Jesus and the Mathematics of Forgiveness

Assume for the moment that Robert Farrer Capon has the right of it: God forgives us uncon­ditionally and freely admits us into his Kingdom, apart from our doings and merits. How does this truth impact our daily lives today? Specifically, what does it mean to forgive others? Are there limits? I am very much aware that these questions are more difficult to answer than I sup­posed forty years ago. It’s easy to talk forgiveness; but what does it look like when you have been betrayed by your lover or are living in an abusive relationship or are the victim of political and economic oppression?

Perhaps the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant may assist us in our reflections:

Then Peter approached and said to him, “Lord, how many times will my brother sin against me and I shall forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus says to him, “I tell you, not as many as seven times, but as many as seventy times seven. Thus the Kingdom of the heavens has been likened to a man who was a king, who wished to reckon up accounts with his slaves. And, as he began his reckoning, one who was indebted to him for ten thousand talents was brought forward. And, as he was unable to make repayment, the master commanded he be sold, as well as his wife and children and all such things as he owns, and repayment be made. Then the slave fell down and made obeisance to him, saying, ‘Be patient toward me, and I shall repay you everything.’ And that slave’s master, being inwardly moved with compas­sion, released him and forgave him his loan. But going out that slave found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii, and seized hold of and throttled him, saying, ‘ Pay me everything you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and implored him, saying, ‘Be patient toward me, and I shall repay you.’ He would not, though, but went off and threw him into prison until he should repay the debt. Therefore, seeing the things that had taken place, his fellow slaves were extremely upset and went and explained to their master all the things that had happened. Then, calling him forward, his master says to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt after you implored me; Should you not also have mercy on your fellow slave, even as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the inquisitors until he should repay everything owing to him. Thus also my heavenly Father will do to you unless, from your hearts, each one of you forgive his brother.” (Matt 18:21-35)

To understand St Peter’s question to Jesus (“Lord, how many times will my brother sin against me and I shall forgive him? As many as seven times?”), we need to read the preceding verses (Matt 18:1-20), which I will not quote but invite you to read in your Bibles. These verses include Matthew’s version of the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Matt 18:12-13), which is even clearer than Luke’s in stating the salvific monergism of the shepherd. No mention is made of the repentance of the rescued. The shepherd simply seeks the lost sheep and restores it to the flock, and we may assume that he does it again and again and again. “So it is not a desire that occurs to your Father in the heavens that one of these little ones should perish” (Matt 18:14).

The parable is then followed by Jesus’ instructions on how his disciples are to respond to the transgressions of their fellow disciples. Go and speak directly to the offender. If he repents, then “you gain your brother”; if not, then ask the elders of the ecclesia to inter­vene on behalf of reconciliation. If that too doesn’t work, then treat the offender as “a gentile or tax collec­tor.” Sounds like we are being told to practice a severe shunning, until we remember how Jesus treated gentiles and tax collectors. They are the lost for whom the Lord patiently searches, the disreputable with whom he joyously feasts, the outcasts whom he gladly befriends. At no point do our sins put us outside the circle of divine mercy, even if they result in our temporary severance from the Holy Eucharist. Excommunication may effect a change of canonical status; but it does not affect the love of the Father one whit. The extravagance of grace exceeds all boundaries. It cannot be limited by our mathemat­ics. Now and forever our God remains the good shepherd who saves the one lost sheep.

Jesus’ words immediately raise a question in Peter’s mind: What are the practical limits of our forgiveness of others? Let’s face it, there are lots of scoundrels out there, even in the Church. How many times should we forgive them when they injure us? Peter no doubt thinks he is being magnanimous when he proposes seven times; but Jesus quickly dis­mis­ses the math. “Seventy times seven!” he tells him. The mercy of the Father is illimitable, and it is his mercy we are bade to imitate. No matter how many times that one sheep escapes into lostness, the shepherd always seeks and restores. Nor does the lack of repentance pose an obstacle. As we have seen, Jesus unilaterally—and scandalously—welcomes the unrepentant into the Kingdom (see “Lost Sheep and Lost Coins“). Such is his divine authority and free­dom. Impenitence is God’s problem to solve, not ours. Our task is to forgive those who trespass against us—math be damned!

