Rick Sweeney
7 min readSep 18, 2020



MATTHEW 18: 21–35

EXODUS 14: 19–31 15: 20,21


A. Recently, I preached at a church that was very liturgical. It’s the kind of church where when the preacher says, “The Lord be with you,” the congregation responds, “And also with you.” They were having difficulties with the sound equipment. From the pulpit I said, “There is something wrong with this microphone.” And the congregation said, “And also with you.”

B. Most of the time, I can tell you what is wrong with just about everything, politicians, other people’s driving, professional sports, people who won’t wear masks, racism. But then there are those quiet moments when I wonder what is wrong with me. In one church the Associate pastor was a black woman. I told her a joke and I wanted to know if it was racist. I have a friend who is half Japanese and half black. Every December 7th he attacks Pearl Bailey. Is that racist? She said, “No. It’s just stupid.” Recently I have been feeling the need to seek forgiveness from black folks for all that they continue to suffer at the hands of white folks.

C. And in thinking about this passage I have been very interested in what Jesus thinks about forgiveness. Peter is apparently mad at somebody in the church. This person must be a frequent offender. I know that there are none of those in this church, but some churches have them. They are a pain in the assembly. Peter wants to know how many times he is expected to forgive this person. And Jesus says to him, “Put away your calculator. Seven times seventy is not about 490. It’s the ultimate number of infinity. My best friend as a kid was Richie. He was mad at his brother. Our Sunday school teacher said, you have to forgive him 490 times. And Rickie looked at me and said, “Well, he’s getting pretty close.

D. This number from Jesus is what we call hyperbole. It’s the intentionally exaggerated number to make a point. It’s your mother saying, “I’ve told you a million times to not exaggerate!” Peter sees forgiveness as transactional. In other words, not grace based. So, Jesus tells him a story.


A. You know the story. A servant owes the master 10,000 talents. That’s Jesus using hyperbole again. That would have been mor than two lifetimes of wages. It was an impossible debt to pay. The King is apparently grace driven. He forgives it all. Then the wicked servant goes out and rings the neck of a fellow servant who owes him 20 bucks. Then the master throws the wicked servant in jail for not forgiving a little since he had been forgiven a lot. Are you starting to get the picture, Peter? Forgiveness is not about a number or an amount. It’s about a new attitude, like God’s attitude, an attitude of grace.

B. But let’s take this out a bit further. What if it isn’t about a minor skirmish in church? What if it isn’t something like others sitting in your pew or how could she choose this color for the new carpet or he voted against my proposal or they criticized the visiting preacher’s sermon. What if we are talking about someone who has oppressed you for years? Take the Hebrew people; slaves in Egypt for 400 years. When they escape and cross the sea and the water drowns their oppressors, do they mourn those deaths? No, they dance and sing. The Egyptians are clearly unforgiven. So, what do you say, Jesus? I know I am supposed to forgive and that to forgive is divine, but I am human. Would I be able to forgive someone who had kept me in miserable slavery for 400 years? I don’t know. I can’t know what it would be like to be black in America. Just as I cannot know how it would feel to be an abused wife. Could I forgive the ones who had oppressed or abused me? Would I have sung and danced over the graves of the Egyptians?

C. One of my best efforts at forgiveness was of a drunk driver. He crossed the center line hit me head on. I injured my neck and my back and had a bruise on my chest from the seat belt. He was uninjured, not a scratch. This was his 4th DUI. He was driving without a license. The next day his mother called me. She was crying. She told me that her son had serious problems and that this time he was going to jail where she hoped he might get the help he needed. She asked if I could ever forgive him. I said that insurance would cover the car and I would be all right. So, yes, I could forgive him.

D. If I was feeling self-righteous about that, it ended when my wife asked me if I could forgive him if it had been her or one of our kids that he had hit and if one of them had died as a result. How much was that debt I owed you again, God?


A. I have a friend who says he could never be a Christian because of this teaching of Jesus. Revenge means too much to him. He is keeping score of any wrong done to him. He keeps his calculator busy. His motto is do unto others before they have a chance to do it unto you.” Sorry don’t feed the bulldog” is one of his favorite sayings. Do you know what he looks like? Make a face that shows that something is bitter. That’s what he looks like.

B. Bitter is the face you make when your daughter keeps forgiving her abusive husband and goes back again and again until one day you get a call from the police saying she has been murdered. Bitter is the face you make when the men who lynched your son walk out of the courtroom free men. Bitter is the face of one who will not forgive. Bitter is the face of a woman who goes to Lower Manhattan and traces the name of the one she loved with her finger and feels the same level of hatred as she did 19 years ago. Understand, forgiveness does not excuse the act or condone it being repeated. It does not deny the hurt and it does not excuse the oppressor from consequences.

C. There was a pretty clear sign of forgiveness a few months ago when a white police officer entered an apartment and found a black man-eating ice cream. She shot him to death. She thought it was her apartment. When the jury found her guilty the brother of the slain man came down and hugged her. There were many in the black community who did not approve of that hug. Some say, “How long are we supposed to be the ones who forgive?” But there it was, grace on display. The brother said later, “I don’t want to carry around all that hatred. It’s too heavy.” Members of the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston said that they forgave the white supremacist for murdering 9 of their beloved sisters and brothers. A reporter asked them why they forgave him they said, “Because that is what Jesus told us to do.” Their faces were not bitter because their hearts were not bitter. Grace is sweet.

D. I knew a woman once who suffered abuse from her husband. She told me that she had forgiven him now that they were divorced, and he was living with some other unfortunate woman out of state. I asked how she could forgive him. She said, I forgive him, not because what he did was OK and not because the pain wasn’t real. I forgive him because I won’t let him live in my head anymore. I need to have him out of my life emotionally as well as physically, I refuse to let him turn me into a bitter and unhappy woman. I am denying him anymore power over me. Hatred takes a lot of energy and he is not worth it.


A. I think the main reason Jesus commands us to forgive is for OUR benefit, not the offender. God pours out all of this amazing grace on us and then asks us, because he loves us to live graciously with each other. In a few minutes we are going to say the Lord’s Prayer. In that prayer we are going to say forgive us our debts AS we forgive our debtors. That AS word is a huge word isn’t it? When we say that, do we mean forgive us like we forgive them or in the same way that we forgive them or as many times as we forgive them or not until we forgive them? Maybe it means a little of all of those things.

B. God wants us to forgive the same way God forgives us. But is that humanly possible? Have you ever been hurt deeply or repeatedly? Maybe you are remembering a time when someone hurt you deeply and you have had a hard time forgiving them. I worry sometimes if I am forgiven by God while I still carry some bitterness towards those who have hurt me. Then I think about how much harder it is for those who have suffered oppression for years.

C. But here is some good news. God’s grace is so amazing that God is even able to forgive us when we withhold forgiveness from others for a while. Is forgiving those who have hurt us the hardest thing that Jesus asks us to do? It might be. That’s because it is at the heart of what it means to live in the grace of God in Jesus Christ who forgave the ones who were driving spikes through his hands and feet. That’s no hyperbole. I’m going to work on it. I’m going to throw away my calculator.



Rick Sweeney

The Reverend Dr. Richard Sweeney, Rick, is a retired Presbyterian pastor and author. Rick lives with his wife, Prudy, in Greensburg, PA.