Contributed by Jack Saarela, Interim campus pastor, Indiana University-PA



Warm-up Question

In your daily life, what are the offenses you find hardest to forgive?  Why?

Rage, Debts, and Forgiveness

This Sunday marks the tenth anniversary of 9/11 – the morning when four commercial airliners were taken over by members of the terrorist faction Al-Qaeda. Many readers can remember exactly where they were and what they were feeling when two planes brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York

Phyllis Rodriguez certainly can. She was returning from a morning walk along the Bronx River when the porter in her building told her there was a fire at the World Trade Center, where her son Greg worked. When she reached  her apartment, she saw, to her relief, that Greg had left a voice message, saying that there had been a horrible accident at the south tower, but that he was safe in the north tower. When she turned on the TV, she saw to her horror that a plane hit the north tower – and she knew this was no accident. She never heard from Greg again.

Phyllis was devastated. But what made everything worse for her was the strong suspicion that, given the ferocious anger and profound sense of having been violated among the American people, the United States government would use her son’s name, along with that of 3,000 others, to take vengeful military action in Afghanistan.

Two months later, a Moroccan immigrant in France, Aicha el-Wafi, was also devastated to see on a TV news clip that her son, Zacarias Moussaoui, had been  indicted on charges of conspiring to plan the attack that killed Greg Rodriguez and so many others.

In 2002, Aicha came to New York for the trial of her son. Phyllis Rodriguez was invited by the government to attend the trial. She went to the federal courthouse, but not to see Moussaoui convicted.  She went, not to “get revenge” or “reach some closure”, but because she knew that another mother, Aicha, would be there.  Phyllis wanted to reach out to a fellow sufferer who was also losing a dear son.

When Aicha arrived at the courthouse, her eyes fell on Phyllis immediately, almost as if drawn by some emotional magnet. The two women  fell into each other’s arms and wept uncontrollably for a long time. Each felt the other’s heart beating as her own.

“When Greg was killed, I thought, I will never forgive the people who murdered my son.” Phyllis says. “But the day I met Aicha changed my life. I have come to see forgiveness as a difficult process. I haven’t forgiven the act, but I have been learning to forgive Aicha’s son because I love her, and I can’t hate someone she loves.”

 Discussion Questions

  • Does it seem unnatural for a mother to forgive the perpetrators of her son’s murder? Wouldn’t it have been more natural for her to want to get some “payback” and “her due” instead?  What do you think helped Phyllis go beyond what might be “natural?”
  • If you witnessed the events of 9/11 on TV as they were happening, or since, what emotions were you feeling, and how are you feeling towards the terrorists now?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, September 11, 2011 (Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost)

 Genesis 50:15-21 

Romans 14:1-12

Matthew 18:21-35

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

Peter asks Jesus a question about forgiving someone in the community who wrongs him. Jesus answers Peter’s question with a few pointed words, but then illustrates his answer with a great story.

In the process of settling his accounts, a king writes off a rather large debt owed by one of his servants. But then this particular servant runs into another who is indebted to him for a relatively small amount. But because the latter can’t come up with all the money owed on the spot, the one whose debt had been forgiven by the king proceeds to have the guy put in jail for failure to pay. Not exactly doing unto others as another has done unto you, is it?

The servant owed the king ten thousand “talents” (a form of currency, not something that gets you on a television reality show.) It would take a typical servant of this man’s station fifteen years to earn just one talent. So, do the math: the king in the story is owed about 150,000 years worth of the servant’s income! Has this servant maxed out his credit, or what?

How about the other servant’s debt? He owes 100 denarii. A denarius was roughly the daily wage of a servant. One talent is equal to 5,475 denarii. Again, use the calculator on your phone, and you’ll see that the debt that the king forgave the first servant (5,475 times 10,000) was over 54 million denarii! And he can’t forgive the other servant a debt of a mere 100 denarii? What’s wrong with this picture?

But, you ask, what kind of king would loan a servant a ridiculously exorbitant sum equal to 150,000 years’ wages? The answer, of course, is no king worth his salt would, unless he’s wackier than George III. Jesus is deliberately exaggerating here, just as he does with Peter when he tells him that it isn’t enough to forgive someone who has wronged you seven times, but rather seventy-seven times. The man’s debt is unthinkable, and for him to repay such a debt is utterly impossible. So is forgiving someone even seven times, not to mention seventy-seven.

Phyllis Rodriguez, you remember, had thought it impossible to forgive the terrorists who murdered his son and 3,000 others. There’s at least one hurt in my life that I can think of right now that I find virtually impossible to forgive. I’ve been trying, but whenever I visualize the person who administered the hurt to me, I feel the knot in my stomach, and my thoughts about this person are not generous.

Every now and then, I remember to pray to God for strength to do what I cannot do on my own. Peter must have been utterly disheartened when Jesus put before him the impossible instruction to forgive someone who has hurt him not just once, or seven times, but seventy-seven times (i.e. endlessly). He could not have known at the time that 10,000 talents and plenty more was the size of the human debt God would soon forgive through Jesus’ death on the cross. All the sin, of all people, in all the world, through all of time. Huge!

We gain strength sometimes to extend love and forgiveness even when we ourselves feel unable, because the forgiving king wants to love and forgive through us.

Discussion Questions

  • Can you think of other instances in the gospels where Jesus uses hyperbole and exaggeration to get our attention?
  •  Is it just me, or do you also get the impression that when we talk about “justice” in our legal system, we really mean revenge? Don’t we assume in our culture that each person has a right to retaliate, “get our due” and enjoy “payback time”?  DOES everyone have that right; why or why not?
  •  (This one is for you to contemplate privately.) Is there an unresolved hurt in your life? A wrong inflicted on you by someone that you can’t get past? A person, or a group. who causes your stomach to tie in a knot? Someone you just can’t forgive? Then take a silent moment to name that hurt to God, to name that person or group. Then ask God for healing of the hurt and the strength to move toward forgiving. And remember God’s unbounded forgiveness of you, and trust that healing and strength will come.

Activity Suggestions

  • To see and hear Phyllis Rodriguez and Aicha el-Wafi talk about their friendship based on forgiveness, go to: or type “Phyllis Rodriguez” in the in Search box.
  • Another excruciating tragedy was the killing of five Amish schoolgirls in Lancaster County, PA on October 2, 2006. But the Amish Christians soon turned it into a story about the power of forgiveness. The movies Amish Grace and The Power of Forgiveness tell the story. For a brief and inspiring snapshot, go to: or type “Amish Forgiveness in the Search box.


Closing Prayer

God,  it’s just not natural to forgive those who hurt us deeply.  But I am slowly realizing that holding hate just eats me up from within.  It was not natural for you to love a creation which rejected you–but you did.  Make me less natural and more like you, Jesus my Lord, in whose name I pray.  Amen.