Capon suggests that in these verses Jesus has in fact set up Peter, and with him all the rest of us, to confront his own unwillingness to forgive as the Father forgives. He offers the follow­ing alternative (with white as Jesus and black as his disciples):

White: “… so the shepherd seeks the lost sheep unconditionally.”
Black: “You don’t really mean that as practical advice, do you?”
White: “Okay, so I’ll make it practical. Forget the first story. The shepherd in the new parable gives the stupid sheep three chances to get found; then he gives up on it.”
Black: “Hey, maybe that’s a little tougher than you meant to be. How about, he gives it seven chances?”
White: “Aha! Gotcha! How about seventy times seven? And how about checkmate? You thought I didn’t really mean unconditionally, huh?” (Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, p. 193)

In Church and Kingdom all that matters is the communion of love.

Now we are ready to consider the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. The king calls to account a servant (let’s call him Potter) who owes him an astronomical sum—ten thousand talents (100,000,000 denarii)! Potter is unable to repay the debt, and so the king orders him and his family, along with all of their possessions, to be sold. The king is a book­keep­er. He lives by the mathematics of credit and debit. Accounts are to be be settled in timely fashion and due order. Capon summarizes the situation:

Jesus begins it [the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant] by tying what he is about to say to the unconditional forgiveness he has just called for. “Diá toúto,” he says (on account of this, because of this, therefore), “the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.” Jesus, shrewd teacher that he is, begins by setting up law, not grace, as the first element of the parable. This king is a bookkeeper, pure and simple: for the honest, for the upright, and above all, for the solvent, he will have kind words; but for anyone in real trouble, he will have no care at all except to get his money back as best he can. Accordingly, when the stone-broke servant who owes him ten thousand talents is brought in (the amount of the debt is set at an astronomical ten million dollars or so to stress its radical unrepay­ability), the king orders him to be sold, lock, stock, barrel, wife, and children, and restitution to be made. There is no forgiveness in the story so far and there is no reason to expect it. It is all a matter of cut your losses and get out. (pp. 196-196)

The now desperate Potter falls to his knees and begs the mercy of the king: “Be patient toward me, and I shall repay you everything.” He knows, of course, that he will never be able to repay the loan, and he knows that the king knows this too—yet beg he must. His situation is hopeless. Only the king can save him and his family from penury and destitu­tion. And perhaps, just perhaps, the king will be snookered by Potter’s pledge to make good on the loan. Sounds extremely unlikely, but what choice does Potter have? Desperate times, desperate measures.

And to the shock of all, the king forgives the debt! Jesus tells us that he was moved to compassion. Potter has done nothing, offered nothing, to justify the royal clemency. “It is simply that the king cancels the debt,” as Capon remarks, “for reasons entirely internal to himself” (p. 196). In this moment the royal bookkeeper dies to his bookkeeping identity. We will return to this important development, but first let’s continue with the story.

Potter, now footloose and debt-free, decides to play out his own role as bookkeeper, so he approaches one of his fellow servants (let’s call him George): “Pay me everything you owe.” Sounds like the earlier king-servant script, but with one key difference: when George pleads for more time, our now newly empowered Potter heartlessly orders him to be thrown into debtor’s prison. The significance of the king’s generosity has completely passed him by. Not only did he not notice that the king’s unexpected decision to forgive Potter’s indebtedness required the king’s death to his own lethiferous bookkeeping existence, but he had also not noticed that the royal generosity had opened to Potter a new life free from bookkeeping. Capon elaborates:

