Peter’s question

On Sunday mornings for about the past month, I’ve been teaching out of Matthew 18.  Last week, we took a close look at Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant (18:21-35, which I’ve already referred to briefly in an earlier post, “Forgiveness isn’t blindness”).  This wasn’t the first time that I’ve taught from that passage, and it won’t be the last.  Jesus’ message of radical forgiveness remains as challenging as ever, as was readily apparent from this past Sunday’s discussion of the parable.

By way of recap: Peter asks Jesus how many times he has to forgive a brother that sins against him.  Jesus brushes aside his way of thinking, and responds with a story about a servant who lost a huge chunk of the king’s assets.  When the servant begged for mercy, the king took pity on him and cancelled the entire debt.  But the clueless servant then went out, found someone who owed him pocket change by comparison, and began to wring his neck.  That man too begged for mercy, but the servant would have none of it, and threw the man into prison.  Furious, the king chastised the servant for his lack of mercy, and had him imprisoned as well, to be tortured until the debt was satisfied.  “That’s how my Father will treat you,” Jesus warns, “unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

As gruesome as it sounds, there’s a certain poetic justice in that ending.  The king forgave the servant an unimaginably massive debt, and the proper response would have been for the servant to forgive the debts of others in turn, or at least to demonstrate mercy in some other way.  That’s the kind of moral mirroring that is expressed in the Lord’s Prayer.  Instead, however, the wicked servant refused to show mercy, and received from the king what he had already doled out to another.  That may be frightening, but it’s not unfair.  “Blessed are the merciful,” Jesus says, “for they will receive mercy” (Matt 5:7).

Whenever I teach on Jesus’ radical demand of forgiveness, though, I get a fairly predictable reaction.  Someone will balk, understandably, citing some example of being constantly abused or taken advantage of by someone else.  The question, often asked with some agitation, will take different forms.  The essence, however, is this: “Are you saying that I have to keep putting up with this?  Are Christians just supposed to be doormats?  If someone hurts me, does forgiveness mean I have to keep taking it, no matter what, no matter how many times?”  The question may even be asked rhetorically, as if the obvious and expected answer should be, “No, no, of course not.  Not in a situation like that.”

I hope what I said in my earlier post makes it clear that I don’t expect Christians to simply roll over and play dead when they’ve been abused by other Christians.  Indeed, the context of Jesus’ parable suggests that Peter’s question may have been a response to the teaching that immediately preceded it–when your brother sins against you, confront him in private first, then take witnesses, and so on (Matt 18:15-20).  Jesus is describing how to handle a matter between Christians, with the goal being repentance and reconciliation.  He’s hardly telling anyone to be a doormat.

We can’t know, of course, why Peter asked the question he did.  But here’s a possible scenario.  “Lord, that’s all well and good,” Peter thinks.  “Thanks for the advice.  But what if I go to my brother like you say, and tell him what he’s done, and he says he’s sorry–and then he does it again?  And again?  How many times do I have to ride this merry-go-round?  Isn’t there some kind of limit?”

Many of us, I think, have been in just that place, and our questions come from there.  The details may be different, but we find ourselves asking Peter’s question all over again: “Isn’t there a limit?”

Let me start with a counterquestion.  Where does God draw the limit with his children?  How many times does the Holy Spirit convict us of the same offense?  And how many times can we tell God we’re sorry before he washes his hands of us and says, “That’s it–no more mercy for you”?  That, I think, gets to the heart of Jesus’ parable.  We want and need mercy from God, for without it we are lost.  We may even get to the place of taking God’s free and generous mercy for granted.  But when it comes to being merciful to others, we get stingy and self-protective.  That’s not God’s will for those who are supposed to be his representatives on this earth.

Having said that, let me also be clear: I don’t think Jesus is giving us new laws or setting behavioral requirements.   Peter’s question is looking for a limit, a guideline, a rule: “Teacher, this whole new religion thing sounds really hard.  But just tell me what to do and how long I have to do it, and I’ll give it my best shot.”  Jesus’ response is to set aside that whole way of thinking, the way of legalistic religion.

Twice already in Matthew, he has done the same with the Pharisees.  When they criticized him for eating with tax collectors, he responded, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice'” (9:13, NIV).  Later, when they challenged him for violating the Sabbath because his hungry disciples were picking grain, he said, “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent” (12:7, NIV).  In both cases, Jesus is pointing back to the words of the prophets, who constantly lambasted God’s people for their empty religion.  Here’s Hosea:

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings (Hos 6:6, NIV).

And the prophet Micah:

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God?  Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?  Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?  Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?  He has showed you, O man, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (Mic 6:6-8, NIV).

I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that Jesus saw the same empty works-based religion behind Peter’s question, and told him a story to begin reshaping his imagination–to reshape his heart in the ways of mercy.

If that’s a fair way of reading the parable, then it’s both good news and bad news.  The good news is that no, Jesus is not saying that we have to be doormats.  What he wants to see in us is a heart that has been transformed by the mercy of God, that shows itself in mercy toward others.  That mercy will often take the form of forgiving Christians who have mistreated us in some way–but forgiving an unrepentant abuser does not automatically entail allowing the abuse to continue.  Concretely, for example, I don’t believe the parable would necessarily require the servant to cancel the 100 denarius debt that was legitimately owed to him; it would have satisfied the moral and spiritual requirement of compassionate mercy to simply grant the man’s request for more time.

But here’s the other side.  The bad news is that Jesus simply won’t answer Peter’s question about limits, nor ours.  We’re anxious that Jesus may be asking too much of us, and we want to know, “When is enough enough?”  We want to draw a line or a boundary that allows us to say, “I only have to go this far, and no farther.  Jesus said it was OK, and I don’t have to feel guilty about it.”  If Jesus refuses to give Peter a straight answer to the question of limits, we shouldn’t try to tweak the parable or any of Jesus’ teaching in that direction.  The only limit, if there is one, would be the cross itself.

What we need to ask ourselves is this: do we really, truly understand the breadth and depth of the mercy which God has lavished on us?  Do we know the true extent of our debt, and what a miracle of grace it is to have that debt cancelled, wiped off the books?  Let’s be honest: on any given day, most of us probably have an automatic tendency to think more highly of ourselves than we should, especially if we were to have God’s mercy fully in view (Rom 12:1-3).

And that self-centered tendency is exacerbated when someone’s offended us.  We are the innocent victim, the other is the guilty perpetrator.  We are the hero, the other is the villain.  We despise the other for his or her sin, and there is neither mercy nor pity in our hearts.

In the end, we’ll have to live with some ambiguity.  We are trying to navigate a world that is so broken by sin that even Christians sometimes bite and devour one another.  To follow Jesus’ example is risky; if we decide on a particular course of forgiveness, then yes, we may be opening ourselves to be hurt again.  There is no simple formula that will tell us exactly how we are to behave in each and every situation.  I believe that God in his grace has given us the freedom to decide.

But one thing, it seems, is non-negotiable.  We are to love mercy.  To ask Peter’s question first is to get our priorities the wrong way around.  Instead, we must begin by asking ourselves whether we love mercy, and if the answer is no, then why?  And when we’ve resolved that question, then Peter’s question may no longer be as important as it seemed at first.