How Many Times?

Jackson Snyder and an Unknown Author     November 20, 2005


Some are honest enough to say, “No, I’m not full of joy and I’m not free. There are people I can’t stand and some whose eyes I avoid.  And there are places I can’t go because of painful memories.”  Sometimes people will admit, “I can’t forgive,” yet found in that simple confession the beginning of healing.  It’s not something we find easy to admit unless we can put our finger on the horrible thing someone did to us, the unforgivable and unforgettable.


We give Thee but Thine own,
Whate’er the gift may be;
All that we have is Thine alone,
A trust, O Lord, from Thee.


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Meet us, Father, as we reach out with our minds and senses to liven our awareness of your presence.  Sharpen our inner and outer hearing that we may receive the word.  Sharpen our appetite for the nourishment of fresh insight.  Give us the courage to consume the word and the resolve to act upon it.  Amen.


Mat 18:21-35 Then Peter went up to Jesus and said, “Master, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?” 22. Jesus answered, “Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times.

                23. ‘And so the kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a king who decided to settle his accounts with his slaves. 24. When the reckoning began, they brought him a man who owed ten thousand talents; 25. he had no means of paying, so his master gave orders that he should be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, to meet the debt. 26. At this, the slave threw himself down at his master’s feet, with the words, ‘Be patient with me and I will pay the whole sum.’  27. And the slave’s master felt so sorry for him that he let him go and cancelled the debt.

                28. Now as this slave went out, he happened to meet a fellow-slave who owed him one hundred denarii; and he seized him by the throat and began to throttle him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe me.’ 29. His fellow-slave fell at his feet and appealed to him, saying, ‘Be patient with me and I will pay you.’ 30. But the other would not agree; on the contrary, he had him thrown into prison till he should pay the debt. 

                31. His fellow-slaves were deeply distressed when they saw what had happened, and they went to their master and reported the whole affair to him. 32. Then the master sent for the man and said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I cancelled all that debt of yours when you appealed to me.  33. Were you not bound, then, to have pity on your fellow-slave just as I had pity on you?’ 34. And in his anger the master handed him over to the torturers till he should pay all his debt.  35. And that is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart.”


Psalm 32, UMH 766 1. Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.  2. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile.  3. When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long.  4. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer. Selah.


How Many Times?

   Peter asks a question we’d like to ask Jesus: “How many times should I forgive?” Jesus answers, “Seventy-seven times!”  Seven is the number of completeness.  Jesus is just saying, “Forgive completely.”  We all nod our heads and say “Amen,” and leave church wondering how much more harassment we’ll be able to take from that demented boss, or how many more times will we permit a loved one to return home drunk, or how much more belittling we can stand before we abandon an impossible situation.  The seventy-seven standard of forgiveness becomes even more daunting when we put it together with the parable that Jesus shares.


Paying Your Debt

   A king discovers his slave owes him 10,000 silver talents – a pile of silver.   The slave promises to pay it back, but at the prevailing daily wage, it would take him 20 years to pay off one talent; 200,000 years to pay 10,000 talents!  And you thought you were over-extended!  Even the United States isn’t that far in debt. 

   The slave promises in tears, “I’ll work overtime until the next ice age.”  The king is touched with mercy and cancels the debt entirely.  Jesus says that his kingdom may be compared to this king.  For the King has forgiven us a debt we couldn’t pay in 200,000 years.  We are forgiven much!

   The forgiven slave then finds another slave who owes him about four month’s pay.  That’s a lot, but certainly not 200,000 years’ pay. But he demands full payment though his debtor pleads in exactly the same words he used on the king a little earlier.  The slave isn’t merciful; he throws his debtor into prison. Word of this behavior reaches the king, who, in anger, uncancels his debt, and throws this wretch into prison also, ordering torture until he pays – and he can never pay.  That’s how the story ends: in royal vengeance.

   Forgiveness is the topic, but no one is forgiven of anything.  And remember, that king who’s just ordered his slave tortured is the same to whom Jesus compares the Kingdom.  The Kingdom is like a king who forgives and a king who exacts terrible punishment for unforgiveness.  Jesus brings the point home: “So my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you don’t forgive from your heart.”  If this is good news, I don’t get it!   Nobody “gets it.”


Forgiveness and Death

   What does it mean to forgive?  There’s a simple way to tell whether we’ve forgiven others and freed ourselves from torture.   We just ask ourselves, “Am I free to go anywhere?  Am I free to be with anyone?  Do I feel joy in the presence of all those here? 

   Some will say “yes” too quickly, just as we’ve said, “I forgive you” too quickly.  We’ll say it because we think we’re supposed to.  A good Christian is supposed to forgive and feel joy in the presence of brothers and sisters.

