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Peter and Forgiveness
Peter thought that forgiving seven times was rather generous. The rabbis generally taught that a Jew should forgive a repeated sin three times so by more than doubling that number Peter felt on safe ground. But, as so often with God, the problem of our limited human scale gets in the way. Not seven but seventy-seven says Jesus and he then goes on to explain why in the parable of the two servants.
To illustrate his point, the first servant has a debt of unimaginable proportion. A talent was worth more than fifteen years of a labourer’s wages; so owing ten thousand talents, that is one hundred and fifty years of earnings, was clearly not repayable. The language itself is chosen to amplify this. A talent was the largest denominated amount of money and ten thousand the largest numeral for which a Greek term existed, so, multiplying the two together takes us to something like the modern equivalent of zillions! The servant, on hearing his master’s perfectly just verdict that he and his family should be sold into slavery, pleads with the king for more time to pay. The King’s response is extraordinary for out of pity, his heart touched by the supplication of the servant, he forgives the whole debt and the servant leaves with no penalty at all.
The King in this parable is of course God, the impossible debt a reckoning of our sins against God and the forgiveness, the forgiveness of God for the sins of the world and those of each of us for which nothing but the atoning blood of Christ will balance the account.
Contrasting such forgiveness, Jesus goes on to show what it is we should clearly not do. The forgiven servant, meeting someone who owes him 100 denarii (a denarius was one day’s pay) so a very modest debt in comparison with his own to the king, violently grabs him by the throat, demands to be repaid immediately and completely refuses to listen to any pleas for more time to pay or for clemency of any sort. The sins of man against man are insignificant compared with the sins of man against God who created us and provided everything for our needs. As one writer put it, they are as small as denarri, motes and gnats compared with talents, beams and camels. God forgives great things the servant fails to forgive little.
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” or to put it another way those who God has forgiven should forgive as he has forgiven them.
Today is the tenth anniversary of the 9 11 attacks on the Twin Towers. A huge, overwhelming act of evil and horror that has scarred recent history. Its consequences have been and still are far reaching. Who knows what the world may have been like today without it. It is one of those events where we can all remember where we were, who we were with and what we were doing when we found out about it. It is an event that absolutely challenges our human capacity to forgive to the limit.
There have, of course, been outstanding examples of individual forgiveness. People shaking the hands of their jailers in South Africa, a man last month even on the day that his son was killed in the London riots, appealing for calm and peace. These though are exceptional cases, many more find it much more difficult, hard even to forgive the few denarri of offences against us, yet somehow we must do it, there is no earthly atonement possible for 9 11. Only God can judge, forgive and redeem.
For now though, we, on our small scale human, must struggle to forgive as best we can, both for the small and the big.