St. Peter was an impetuous man, unlike his most recent successors, and so his reserve through our Lord’s discourse in Matthew 18 up to verse 20 is note worthy. The disciples’ question about who is greatest may have been urged by him, or they may have asked it ironically in oblique reference to him. When Peter can no longer keep silent, he asks plaintively: How often do I have to forgive? Usquequo Domine? It is not the most enthusiastic start from the father of all the world’s confessors. Seven times? The bourgeois mathematics, paralyzed by pedantry, provoke the Master’s royal calculus: 70 times seven. That is, no limit.
Christ is a king and belongs to a heavenly city. Peter would suburbanize his Master (I speak metaphorically here, having lived for 40 years in Westchester County as happily as in Galilee). Peter’s kind of king would be more Dutch than Oriental, with Peter as the obliging prime minister. He whose kingdom is not of this world will have none of that. Christ the King presses the point: Not only does His eternal wisdom require forgiveness, it also demands that the forgiver try to convert the offender.
Forgiven a huge debt by his king, the servant in the parable (Matthew 18:23-35) refuses to forgive a small debt owed to him. He is merciless because he is unconverted. While translating ancient currencies is notoriously hard, in terms of modern union scale wages the servant may have owed $4.5 billion. I have the ambiguous conversion charts. The sum is not exaggerated, given government waste in any period. To be in charge of such a budget, the servant must have been some sort of satrap, the equivalent of a highly placed civil servant in the federal Department of Education.
One could tame the parable by concluding that it simply means we must forgive others. That may be how it is preached from some pulpits while the congregation tolerantly glances through the parish bulletin. A man fumed to me that his pastor had affected the air of a long-suffering prophet declaring the justice of God and ordered his parishioners to forgive Osama bin Laden. Is that the burden of the parable? Not quite. City people have to be tougher than suburbanites (the metaphor again), and Christ is of the Heavenly Jerusalem, so He is tougher than all of us. Jesus is streetwise, but His streets are paved with gold. Need we forgive the most despicable of people?
Answer the question first like a saint, for saints consider themselves the most despicable. The fact that they are so wrong about themselves highlights how they are so right about everyone else. Then answer the question like Christ, whose blood absolved us. I have no chart to convert that into modern dollars, but I do know it was poured out freely at great cost. We can have it for the asking, but only at the price of everything that prevents our asking. That was the dilemma of the two thieves crucified with Christ.
There is no reason to forgive anyone unless it is done with enough humility to demand a change of heart in the forgiven. Forgiveness is not a platitudinous appeal to people who are wounded morally and mortally. Jejune philanthropy situates me in a moral suburb that is bucolic for a day and hell for eternity. “Let the wicked forget his way, and the unrighteous man his thought, and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” So spoke Jeremiah (28:8) in consort with the Psalmist (130:7-8), Isaiah (1:18), and John (1 John 1:9).
All of us are indebted to God; none of us has enough to pay the debt. God is willing to forgive the debt, but the condition of the absolution is that it be urged on those around us. The moral deficiency in the unmerciful servant is hinted in the way he has to be “brought” before the king. A man so niggardly lacks the moral elegance to be anything more than a petit bourgeois outside the gates of Zion. He who was forgiven much forgave little, for it is easier to leash sin than to unleash grace. Unctuous words of forgiveness will not populate heaven with luminous saints who once had been the most lurid sinners. Efficacious grace must be a chain reaction. God wills that all be saved, but pride blocks that. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” The selfishness of those who damn themselves turns the Lord’s Prayer into the Devil’s Prayer.