This gospel is a troubling tale. Jesus tells a parable of a king settling accounts with a debtor who begs for patience. Out of pity, the king writes off the debt. But when that same official throttles a servant who pleads for similar patience, the king, hearing of the incident, renounces the one he had forgiven and has him tortured “until he paid” (however that might be done). “My Father,” Jesus concludes, “will treat you the same way.”
What happened to “seventy times seven times”? The king’s sentencing of the first debtor to torture doesn’t seem so very forgiving—especially after only one failing.
The key is that the failing is radical unforgiveness. It’s as if the refusal to forgive, by its very nature, locks us into a torturous circle. So tightly closed against pardoning the other, we have sealed ourselves off from the very experience of pardon.
It is hard to believe that God could forgive endlessly. We, for our part, surely would not. Forgive again and again and again? We think that if we forgive too easily, people will walk all over us—our children, our spouses, our friends, our enemies. We offer ourselves more “realistic” counsel. “I’ll forgive, maybe once, or if they forgive me first, or if there is some promise of change, or if they don’t do it again, or if they acknowledge their sin.”
But such a tactic leads to a tortured soul. The weight of unforgiven hurt bends and burdens us. We carry grudges like clinkers, burnt up and cold.
The great tragedy is that if we wish to exempt ourselves from the law of Jesus, the law of love and forgiveness; if we establish for ourselves a new reality; if vengeance and retribution are what we embrace as most true and reliable, then that is what we are left with. Hell is not so much the punishment by God as it is the result that our punishment of each other demands.
In the church, in our families, in our hearts, we have all experienced the logic of unforgiveness. Even at the age of five, a child might be heard to mutter, “I’ll never talk to them again.” If the judgment hardens, it is only the heart of the judger that grows cold. The words, “I will never forgive you,” can shut tight the heart of the one who utters them, definitively deadened and alone.
It is true, as the psalmist said, that “the Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger and rich in compassion.” But in our refusal to accept the reality of Jesus, we enthrone the reality of resentment as the law of life. There is an unyielding recalcitrance about unforgiveness. It is a rejection of love. We refuse to give it; we make it impossible to receive it.
When the Lord answers Peter’s question, how often we should forgive, he says, “not seven times but seventy times seven times.” Jesus is not recommending a mathematics of reconciliation. He is using the extreme numbers to suggest the unbridgeable chasm between a forgiving and an unforgiving universe. His parable may be less about the retribution of God than it is about a state of soul so hardened that even a kind and compassionate God could not soften it.