The Danger of Keeping Score
Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. Matthew 18:21-35
Last week I wrote that faith must be rooted in community to be sustainable. I metaphorically likened faith to a team sport and I stand by that. But your next question might be, who is keeping score? While this section of Matthew is clearly about how to build and sustain healthy community life, it also warns us of the temptation to keep score.
Peter is quite generous in his approach by offering forgiveness seven times – he goes above and beyond what most of us imagine is reasonable. Rather than applauding this gesture, Jesus instead dismisses Peter by naming a number that, frankly, would be hard to keep track of if that’s the point. The parable that follows tells the story of someone who has received forgiveness beyond measure and yet is stingy in their own response to another’s much smaller debt.
What are we to make of this? It seems to me that Jesus is trying to turn the calculus completely on its head. Rather than worrying about how we’ve been wronged and how generous and beneficent we are in response to those wrongs, He asks us to contemplate what we have already received. If we know ourselves to be deeply loved as children of God, how can anything compare to that in terms of other relationships? God’s love and mercy extends beyond our human capacity to understand. There is nothing we can do to earn that kind of love and God’s hope is that we will use our knowledge of that gift and offer it back to one another in the world.
Jesus encourages us to resolve our conflicts and to do it quickly and privately, and after it is resolved within community, to let it go and move forward in a restored relationship.
These texts require special attention, because they can be misused in ways that encourage a tolerance for abuse, which is never the goal of love. Love seeks mutual accountability and justice at the same time it seeks the humility of knowing we always are in the debt of the One who loves us first and always. The best test of this relationship is our own awareness of the forgiveness we have received in our own life. When we recognize that in ourselves, forgiveness is much easier to offer to one another.