Ask a child to apologize, to admit his or her wrong-doing, and you will discover the early limits of our empathy. It is easy to speak and to preach about forgiveness. The challenge comes with living ‘forgiveness in our life and communities.

Being corrected is painful, for it brings to mind how we have failed, especially how we have let down those we love. Asking for forgiveness is an act of humility. And yet perhaps as challenging as asking for forgiveness is the granting of forgiveness. After all, forgiveness heals relationships by requiring us to let go, to turn the page, to refuse the right to hold on to bitterness and anger. Forgiveness, in short, sets things right again. Forgiveness is a powerfully healing force but also an incredibly difficult thing to receive or share.

Peter here asks about the limits of the granting of forgiveness even as Jesus brings our attention back to the grace under which God has healed us. Peter wonders aloud how far our forgiveness should expand. Jesus turns Peter’s question around to the deep grace God has shared. In Matthew 18: 20-35, Jesus teaches about the practical way of “Living the Forgiveness”. Who should forgive? Why should we forgive? How should we forgive? When should One forgive?

We are all familiar with this Parable of Matthew 18:20-35. It was relevant during Jesus’ time and it is still relevant today. Peter thus asks how wide our forgiveness should be, how many times must I be slighted before I say enough, how long, O Lord, before our reservoir of grace can be exhausted. This is a natural question, of course. We know too well both the small and large ways that others can tread upon us. We know too well that others can take advantage of our generosity. We know too well the sting of consistent affront. At what point do we say, “Enough?”

Peter begins by establishing what he and we might consider a rather high bar of forgiveness, a significant concession to those who might hurt us. Should I forgive someone as many as seven times? That seems generous if not munificent. After all, aren’t second (let alone seventh!) chances exceedingly rare in our lives?

But Jesus, as he often does, poses a radical suggestion: not seven but 77 times are we to forgive. Of course, what Jesus is suggesting is not a larger ledger upon which we can keep track of offenses. He’s not merely requiring an additional number of gracious acts. Instead, he is suggesting there is no need for a ledger whatsoever. Forgiveness is a deep reservoir of grace that ought never to run dry. Why not?

As we answer this question, we should note Jesus’ parabolic response. Jesus seems to treasure teaching in parables. He is a vivid storyteller. He casts simple but memorable stories that communicate profound and life-altering truths. This might explain the continued ubiquity in our culture of the images Jesus cast and the perpetuity of his teachings.

In this particular parable, Jesus tells of a king settling debts with his servants. It may be that the servants are in the state they are in precisely because of the burden of their debts. That is, they may be slaves as a way to compensate their aggrieved creditors. One of these servants carries a massive financial obligation to his king, a debt too great ever to be repaid. And so the king decrees that the nameless debtor and his family ought to be sold in order to pay the debt. If he will not receive the amount due, at least the king can receive some compensation in exchange for the slave’s labors.

Knowing his whole life was about to be crushed, the debtor begs for more time, more patience but receives something unexpected instead: a wholesale remission of his debts.

The motives of the king are simple: pity. Perhaps he is moved by the man’s plight and their common humanity. Perhaps he is touched by the desperate situation in which this slave finds himself. Perhaps he sees the crippling intergenerational chains of debt that might bind this slave’s children and grandchildren. Perhaps he is a compassionate person. Though perhaps he may only see an economic opportunity; it may be worth more to see this servant free, to exchange an unpayable financial debt for a more useful personal obligation to the king.