Are you familiar with photobombing? If you’ve ever put rabbit ears behind someone’s head just before a photo was taken, you were warming up for it. Photobombing is when someone unexpectedly inserts themselves in the camera’s field just before a photo is taken. Like when random people join a family visiting from Sweden as they take a picture in Boston Common. Or (and this is a true story) when Prince Harry does this (big smile, thumbs up) behind a group of New Zealand sports officials having their photo taken at the Olympics. It’s not really harmful, sometimes funny, and always a jolt.
Parables are like Jesus photobombing our picture of ourselves. We’ve carefully composed the photo, chosen our outfits and our companions, and presented ourselves as orderly, upstanding, and above all else, nice. But at the last second, Jesus flies in sideways to disrupt the picture and cause us to reimagine who we are are and the life we are composing.
Today’s teaching on forgiveness is some serious photobombing. It’s a parable about forgiveness, often called the parable of the unforgiving servant. Jesus tells it in response to a question posed by his friend Peter. Forgiveness is a core Christian practice, perhaps the core Christian practice, and Matthew’s gospel in particular comes back to it again and again. Before talking about what Jesus is teaching us about forgiveness here, I want to say a few words about what he is not teaching us.
First, the point of today’s teaching is not that you must forgive everyone, all the time, right away. Asking people who have been the victims of real violence or who have been deeply psychologically wounded to do so is not loving and it leaves them feeling shamed by the church when they cannot manage to forgive. In her book The Limits of Forgiveness: Case Studies in the Distortion of a Biblical Ideal, Maria Mayo explains how parables such as this one have been mis-read throughout history. She reminds us that parables shake up our assumptions but are not meant to be taken literally and universally. They are poetic stories not legal codes.
Second, the point of today’s teaching is not that God will punish you if you don’t forgive. Jesus ends the parable today with the vision of God’s wrath not as a literal threat but as a reminder that when we don’t forgive one another in the church, we barricade ourselves away from grace. We keep ourselves bound.
So if Jesus is not telling us we have to always forgive everyone all the time immediately, and if Jesus is not threatening us with eternal hellfire for not doing so, what’s the point of this parable? Why photobomb our picture of ourselves as adequately nice people?
Well, as is often the case in the gospel, the answer starts with Peter. If Jesus is the uninvited guy waving his arms in the background of our group photo, Peter is the guy saying, “Hey, let’s all stand here by the fountain, I’ll get my selfie stick, no, look this way – the light is better, no, you kneel and move three inches this way!”
Jesus has been teaching about the church and inviting his disciples to practice love. Peter has been paying attention, and he gets that Jesus is asking them to behave in ways that are really different from the ways of the world. So he asks: How often am I supposed to forgive someone? Seven times?
Notice that His question presupposes that he is the one who has been sinned against.
But Jesus’s reply reminds Peter that he is to learn to be the forgiven. There is no limit to the forgiveness offered by God to us. If there were a limit, then Peter would no longer be a disciple. Peter’s faith comes and goes. Peter’s anxiety gets the best of him when he is called to be patient. Peter talks when he should be listening. Peter denies he even knows Jesus when the chips are down. But Jesus loves him anyway. Jesus has forgiven him seventy times seven. Jesus calls him to lead despite how flagrantly human he is.
But rather than Peter saying, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea! And I am so thankful for it that I will be gracious to those around me,” Peter says, “OK, so about this requirement of forgiveness. How many times do I need to do that? How about twice? How about three times? If I forgive seven times, have I settled the score? What does justice require me to do? I need to plan ahead for this, cuz I got a lot of other things going on.”
Lest you think I am laughing at Peter for feeling this way, let me tell you about a moment from my week: I woke up late and so did not start my day in prayer, telling myself I had other very important things I needed to get to. On my way to my first appointment, I hit two detours on Common Street, and had a guy come from behind me and turn left in front of me, which is evidently a thing now. As I drove around I was listening to a podcaster reflect on the persistence of racism as America’s original sin, feeling equal parts anger that my children are growing up in such a fractured world and guilt for not doing more about it. I arrived for the appointment, waited and waited, and the person I was meeting arrived entirely unprepared for the task at hand. Was I in a mindset to forgive them? I was not. I was right with Peter: “Lord, how often do I have to forgive?”
Jesus says to Peter, “seventy times seven.” That’s not a real number. It means “a lot more than you are right now.” It means, “Don’t start with a tally sheet, where you’re basing how you deal with the world on how you think others are dealing with you.
Don’t start with cramming forgiveness into the margins around your other very important work. Start with God’s grace toward you. Start with amazement that despite how imperfect we are, despite how often we hold grudges and avoid God and dwell in the land of jealousy and envy, despite how caught up we are in the corporate sins of an economic system that leaves millions behind and political systems that disenfranchise so many and perpetrates racism and sexism and lots of other death-dealing stuff,
despite all of that, God is still calling us back home, still setting a table for us before your enemies, still able to see something in us that we cannot see in ourselves, still showering us with the grace of life here and always.”
Start there, Peter. Start there, Amy. Start there, you and you and you.
The call to forgive others presupposes that we are a people who have first been forgiven. And if we start there, we can extend forgiveness more widely than we are now. When we do that, we set captives free, release energy for healing, and glimpse the kingdom of God.
Church is where we practice this, so that we can go out into the world an photobomb all the places where forgiveness is desperately needed.
When we pass the peace we are helping one another remember God’s grace. When Kim offers me her hand and says “The peace of Christ be with you,” she is reminding me that God has forgiven me and affirming that she is ready to stand at the table with me, a fellow sinner also forgiven. That brief liturgical gesture is not about our friendship or our mutual love of folk music but about grace.
I need to be reminded that I am welcome at this table. And I need to be charged with reminding you that you are welcome, too. It is through grace that we have the capacity to not be the unforgiving servant in today’s parable. It is at this table, we remember that…
The love of God is broader than the measure of the mind;
And the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful, we would take him at his word,
And our lives would be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.