In 1990 a new show premiered on TV with the following opening, “In the criminal justice system the people are represented by two separate but importantly equal groups the police who investigate the crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories (dun-dun).” This show was Law & Order, and it has been one of the most successful television franchises in history. The main Law & Order show was on the air for twenty seasons. The spin-off show Law & Order: Criminal Intent was on for ten seasons, and the other spin-off Law & Order SVU is still on the air and is over twenty seasons strong. Even though episodes often try to be “ripped straight from the headlines”, all of the Law and Order shows tend to follow an incredibly formulaic plot of the police catching the bad guy and the prosecutors finding a way to get the bad guy convicted. New Law & Order shows have been on TV now for 30 years, and thanks to cable and syndication an episode of Law & Order is always being aired somewhere. This means that the show has had an impact on culture as a whole. Law and Order changed the landscape of TV. An analysis of network television found that 60% of the scripted dramatic shows focused on either the agencies that enforce the laws or the prosecutors who uphold the law. Critics of the shows point out that Law & Order gives unrealistic expectations to the general public to how criminal justice actually works. The reality though is a realistic portrayal of criminal justice would not make for good television. The ongoing success of Law & Order plus the plethora of shows it has spawned illustrates that by and large what we want is not a realistic portrayal of criminal justice full of nuance, safe guards, and presumed innocence. What we want is to feel safe knowing that law and order won over crime in 60 minutes with commercial breaks.
Perhaps the success of the Law & Order franchise can be attributed to the fact that it presented the world in black and white terms. Often the show had clear bad guys who got what was coming to them, and it had clear good guys whose whole existence is dedicated to maintaining law and order. I would argue that the success of the show is because a lot of people like an idealized worldview where law and order are the highest virtues. We find this is true in Christianity as well. A two second google search will give plenty of viewpoints that God is a God of law and order. God is a God of justice. We see that throughout the bible. God gave a law to be followed, God gave consequences for breaking the laws, and we see throughout the bible that God enforces the law. God is a God of justice, but God is not just a God of law and order. God is also a God of mercy and forgiveness. God has the law, but throughout the scriptures we see that if those who have broken it are willing to repent, if they are willing to turn back to the right then God will withhold divine consequences. God will forgive. God is a God of justice and God is a God of grace. This morning’s scripture, a story Jesus told, really illustrates a truth found throughout the bible. When God has to choose between law and order or mercy and forgiveness, God seems to always fall on the side of mercy and forgiveness. We, therefor, should do the same.
This morning’s scripture begins with asking Jesus a question. As this morning’s scripture shows that can be a risky proposition, because with Jesus you are rarely get a straight forward answer, but the answer is always one full of truth. Peter asks a question how many times he has to forgive a brother who sins against him. Peter offers up seven times, and he probably thought that he was being very clever here. In Jewish tradition seven is the number of completion, and it is the number associated with God and holiness. By Peter offering up that he was willing to forgive someone who wronged him seven times, he probably thought he was sounding really righteous. It almost makes me wonder if Peter asked this question, not because he wanted an answer, but because he wanted to hear Jesus affirm him.
If that was the case, then that is not what happened. Jesus offers up a much larger number of 77 times. This is not to say that 77 is the magic number that once we hit that threshold we are to be done forgiving people. Instead it is to communicate that keeping count is the wrong strategy in forgiveness. If we are keeping count of how many times we have let someone off the hook and forgiven them, then we have not really forgiven. We have just delayed our final judgement and build up ammunition to use when we get to that point. Jesus’ point that he illustrates with the parable is that forgiveness is not about keeping score, it is about letting go.
When Jesus tells a parable he often includes a detail that struck the original hearers as off. He include something in the story that immediately stuck out as almost absurd. We get that little detail right at the beginning of this story when we get to the man who owed the king ten thousand bags of gold in some translations or more accurately ten thousand talents. A talent was worth roughly about 20 years of an average worker’s salary. Trying to equate the economics of the ancient world with today’s monetary system does not quite line up. However, if we attempt to put ten thousand talents into today’s terms we get a rough idea how big of a number Jesus is dealing with here. The average full time earnings in the United States is $33,000 today. If we multiply that by 20, that means in today’s terms a talent is equivalent to around $660,000. We multiply that by ten thousand and we get a debt equivalent to 66 billion dollars. It is a number so large, that there is absolutely zero chance that the man had to pay back the debt. When the man begs for pity and claims that he will repay everything, it is clear there is no way that is possible he is too deep in the hole.
