as Peter – is a kind of becoming that must transform every part of us. The way of discipleship is not an add-on to an otherwise happy life, one in which church competes with piano lessons, soccer, hockey, quilting or whatever we do with the time when we are not at work or at school to give our lives a sense of fulfillment. The way of discipleship is THE way to the good life or it is no way at all.

Now, let’s look at the parable.

Remember that we are dealing with a parable, not an allegory. In other words, the point is found in the story itself, not in how the story “symbolizes” something in the real world.

Perhaps it will help if we think of the economic structure embedded in this parable as a pyramid with the king at the top. Beneath the king are his chief slaves – the ones tasked with overseeing the productivity of everyone beneath them. Beneath them are the farmers, the artisans, whomever--the people who need organizing. Who need to be taxed to keep the economy going. The king through his army provides safety and space to create wealth. The farmers and artisans take advantage of the safe space to create wealth in the form of crops, tools and so on. The chief slaves take a portion of that in the form of taxation, and pass some of that up to the king. So, peace and protection flow from the top, down; wealth from taxation flows from the bottom, up.

Now, it seems that the top chief of the slaves  – let’s call him the chief financial officer – is indebted to the king. That means that he hasn’t paid the king the cut of the taxes that he’s supposed to. Jesus doesn’t explain why. It might be for nefarious reasons – the CFO is corrupt and keeping too much for himself. It might be for innocent reasons – the weather was terrible, the crops failed, tax revenue went down. For whatever reason, this top slave finds himself horrendously in debt, unable to repay and threatened with the severest of judgments. So he begs for mercy.

And the king grants him mercy! But look, not only for him. In forgiving his top slave, the king is overturning the entire “normal way of doing things.” He’s declaring an amnesty, a jubilee, a cancellation of debt not only for the indebted CFO, but for all the servants who themselves are indebted to that CFO. It is a radical absolution that extends all the way down. What wide mercy! What boundless grace! The king not only releases one man from a debt, and so saves the man and his family, the king overturns the entire system of indebtedness and so saves the world.

Of course, the CFO is glad. Who wouldn’t be? But he errs in underestimating the grace of the king. He limits it. He thinks it’s just for him. For the rest of the servants, who have in fact been caught up in the king’s radical act of debt cancellation, his forgiveness, the CFO thinks it’s still business as usual. And so he goes to collect his debts. The king is enraged. He hands over the CFO to the torturers until the debt is repaid. The point of the story seems to be, the call to radical forgiveness, to seventy times seven, is a radical call. Far from being optional, it is a call that extends to the very roots of our beings. That’s what the word radical means – to the roots. The servant wants both mercy for himself and business as usual for those beneath him and, Jesus says, in the kingdom economy, it just doesn’t work like that.

So, Peter, in the call to forgiveness, you are all in or it’s business as usual all the way down. It’s not forgiveness for me, but repayment with interest for the guy next to me. There are no limits except the limits you place. And if you place limits, you will be held to them.

So what is the image then that we’re left with?

When Jesus responds to Peter’s generous offer, he extends a call to a different way of seeing the world. It is a way that sees the community as a channel of the Father’s forgiveness – his refusal of revenge – extended to us and through us to others.

Think about the pyramid again. Think about the divine mercy, the divine forgiveness flowing ceaselessly down to us and through us to our community and instead of taxes, think about the offering of praise being channeled up in return. That is the vision to which Jesus calls us today. It is a radical vision – it gets to the roots of things. It is a cosmic vision – it swallows up everything. It is in no way a partial vision – an add-on to an otherwise happy life. And the only way into it is conversion. Deep, abiding and always ongoing.

Now, lest you think that’s just too hard, there is one fairly easy way of thinking about it.

John D. Rockefeller – the oil baron at the turn of the 20th century, and for a time the wealthiest man in North America – was once asked: “How much money is enough money?” Do you know his answer? “Just a little bit more.”

Now ask Peter’s question: “How many times must I forgive a brother who sins against me?” Jesus’ answer, his practice that is the working out of the conversion of our souls, is not unlike Rockefeller’s answer. Here it is: “Just one more time.” And when he does it again, and you ask again, “How many times?” The answer is still the same: just one more time. “And now Lord? He’s done it again! Do I forgive him?” Just. One. More. Time. This is how the Father of mercy forgives us, forgives me.

Father of all mercy, you lavish your grace on us time and again. Help us so to treat our brothers and sisters with the same generosity that the world may offer to you right praise and fulsome worship. Amen.   TAP


The Rev. Dr. Tim Perry is co-pastor of New Hope Community Fellowship in Shawville, QC.

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