The Most Difficult Thing in the Universe
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. —Matthew 6: 11–12
These familiar words are at the heart of the prayer our Lord teaches us to pray. But what is this kingdom we pray to come on earth as it is in heaven? Would we recognise it if did come? How might we live and move and have our being in such a kingdom?
As defined throughout these reflections, the kingdom of heaven is a state of relationships, the kind of relationships we all long for: being related harmoniously, rightly, joyously to our fellow creatures and to our loving Creator. We learn about this kingdom, these relationships, through the ministry of Jesus Christ. Indeed the very purpose of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is to establish the kingdom of God on earth. And a key to the kingdom, a key that unlocks the gates of the kingdom, is forgiveness.
The apostle Peter asks the Lord how many times we should forgive someone who has done us wrong. The rabbinical standard of the day was three times (as in “three strikes, you’re out”). But Peter guesses there is more mercy in the kingdom than that, and so he asks, “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” And Jesus replies there should be no limit to forgiveness. “Not seven times,” he says, “but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” He might as well have said seven million times. Jesus is the master of hyperbole.
Then to drive his point home, Jesus tells a parable. “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.” What follows is the story of a slave who owes his king ten thousand talents, an amount equal today to perhaps twelve million dollars. It is an impossible sum. More hyperbole. When the slave requests that his debt be forgiven, the king grants his request, absorbing the debt himself. The slave then encounters a fellow slave who owes him the paltry sum of a hundred denarii, an amount equal to about twenty dollars. This hard-hearted slave refuses to forgive the debt. He has just been forgiven a debt five hundred times greater than what he is owed! When the king learns what has happened, he sends for this unforgiving servant and has him punished.
Jesus is telling Peter (and he is telling us) that our offences against God are forgiven in the kingdom of heaven and, likewise, we are to forgive those who offend us. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” so the Lord teaches us to pray. “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Thus we are to pray for the kingdom of God and for forgiveness—and well we should. For Jesus Christ came into the world to establish God’s kingdom, and a key to the kingdom is forgiveness.
What is forgiveness? At its root is the word give. In French, the root of pardon is donner, “to give”; and in German, the root of vergebung is geben, “to give.” To forgive means “to give something up; with an open hand, to let something go.” In the parable told by Jesus, the king forgives his slave an impossible debt of twelve million dollars. The king, in effect, makes the slave a gift of the money he owes. It costs the slave nothing, but it costs the king plenty. That is the nature of a gift. “Forgiveness is not cheap, is not facile,” says South African archbishop Desmond Tutu. “It is costly. Reconciliation is not an easy option. It cost God the death of his Son.”
Forgiveness of a financial debt is difficult because it is costly. Perhaps even more difficult is the kind of forgiveness Peter asks Jesus about. How many times should we forgive someone who has done us wrong, someone who has offended us? Jesus says we should forgive always. To forgive a personal offence is difficult because we must give up something more precious than money. We must surrender our sense of moral superiority. When someone has wronged us, we feel we have the right to retaliate. We may even enjoy the act of retaliation.
Forgiveness is the most difficult thing in the universe. Yet it is the most important. Forgiveness can bring our conflicted world into the kingdom of God by breaking the cycle of revenge that has poisoned human relations since the beginning of time. Forgiveness can bring each of our conflicted selves into the kingdom of God by erasing the sin that has alienated us from our loving Creator. Our heavenly Father is ready and willing to forgive our trespasses, just as we forgive those who trespass against us.
To be forgiving means giving up our sense of moral superiority, our arrogant self-righteousness; to be unforgiving is to lock our hearts in pride, locking out the needs of others and our need for God. What liberates us is forgiveness, a generous and self-giving act of reconciling grace.
Rawls, James J.. On the Way: 100 Reflections on the Journey of Faith. WestBow Press. Kindle Edition.