In 1968 Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway appeared in a movie called “The Thomas Crowne Affair.” It was about a millionaire who was bored with his life and his business success. His boredom drove him to plan a bank robbery. He didn’t need the money. In fact, he stole less money than he had already.
The movie is memorable for me because of the amounts of money involved. The millionaire Thomas Crowne stole a little more than $2.5 million dollars. This makes me laugh. In 1968, when the movie was released, $2.5 million dollars was a vast sum of money. Today, it’s less than half the replacement cost of our church building.
It’s very interesting and amusing to me how the values of things change over time. A dollar certainly isn’t worth what it used to be. The passage of time devalues some things, and causes other things to appreciate in value. Forgiveness is something that is both undervalued and, at the same time, is of the highest value.
Today’s Gospel reading combines a saying of Jesus with an unrelated parable. Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:21) Peter probably thought he was being generous and compassionate by suggesting repetitive acts of forgiveness directed to the same offender.
Jesus responded, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:22) Jesus’ statement was not merely an increase in value; rather, it was a rejection of Peter’s attempt to tabulate the value of forgiveness. Jesus’ response was essentially to say, ‘Forgiveness is real only when you do not count the times you forgive.’
The parable that follows the saying appears to give a conflicting message. The parable appears to teach retributive justice. Jesus explained the parable by saying, “Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.” (Matthew 18:34-35)
The key to understanding this apparent contradiction is seen in the spirituality of Late Second Temple Judaism. Today’s first reading contains an apposite example. Jesus ben Sirach wrote, “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail. Forgive your neighbor’s injustice;
then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.” (Sirach 27:30-28:2)
This is not a statement about retributive justice; it isn’t suggesting that God will punish us in kind for our offenses. Nor is it a statement about “karma”; life is not such that each of our selfish actions come back to haunt us. Rather, it is a description of the consequences of our choices. The choice to harbor anger cuts us off from God. The choice to forgive puts us in God’s presence.
The Gospel reading conveys the same teaching. When we forgive one another we imitate God’s own forgiveness. This act of imitating Divine compassion puts us in direct contact with God. On the other hand, refusing to forgive moves us away from God.
There are many divergent values placed on forgiveness. For the most part, our society sees virtues such as forgiveness and forbearance as being signs of weakness. Some people value forgiveness based on the sense of personal freedom it provides: by forgiving those who offend us we release ourselves from the burden of anger, even when the forgiveness is not deserved by the one who offended us.
Jesus’ perspective on forgiveness is unrelated to the above or any other cultural value about forgiveness. Jesus said that habitual forgiveness is a Divine attribute. God forgives habitually as an expression of the Divine nature. When we practice forgiveness as a way of life, we participate in a small way in the Divine nature. Heartfelt forgiveness puts us directly into God’s presence.
Forgiveness as a limited quantity of merciful actions can have a value that is negative or positive in varying degrees, depending on one’s perspective. Forgiveness as unlimited is a habit of inestimable value because it reveals God’s identity to us. In this sense, forgiveness also reveals to us our own identities, as either in love with the limited or in love with the eternal. I’m very certain about which of these two is of greater value to me.
What place does forgiveness have in your life? Is it something you avoid because it’s too difficult or costly? Is it something with a pragmatic value? Or, is it something else? Jesus said that forgiveness can completely change your perspective on life by putting you directly into God’s presence.