The king, however, responds to nothing that the servant has in mind. He ignores the manifest nonsense about repayment. He makes no calculations at all about profit and loss. Instead, he simply drops dead to the whole busi­ness of bookkeeping and forgives the servant. Wipes the debt out. Forgets it ever existed. Does, in short, what the servant couldn’t even conceive of doing. And do you know why the king could do that and the servant could­n’t? Because the king was willing to end his old life of bookkeeping and the servant wasn’t. Indeed, the servant was so busy trying to hold together his own bookkeeper’s existence—so unable to imagine anything even vaguely like dropping dead to it that he never even saw what the king had done. All he knew was that the heat, which formerly had been on, was now off. He hadn’t the slightest notion of what it had cost the king to put out the fire. (p. 197)

It’s all about death and resurrection, all about Pascha, all about baptism (Rom 6). To be a disciple of Christ Jesus is to embrace his death on the cross and enter into a new life of love, grace, and mercy in the Holy Spirit. More Capon:

The commonest objection to Jesus’ parabolic picture of the servant’s piti­less­ness is that it sets up a cardboard figure of wickedness. “How could anyone outside a comic book,” we ask ourselves, “actually fail to see that if you’ve just been forgiven a multimillion-dollar debt—and freed from slavery to boot—you don’t first-off go and try to beat a hundred bucks out of somebody who’s still a slave?” The unforgiving servant, however, is anything but a cartoon villain; he is, in fact, exactly what everybody else in the world is, namely, an average citizen totally unwilling to face death in any way. Not only hasn’t he paid attention to his lord’s death to a lifetime of bookkeeping; he’s also totally unwilling to accept the death the king has handed him in setting him free. Note that last point well: in spite of the fact that he was an important enough servant to run up a whopping debt (mere stableboys don’t have opportunities like that), his first thought on being released was not how to die to his old life and market himself in a new one. Rather it was to go on with all his book­keep­ing as before. Hence, with deathless logic, he puts the arm on his fellow servant. And hence he misses the whole new life he might have lived out of death. (pp. 197-198)

The parable ends as it must—in judgment: “You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt after you implored me; Should you not also have mercy on your fellow slave, even as I had mercy on you?” (Matt 18:32). And so the unforgiving servant is condemned to the miser­able bookkeeping life to which he refuses to die. Jesus concludes the parable with this warning: “Thus also my heavenly Father will do to you unless, from your hearts, each one of you forgive his brother” (Matt 18:35).

Ah, some readers are now thinking, Jesus and Capon do believe in hell. What happened to all this talk about unconditional love? Here is Capon’s explanation:

Interestingly, therefore, this parable of grace ends as a parable of judgment as well—and it makes clear, long before we get to the parables of judgment themselves, the only basis on which anyone will be finally condemned. None of our debts—none of our sins, none of our trespasses, none of our errors—will ever be an obstacle to the grace that raises the dead. At the most, they will be the measure of our death, and as soon as we die, they too will be dead, because our Lord the King has already died to them. But if we refuse to die—and in particular, if we insist on binding others’ debts upon them in the name of our own right to life—we will, by not letting grace have its way through us, cut ourselves off from ever knowing the joy of grace in us.

In heaven, there are only forgiven sinners. There are no good guys, no upright, successful types who, by dint of their own integrity, have been accepted into the great country club in the sky. There are only failures, only those who have accepted their deaths in their sins and who have been raised up by the King who himself died that they might live.

But in hell, too, there are only forgiven sinners. Jesus on the cross does not sort out certain exceptionally recalcitrant parties and cut them off from the pardon of his death. He forgives the badness of even the worst of us, willy-nilly; and he never takes back that forgiveness, not even at the bottom of the bottomless pit.

The sole difference, therefore, between hell and heaven is that in heaven the forgiveness is accepted and passed along, while in hell it is rejected and blocked. In heaven, the death of the king is welcomed and becomes the door­way to new life in the resurrection. In hell, the old life of the bookkeep­ing world is insisted on and becomes, forever, the pointless torture it always was.

There is only one unpardonable sin, and that is to withhold pardon from others. The only thing that can keep us out of the joy of the resurrection is to join the unforgiving servant in his refusal to die. (pp. 199-200)

Capon is not a universalist in the mold of a David Bentley Hart, but neither is he dogmatic infernalist in the mold of a St Augustine of Hippo. But more on that later.

