When I emailed Sunday's Bible passage to the reader last week, he replied saying he would be interested to see how I would preach about God sending people to prison and torturing them. That sent me flying straight back to the text, at which point I realised that either I had only skimmed through it because I thought I already knew it, or I had picked up one of the translations that just has ‘jailors’, because I had been completely oblivious to the reference to torture when I chose the passage. It really is quite shocking, so I felt I needed to start my reflection by tackling that detail, because otherwise there is a danger that it would have become a rather distracting elephant in the room.
I’ll admit I felt a little flustered when I realised I was going to have to address this element of the passage, and I knew I was going to have to do a bit of work to try and get my head around it. I started by going back to the original Greek, and comparing how it had been translated in different versions. The word that causes the difficulty is basanistais, and translations range from jailors to tormentors to torturers, to versions like the one we had which combine some of those meanings to really drive the point home. It is tempting to suggest that Jesus really meant jailors, and the harsher translations are just getting a bit carried away, but in every other instance where a variation on this word is used in scripture, it is translated with reference to pain and torment, so it is difficult to wriggle out of the uncomfortable position of being faced with a text in which Jesus speaks of a man being tortured and warns his hearers that the same fate may await them.
What do we do with this passage then? Well the next thing I did was look to the wider picture of scripture. A few weeks ago we recalled the Old Testament refrain that says “the Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love”. Now of course that doesn’t mean that God never gets angry, but it seems a pretty big leap from that to sending for the torturers. It’s the same disconnect we are faced with when we consider any of the passages that seem to speak of God’s wrath. Now I know there is room for contradiction in all of us, and I am utterly convinced that God is bigger and wider and higher than our minds can comprehend, and I have no desire to make him small and simple enough for me, but still I cannot help but ask how we can possibly make sense of such seemingly opposing images.
One thing I noticed is that this passage only appears in Matthew, who is certainly the most hellfire and brimstone of all the gospel writers, so perhaps we see something of the author’s own bias creeping in. Because as much as we tend to conflate and confuse them, each gospel has its own distinctive styles and theologies, born out of the fact that they were written from different perspectives to different audiences. Mark is all about the action, with Jesus painted more as miracle worker than as teacher. Luke has a keen heart for the marginalised, with Jesus’ interactions with women and Gentiles and the poor coming to the fore. John is really interested in signs and dualities, with imagery around light/dark and life/death and spirit/world. And Matthew seems to be most interested in Jesus as a teacher of the law, with an emphasis on judgement for those who cannot live by his interpretation. These distinctives give us a fuller picture of Jesus and his life and ministry, but they are also a reminder that when we read the gospels, we are looking at Jesus through someone else’s eyes. I don’t think that Matthew invented this language of judgement, but perhaps the fact that it is less present in the other gospels means that it was not as strong in Jesus’ teaching as in Matthew’s understanding of it.
This passage also made me think about some of the other harsh language Jesus uses in the gospels. He speaks of coming to bring not peace but a sword, and declares that it is better to gouge out an eye or chop off a hand than let it be a cause for sin. These images are so shocking that it is difficult to believe that we are meant to take them literally. I think Jesus deliberately used graphic and hyperbolic language to disturb his listeners into paying attention, and I think this passage may fall into that category. Jewish law did not allow for torture, but it did allow for debtors to be enslaved or imprisoned, and torture was not uncommon in Roman prisons, so what Jesus described was not an unknown or unlikely situation, but it was still an extreme and upsetting one. The basic point of this parable is surely that there are consequences to both our sin and our unforgiveness, consequences which may well feel like torture, and perhaps Jesus chose the harshest metaphor he could draw from everyday life in order to shock his hearers into taking his words seriously. We too need to take him seriously, but I am not convinced that means believing God will deliberately throw us to the torturers. As a couple of people commented after the service, it is we who torture ourselves by allowing guilt and anger to needle away at us.
I realise that was quite a long time to spend on a single word, but sometimes it is necessary to wrestle with the details, even if we come away limping. And hopefully that has given you some sense of how we can do that, getting into the nitty gritty of the language and opening up the bigger picture of the context. The language of this passage will never be comfortable, but I hope it can be a little less alarming, even if we must acknowledge that a little discomfort is the point. The Old Testament scholar Wil Gafney talks about squeezing a blessing out of a tough passage, so let’s lean into that discomfort now and see what blessing the passage may have for us. This is where we can move towards thinking about forgiveness.
Now of course a theology of forgiveness is wrapped up with a theology of sin, as we need to know what is wrong in order to know what needs to be forgiven. I don’t want to spend too much time on that this morning, but I will offer three brief thoughts. The first is that one of the words used for sin in the scriptures is hamartia, which comes from a word which means to miss the mark - so there is a sense in which sin is falling short, and in our Christian understanding that can only mean falling short of God’s best. The second is that both the passage we have heard and the Lord’s Prayer speak of debts, which suggests that something is owed - so there is also a sense in which sin is anything that leaves us needing to repay something to another, anything that leaves us needing to make amends and set things right. And the third is that the basis of almost every ethic is “do to others as you would have them do to you” - so there is perhaps a sense in which sin is anything which breaks that fundamental rule, which causes hurt or sorrow to another.
With that in mind, let us finally get to forgiveness. In reading some commentaries on this text, I came across an interesting paraphrase. Peter asks 'how many times must I forgive my brother?' but this particular commentary suggested that his real question was 'what's the minimum I need to do to be holy?' Perhaps that's unfair on Peter, but it is a question we ask isn't it? And not just when it comes to being holy. What's the least we can do to pass this exam or stay fit or keep the house the right side of clean. Sometimes it's because we're lazy and sometimes it's because we lack the time or resources and sometimes it's because we're afraid of the consequences of going all in. Whatever the reason, we do what we have to and no more.