It would have been well in the rights of the king of the story to sell this man and his entire family into slavery as a way to recoup the debt. The man who was so indebted would have known that with such a large outstanding balance he was running that risk. He had absolutely no way to pay pack the debt and in the culture of the time the selling of his whole family was not only permissible, it would have been considered the most fair way to deal with the problem. The culture of the time would have considered a just enforcement of law and order. Yet the king did not go that route, instead the king shows incredible mercy and forgiveness. The king does not settle for a lesser amount or work out some sort of payment plan, he just erases billions of dollars in debt.
We know what happens next, the indebted servant does not learn to emulate this grace and mercy. He finds someone who owes him money and demands payment. Again we can do some rough estimates to convert the money to today’s terms and find it coming in around roughly $9,000. It is not an insignificant amount, but it does not compare to six billion. This parable puts everything in terms of money, but it is not really about money. It is about mercy, forgiveness, and what we do with it.
This parable is intentionally an example in the negative. It is meant to tell us what not to do. We are not supposed to be like the unmerciful servant. It is easy for us to read this parable and let ourselves off the hook. After all we can look at verse 28, and claim “I would never grab and choke someone who owed me money.” So even though we will not emulate the actions of the unmerciful servant, we can still find ourselves emulating his attitude. We find ourselves wanting mercy and forgiveness for ourselves while demanding law and order for everyone else. We rightly worship God and we give God all honor, glory, and thanksgiving because God has chosen to forgive us our sins, our inequities, and the wrongs we have committed. We celebrate the mercy and forgiveness that God has shown us. Yet, at the same time we can hold a grudge against someone else. We self-righteously declare, that they will get what is coming to them. We want God to treat the people who have wronged us, hurt us, or burned us with law and order. If you find yourself in the headspace where you are thankful for God’s mercy and forgiveness in your life, but you are wanting God’s law and order in someone else’s life then you are displaying an attitude similar to the one found in the parable.
When we forgive someone we drop our desire to collect the debt. We give up on appetite for vengeance. This does not mean we forget. Forgiving does not mean we completely reset to start with someone who has wronged us. Based off of previous experience we can establish boundaries and we can demand accountability. What forgiving means is we no longer keep count of how we have been wronged, we no longer hold a desire to see the ledger balanced. Forgiveness is always a gift. When God forgives us, it is not because we have earned it. It is a gift of God given out of mercy and grace. In the same way, if we demand someone earns our forgiveness then we really are not forgiving them. We are just holding them to pay the debt we feel we are owed. When we forgive others, we are giving a gift of mercy and grace. I think one of the things we find though, is when we are willing to give that gift we find that it is a gift that gives back.
Dutch Christian writer and speaker Corrie Ten Boom shared an experience she had once that drove home the importance of forgiveness. During World War II in Holland, out of Christian conviction, she and her family helped Jews escape the Holocaust. They were caught and imprisoned for it. In a Guidepost magazine article entitles “I’m still Learning to Forgive” she told this story: “It was in a church in Munich that I saw him- a balding heavy set man in a gray overcoat. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken. It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives- that when we confess our sins, God cast them into the deepest ocean, gone forever. I saw him working his way forward against the others. The Ravensbruck memories came back with a rush. The man who making his way forward had been a guard, one of the most cruel guards- and he was now in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message Fraulein! How good it is to know that, as you say all sins are at the bottom of the sea.”
“And I who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather take his hand. He evidently did not remember me, but I remember him, and the leather crop swinging from his belt. “You mentioned Ravensbruk in your talk”, he was saying. “I was a guard there. But since that time, I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well”-and again the hand came out- “will you forgive me”
“And I stood there-I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven-and could not forgive.- Betsie, my sister had died in that place-could he erase her slow terrible death simply by asking? It was the most difficult thing I ever had to do but I had to do it- I knew that. And still I stood there with coldness clutching my heart. “Jesus help me” I prayed silently “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”
“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, spring into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seem to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. “I forgive you brother” I cried “with my whole heart.” For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.”
When we are willing to forgive others, then we offer other people a smaller version of the gift of mercy and grace that God offers us. When we forgive others, then the very love of God flows through us. That is why Jesus told Peter not to keep count of how many times we forgive. If you are holding on to bitterness in our heart, if you are clutching on to a grudge, if you feel that you still owe someone what is coming to them, then may you let it go. May you not be like the unmerciful servant. May you instead follow the example of Jesus, may you forgive as you have been forgiven. May you know God’s love more intensely as you display that love through mercy and forgiveness (dun-dun).