   But some will be honest enough to say, “No, I’m not full of joy and I’m not free and I won’t ever forget. There are people I can’t stand; and some whose eyes I avoid.  And there are places I don’t go because of who’ll be there.”  You who’re wise know that this feeling has to do with forgiveness: pain is often the beginning of wisdom. 

   Sometimes people who’ll freely admit, “I can’t forgive,” may find in this simple confession the beginning of healing.  “I can’t forgive” isn’t that hard to admit if we can put our finger on some horrible deed done to us – something unforgivable and unforgettable.

   Fr. Francis MacNutt in Jacksonville relates this true story: He’d finished teaching on forgiveness when an engaged couple came forward.  The man hated his stepfather, who’d abused him all his life.  Knowing this would affect their marriage, they decided they needed power to forgive.  After prayer with Fr. MacNutt, the young man set up an appointment to forgive his stepfather, whether he was repentant or not.

   The meeting was in a parking lot.  The engaged couple drove there together.  The stepfather was waiting for them in his truck.  The young man got out and walked toward the truck.  His stepfather pulled a pistol and shot him dead right before his fiancé’s eyes.  To make matters worse, the police arrested the stepfather, handcuffed him, and put him in back seat of the police car, then requested the young lady sit in the front seat while they wrapped up the crime scene. 

   Though this arrangement was unthinkable, the Heavenly Father had a purpose. For despite the fact that this man had just murdered her fiancé, the Spirit brought the forgiveness seminar back to her mind.  And she was able, through great discipline and grace, to forgive this man, even though he didn’t repent 77 times or even once.

   You see, this young lady learned from Fr. MacNutt that the unforgiving person becomes entombed in the stone-cold prison of her own anger and bitterness for eternity.  The wise understands that such terrible pain leads to either the living death of mental illness, or to freedom through true forgiveness, whether there’s repentance or not.


Breaking Lost Contracts

   One Christian writer puts forth the idea of the “hidden contract.”  He says that we make contracts with others.  Some are quite clear, like engagement vows or family ties.  In the case of the young lady, everyone agrees that a debt is owed. We have an unspoken social contract not to kill each other.   No one could ever pay the price equivalent to a loved one lost.  The wicked stepfather owes her plenty; he couldn’t pay even if he were granted ice ages.

   The hidden contract is in the heart.  We might even deny it.  But somewhere deep inside there’s an expectation that our parents must always give us their attention.  A spouse was never supposed to get sick or die.  A child was never supposed to grow up and leave home.  A preacher was never supposed to be merely human.  You and I hold spiritual paper on such unrealistic expectations. 

   We may even have a hidden contract with life.  Life’s never supposed to be that difficult. We’re never supposed to grow old.  We’re not supposed to die.  You might say, “That’s silly, no one would think like that.”  But wait until the doctor tells you that your X-ray is unusual and you’ll see how silly it is.  You may surprise yourself at how angry you can get at life or at god or at some stranger.


Forgiveness Means ...

   Forgiveness always lies on the other side of hidden contractsdebts that have piled up in our hearts’ collection departments.  I read of a man who was mad at his mother for 35 years because she forgot his ninth birthday.  She owed him!  He often joked about it to cover his deep bitterness.  But for this omission, this young man put his mother in the prison of his heart with the torturers.  In reality, he was the prisoner, not her.  His bitterness kept him from enjoying a filial relationship.  He was the tortured.

   Sometimes we get on track by examining these vast heart-debts: they’re so astronomical: no one will ever be able to sufficiently repay.  Sometime we dare to see that what we’ve been expecting of others, we ourselves aren’t willing or able to be, do, or pay. There should come a time when a Christian person finally admits, “Nobody owes me anything anymore!”  And that’s what it means to forgive: it means to burn down the inner collection agency with all the paper packed therein. 

   After months, maybe years, of pain, we may finally figure out that the only way to kill the pain is to let others off the hook – to cancel all debts – to break the ties that bind us to resentment and hurt. Peace means knowing in our hearts that nobody owes us anything.  Our family doesn’t owe us anything.  Our church doesn’t owe us anything.  Our preacher doesn’t owe us anything.  Our employer doesn’t owe us anything.  Our country doesn’t owe us anything.  Life doesn’t owe us anything.   No one forgives 77 times.  But when we believe in our hearts that “nobody owes me anything,” the fires of torment cool and the prison doors swing open as we walk forth as free people who know the secret of forgiveness.


Living Debt Free

Break the bands of bondage; set your prisoners free.

Jesus did it for you; now you can do it for me.

Let loose your captive contracts; throw open doors of steel.

Cast off your vast collections and live a life that’s real.

Forgive without repentance and sever ties that bind;

For only such adjustments can free your tortured mind.

Let go of old resentments and don’t allow the new.

You’ll live debt-free within your means and only peace accrue.


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