Well Jesus didn't have much time for that kind of attitude. Whether he was telling rich young men that it wasn't enough to obey the law but they must sell their possessions as well, or calling his followers to quite literally go the extra mile, he was also pushing those who listened to him to do more. And so when Peter suggested seven times may be enough to forgive a person, he told him he was way short of the mark. Seventy times, or seventy times seven in some translations, was more like it. I don't think that was a precise number that Jesus was giving, I think that he was playing with the number that Peter gave him to tell him that he needed to keep on forgiving, beyond any expectation he would have set for himself. If we only have to forgive four hundred and ninety times, then my husband is way past the limit on forgiveness for leaving his socks on the floor, but I think the point is that there is no limit.
Having said that, it feels important to say here that the endless nature of forgiveness is not meant to get us trapped into cycles of sinning and being forgiven or forgiving and being hurt. Being forgiven doesn’t mean we can make the same mistakes again, and forgiving doesn’t mean we have to go back to that person and let them hurt us again. We can be forgiven and must forgive as often as is necessary, but of course it is better if we can avoid the situations that make forgiveness necessary in the first place.
So the limitless nature of forgiveness is the first thing we can learn from this passage. The next thing, which is at the heart of the parable Jesus tells, is to do with the same kind of relationship between being forgiven and forgiving others that we find in the Lord's Prayer. In the parable, the servant is not forgiven because he does not forgive. In the prayer, we are forgiven because we ourselves forgive. In both cases, the freedom to be forgiven is tied to the capacity to forgive. And in case that wasn’t clear enough, Jesus really breaks it down in his comments after the giving of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew, saying “If you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive yours.”
It’s perfectly fair, but the truth is that we don’t like perfectly fair. We want the dice to be loaded in our favour. We want to say that God is better than us so he can forgive even if we can’t. Of course there is some truth to that last bit, but taking that attitude opens up a large loophole that God doesn’t want to give us. I think it is interesting that the Lord’s Prayer says “forgive us...as we forgive” in Matthew, or “forgive us...for we forgive” in Luke. There is no “teach us to forgive” or “help us to forgive”, it is just assumed that we will forgive. That doesn’t mean we don’t need teaching or help, but it does emphasise the fact that this is non-negotiable.
Forgiveness is hard, and if we don’t have to do it we won’t. I read a lot of alternate version of the Lord’s Prayer this week, and I was shocked by how many completely cut any reference to forgiving others. And it is because it is hard and we don’t want to do it that we need the impetus of knowing that our being forgiven depends on our being able to forgive. And we can look at it another way. Failing to pass on the grace we have been shown is selfish, and that in itself is a sin which we cannot be absolved of until we stop committing it. So we have to forgive in order for God to forgive that sin at they very least.
So forgiveness is unlimited and it is necessary and it goes both ways. But what does it really look like and why is it so important that God leaves us no room to wriggle out of it? To try and answer those questions, I want to tell another story, and I hope it will largely speak for itself. This is a true story, taken from a Guardian article from 2014.
Abdollah Hosseinzadeh was stabbed and killed in a street brawl in the autumn of 2007 when he was only 18. He had known his killer, Balal. The two, barely out of their teens at the time, had played football together. Abdollah was the second son [his mother Samereh] Alinejad had lost, her youngest died as a boy in a motorbike accident when he was 11. Furious in her grief, she was determined Balal would hang. But as Balal's execution date drew nearer, Abdollah appeared to his mother in a series of vivid dreams.
"Ten days before the execution was due, I saw my son in a dream asking me not to take revenge, but I couldn't convince myself to forgive," she told the Guardian. "Two nights before that day, I saw him in the dream once again, but this time he refused to speak to me."
A stream of relatives, her brother and her mother, flowed through her house the night before the execution. Painfully aware of the grief she had carried in the seven years since her son was killed, none of them attempted to change her mind. "I stood very firm in my belief that I want him punished, so they didn't expect me to forgive."
As Abdollah's legal guardian, Alinejad's husband Abdolghani had the power under Iranian law to overturn the death penalty, but he had relinquished that responsibility to his wife. "My husband said, look to God and let's see what happens." In the early hours of last Tuesday, Alinejad was outside the gates of Nour prison, among the crowd gathered for Balal's execution. "You have the final say, my husband had said," she recalled. "He said you've suffered too much, we'll do as you say."
After recitation from the Qur'an was read, prison guards had hooked a rope around Balal's neck as he stood on a chair blindfolded, his hands tied behind his back. Seconds away from what could have been his final breath, Balal pleaded for his life and called out for mercy. Others in the crowd watching the scene in anguish also called out for the family to spare Balal's life.
Balal's fate then took an unexpected turn. Alinejad clambered up on a stool and rather than pushing away his chair, slapped him across the face. "After that, I felt as if rage vanished within my heart. I felt as if the blood in my veins began to flow again," she said. "I burst into tears and I called my husband and asked him to come up and remove the noose." Within seconds, as Abdolghani unhooked the rope from Balal's neck, he was declared pardoned.
One week after pardoning Balal, Alinejad has found a peace lost since her son's death. "Losing a child is like losing a part of your body. All these years, I felt like a moving dead body," she said. "But now, I feel very calm, I feel I'm at peace. I feel that vengeance has left my heart."
This is what forgiveness looks like. It is freedom for the one who is forgiven and freedom for the one who forgives. Sometimes that freedom allows us to put things back to the way they were. But often things can’t or shouldn’t go back, and then that freedom allows us to find a new way. However it works itself out, forgiveness gets us out of the ruts of pain and regret and anger and guilt that we find ourselves stuck in. To use the rather stark language of Jesus, it gets us out of the hands of the torturers.