What are the limits of forgiveness? Jesus’ answer: Throw out the mathematics!

(Go to “To Forgive is to Die”)

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7 Responses to Jesus and the Mathematics of Forgiveness

  1. Iain Lovejoy says:

    I think an overlooked point in Jesus’s teaching about disputes with one’s brother is that the “you” of “you shall treat him as a gentile or tax collector” is singular, not plural. It is not the ecclesia or the community or the church that is so addressed, but the individual who is wronged who is so instructed. A further point is that a “gentile or tax collector” is not a sinner but a representative or ally of the occupying colonial power. Galileans and Jews couldn’t “shun” or exclude or otherwise discipline the Romans or their collaborators as the Romans were the ones in charge of the place and could do what they wanted to who they wanted.
    If the person wronged is supposed to treat the one who has wronged them as if they were a Roman or tax collector, then they are being told to treat them as someone against whom, protected by the colonial power of Rome, there is no remedy for the wrong done.
    As far as I can see, Jesus’s instruction is to, if they won’t listen to the ecclesia, write off the debt rather than pursue the matter in court.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Capon has some interesting thoughts on the question of binding of sin, but I chose not to discuss his view, given the length of my article.


  2. G-tic says:

    So, if God is supposedly so forgiving, what exactly is the motivation supposed to be for this perpetual forgiveness on humanity’s part? If he is so forgiving, then he will forgive one’s own lack of forgiveness no matter how many grudges one chooses to carry. If he is not, then he fails to meet his own standard and hence is not very credible.


    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      A life in joyous and perfect fellowship and communion with God and our fellow humam beings is the best life that it is possible to live, and with God we can live this life eternally. Instead continuing through life nursing grudges against our neighbour is, I would have thought, self-evidently incompatible with such fellowship. Without such fellowship we are miserable, harm ourselves, sicken and eventually die, and if we die and still will not accept such fellowship we must flee God to the outer darkness to escape it.
      I can’t see any stonger motive for forgiveness, frankly.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. dianelos says:

    I feel people may misunderstand the parable of the unforgiving servant. After all the servant was not really unconditionally forgiven by the king, for when the servant behaved badly to the other servant the king revoked his forgiveness.

    I think the true meaning of the parable is this: God’s forgiveness resides in – or consists of – our forgiving our neighbours. It is in our forgiving our neighbours that God forgives us. That’s why in the parable the hard-hearted servant found himself no longer forgiven by God.

    It is in having the proper relationship with each other that we place ourselves in the proper relationship with God. After all, when we forgive our neighbours we are not doing them a favour but are doing ourselves a favour. For by forgiving our enemies we mend our relationship with them; we free ourselves from anger against them, and open the way for loving them. And in loving them we make ourselves similar to Christ and thus become close to God and inhabitants of the Kingdom. In this life or the next.

    As for God, his relationship with us has never failed in any way and has never needed any mending; God has never stopped loving us perfectly. Thus to speak of God forgiving us is actually incoherent; it is to project our own condition onto God. In truth we should not ask God for forgiveness, but ask him for the strength to forgive one another.

    Again, the Kingdom is prepared for us from the beginning of creation. So it is not like God admitting us to it (never mind punishing or rewarding us). We are already invited to the feast and the doors are open. But because of love God does not compel us to accept the invitation. We are not forced by God to transform ourselves into the likeness of Christ and live close to him. God is like the long suffering father who lets the prodigal son freely choose his own path and then waits for him to repent and come home.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Tom says:

    All I know is forgiveness isn’t easy. It’s the hardest damn work one can engage. To forgive yourself – to stand in agreement with God in his forgiveness of you, extending to yourself who and what he is – that will break and deconstruct every falsehood in you.

    Liked by 3 people

    • brian says:

      Right, Tom. I think folks often carry a forensic justification model of forgiveness, a kind of extrinsic wiping of the slate. Genuine forgiveness requires the death of idols and the root of idolatry is the human heart. The ego must be broke down, die, in order to resurrect to new life. No one on this side of the eschatological divide is done with it.

      Liked by 2 people

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