The third theme of Lent at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church is mercy. We will review the Scripture passages and the sermon on this theme and then conclude with some personal reflections.
The Old Testament scripture for mercy was the Prayer of David in Psalm 86: 1-15 (New Revised Standard Version):
- ‘Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you; save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all day long.
Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.
- Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer; listen to my cry of supplication.
In the day of my trouble I call on you, for you will answer me.
- There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours. All the nations you have made shall come and bow down before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name.
- For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God.
Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.
- I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever. For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.
- O God, the insolent rise up against me; a band of ruffians seeks my life, and they do not set you before them. But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”
The New Testament scripture was Matthew 18: 21-35 (New Revised Standard Version):
- “Then Peter came and said to [Jesus], “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
- For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.
- But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.
- Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’
- And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
The sermon by Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen emphasized that “at the heart of Christianity is the discipline of forgiveness.”
“From birth to death,” the sermon continued, “the life of Jesus is framed in forgiveness. Remember John the Baptizer preaching forgiveness to prepare for the coming Messiah? Remember the prayer Jesus taught [us]: ‘Forgive us, as we forgive them.’ Remember how Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery and challenged others to do the same? Remember the words of Jesus on the cross: ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do?’”
“Ours is a religion born in that astounding cry from the cross for mercy for those who had hung him there. If the question this Lent is what does the way of the cross ask of us, the response surely includes forgiveness.”
“If anyone ever asks you what Christian faith is all about, a good place to start would be forgiveness. If someone ever asks you what you think God is like, quote Psalm 86: ‘The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.’”
In Matthew 18, “‘Peter asks how many times he should forgive someone who wrongs him – and we sense this is not a hypothetical question – and then Peter wonders aloud, ‘Seven times?’ No doubt he thinks he’s really stretching it to go that far.”
In response, Jesus says, “’Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times,’ indicating that forgiveness should not be reckoned a scarce commodity. God’s mercy is abundant; ours can be, as well.”
“This is hard work, like climbing a mountain that seems to get taller and taller the higher you get. Temptations abound along the way. It would be easier to give up. The culture teaches us to want revenge, not mercy. It’s much more satisfying on the face of it to refuse forgiveness to someone who has wronged you, and instead get back at them. If forgiveness feels like an impossibility for us, then we’re thinking about it in precisely the right way; it should feel like that. It’s not easy.”
Rev. Hart-Andersen added, “Every one of us has had a ‘Peter moment’ in a relationship with a friend or life partner or co-worker, a time when we knew we should forgive, but we wondered how hard to try. Seven times? Jesus will have none of it. Genuine forgiveness is much more extravagant; it takes us beyond anything we might consider reasonable. The truly merciful give up any desire for vengeance; let go of any need to come out on top; release any longing to satisfy old grudges; and, relinquish any secret hope for the thrill of nursing anger.”
“We tend to think of forgiveness as something we offer others in order to free them from the guilt of what they’ve done. That’s the short-sighted view of mercy. In the long run, it’s not done for the one who wronged us; it’s for our own sake. Our future is held hostage until we forgive. In offering mercy we free ourselves of the millstone hung around our neck by anger or desire for vengeance or the need to win.”
“Forgiveness in the eyes of Jesus is not about counting up the wrongs or keeping track of damage down and being properly compensated; on the contrary, it’s a matter of setting ourselves free of the need to do that. At stake is the possibility of recovering our own life by letting go of the anger or hurt that has a hammerlock on us.”
“Nothing is more corrosive to a relationship, and to our hearts, than unwillingness to forgive, and nothing brings more grace into a relationship, and into our hearts, than when people freely show mercy to one another.”
“It’s the way of the cross, the path we follow this Lenten season, and it leads, in the end, to life.”
Peter’s comments in Matthew 18: 21 could be read narrowly as saying if one person (another member of the church) commits one sin against Peter, then how often should Peter forgive that one person for that one sin.
Peter’s own answer to that question (seven times) may have been seen by him as overly generous and unnecessary since at that time rabbis commonly said that forgiving someone three times was an acceptable maximum.
Jesus’ response in Matthew 18: 22, in my opinion, was not just upping the ante in a numbers game. Rather Jesus was saying that counting the number of acts of forgiveness is the wrong approach. In so doing, I believe, Jesus revealed a profound understanding of human psychology. Peter’s saying there is only one sin against him by another person is probably wrong, and in fact Peter probably believes there are other sins as well. Moreover, because we are all weak, the sense of anger Peter must feel over a wrong done to him may erupt again and again, often when he least expects it. Therefore, forgiveness of the other is always unfinished business, and repeated acts of forgiveness may be necessary.
The parable of the king and his slave starts out with the slave’s debt of 10,000 talents, which at the time could be seen as the largest amount imaginable. Indeed, it exceeded the annual taxes for all of Syria, Phonecia, Judea and Samaria. It would be impossible for any individual to repay. The amount of debt owed to the slave, on the other hand, represented 100 days of the wages of an ordinary laborer, still an impossible debt for the other slave to repay.
Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18, according to one source, ended with verse 33 and was intended by Jesus to be about a Gentile tyrant, not about God. Verses 33 and 34, says this source, were added by Matthew to have the parable be about God. But I find it impossible to accept the message of Matthew 18: 34 that God would send anyone to be tortured until he paid the debt.
This passage from Matthew about forgiveness of debts prompts the following comments and questions:
- As a retired lawyer the “debt” language makes me think of normal commercial transactions where one party incurs an obligation or indebtedness to another person, and absent coercion or unfair advantage or subsequent bankruptcy, this is an obligation that should be honored. It should not be forgiven.
- I vaguely recall some economists saying that U.S. bankruptcy law more liberally allowed for state-enforced forgiveness of debts than many other countries and thereby promoted U.S. economic growth by allowing people to start over economically. Do I recall this correctly? Is it a valid comment?
- The notion of forgiving debts brings to mind the Jewish practice of the Jubilee Year, which I believe called for forgiveness of debts over land, slaves and indentured servants every 49 or 50 years. Is this a fair simplification of the practice? Is it still a practice today? Is it related to the Matthew passage in some way?
- I struggle with the Presbyterian Church’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, which says “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” The alternative language for the Lord’s Prayer that many others use— “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”—seems more appropriate to me because “trespass” is a wrong under the law and hence closer to the concept of sin. What am I missing?
Psalms 86: 1-15 for me is irrelevant to forgiveness or mercy other than the assertion in verse 5 that God is “good and forgiving.” Instead it is David’s prayer for protection and assistance when he was being pursued by his enemies (verses 7 and 14). The central verse, according to one commentary, is verse 11, where David asks God to teach him God’s way and to give him an “undivided” heart. The latter I see as an implicit confession that David’s heart is divided between God and something else.
I invite readers to help me answer these questions.
 W. F. Albright & C. S. Mann, The Anchor Bible—Matthew at 223 (Garden City, NY; Doubleday & Co. 1871).
 VIII New Interpreter’s Bible at 380-83 (Nashville, TN; Abingdon Press 1995).