Cartoons today are not like the cartoons I watched on TV when I was a kid. Back then, the story lines were straight forward, and characters behaved in ways that were expected. Even though their world was animated, it was easy to relate to the real world. If you ran off a cliff, like the coyote did chasing the road runner, you would pay the price and fall to your doom. Yes, these cartoons were funny and often the characters made mistakes — and that was entertaining.
But today, when I watch the Teletoon channel, it is crazy! More often than not the characters behave in ways that are unpredictable, excessive and even absurd. When you expect a certain consequence for a behaviour, the opposite happens! And this style gets kids laughing. This medium has little if no connection to the way people normally operate in the real world. It is meant to shock, and display the impossible rather than convey the probable.
At the same time, this is precisely the style of the story presented in our Gospel text today (Matthew 18:21-35). Yes, it is! Bear with me. Jesus tells a story in response to Peter’s question about how often should he forgive someone who has done him wrong.
Reading in between the lines, it’s as if Jesus answers Peter’s question with another rhetorical question: “How could you ask such a stupid question?” So Jesus tells an extreme, over-the-top parable to startle Peter into recognizing the absurdity of his assumptions and to call him to a new way of seeing and living (Charles Campbell in “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 4, p.71).
Jesus’ story is really excessive, when you think about it. First, Jesus says that we should forgive always, without limit, certainly more than seven times. And yet, the king in the story (who for some interpreters is analogous to God and therefore an example to us) — how many times does he forgive his slave? Just once! The king doesn’t give his slave a second chance, doesn’t forgive him more than once, even though that’s the moral of the story, right?
Then there is the matter of the ten thousand talents that the slave owes the king. In Greek, “ten thousand” and “talents” indicate the largest possible number; the amount is so absurd that in some early Greek manuscripts of this text reduced the number (Lewis Donelson, ibid.). There is no way that any slave would ever have ten thousand talents to begin with — otherwise he would not be a slave if he did. How could a slave even get to a position of owing that incredibly huge amount of money, and then pretend that he could pay it back in his lifetime. Absurd. We really can’t take this story too literally.
The rest of the parable continues in this vein: The slave who was forgiven this unimaginable debt load refuses to forgive the comparatively minuscule debt of another slave. He acts in an extreme way, seizing the debtor by the throat (v.28).
All in all this parable reads just like a modern-day cartoon. It’s excessive; it doesn’t follow the norms of social interaction — in Jesus’ day as much as in our own. We are left shaking our heads, “Ridiculous! Impossible! How could anyone do such a thing?”
But that’s the point. What we consider here is an imagination that is beyond earthly probabilities and rationalizations. The parable turns on us, as it surely did on Peter: How often should I forgive?” As the church, we should know better. For we know how much we have already been forgiven.
What we encounter in the Gospel text today is a Godly imagination that is presented in contradistinction to the world’s. Most of our lives operate according to probabilities and possibilities, measurable criteria, tit-for-tat, and certainties. Not so in God’s kingdom of grace. Mercy, forgiveness — these are undeserved, incalculable. Yet given.
How do we forgive? Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the story of a woman in his congregation who is a single mother, divorced, working to support herself and three young children. Since her husband walked out on them, every month, she says, it is a struggle to pay bills. She says, “I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies while he’s living it up with his new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him?”
The Rabbi answers, “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically. But you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you’re hurting yourself.”
Presbyterian Minister, writer and retreat leader Marjorie Thompson gives a helpful definition of what it is to forgive. She writes: “To forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgement, however justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair such retribution may seem …
“Forgiveness involves excusing persons from the punitive consequences they deserve because of their behaviour. The behaviour remains condemned, but the offender is released from its effects as far as the forgiver is concerned. Forgiveness means the power of the original wound’s power to hold us trapped is broken.”
You’ve maybe heard the story of one prisoner of war, after being freed, who asked another, “Have you forgiven your captors yet?”
“I will never do that!” the second one answered.
“Then they still have you in prison, don’t they?” the first one replied. (These stories are recited in Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn, ibid., p.71-72)
The ability to forgive has more to do with ourselves than it has to do with the perpetrator of our wounds. This realization makes the impossible, possible; the improbable, probable. Holding on to resentment and a desire for revenge keeps us stuck in the false belief that somehow we can change the other person.
But perhaps who needs changing is ourselves! Peter got an earful from Jesus as Jesus held up a mirror to Peter when he asked the question, “How often should I forgive?”
We are not alone on this journey. Jesus talks about forgiveness in the context of the relationship of people in the church, among his disciples as they jostle for power and deal with in-house conflicts. We are not alone in this struggle to forgive our debtors. After all, the Body of Christ, the church, has a role to recognize the sin together, demand accountability together, and exercise forgiveness together. This takes time and it isn’t easy.
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them,” said Jesus just before Peter’s question (Matthew 18:20). God surprises us, yes, even sometimes shocks and startles us with undeserved love and steadfast faithfulness. This is the imagination, the hope, and the longing that motivates us to keep on.
Of God’s forgiveness, we can be sure.