It’s complicated, but God gave us humans the capacity for complicated calculus, for nuance and discernment. Nuance loses its popularity in a time of high anxiety and reactivity, but faith calls us to rise above our brain stem and fire up our cerebral cortex. Jesus makes a distinction between bearing a grudge and requiring accountability. He makes a distinction between resentment and restitution.

Exodus 14:19–31
The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.”
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.

Matthew 18:21–35
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.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

The Calculus of Grace

The story of bad guys getting what they have coming to them is a sure bet for a blockbuster action movie. From James Bond to Batman, the story is biblical: An oppressed people are exploited and abused by a diabolical figure who oozes evil. After a struggle that takes enough time to eat a giant bucket of popcorn and wash it down with a soda, our hero defeats the evil villain, walks away from the wreckage and presses a button that blows up the bad guys. The hero does not even look back.

If the story of Pharaoh’s army drowning in the Red Sea with the axles of their chariots stuck in the mud seems harsh, it is only because the lectionary has dropped us into the story at the point of revenge without the benefit of hearing all the evil deeds of Pharaoh that have been recounted in the previous chapters. In the context of the story of Exodus, no Bond villain is more evil and paranoid than this Egyptian pharaoh.

When this story was recounted around the camp fire by our ancestors in the faith, there would have been cheering and singing and shouts of “Yes!” when the waters of the Red Sea come crashing down on Pharaoh’s soldiers. It probably did not happen often that someone sitting around that campfire, hearing this story for the first time, would say, “Wait a minute. Were Pharaoh’s soldiers all volunteers? Or were they conscripted? Did they sign up to work for an evil mastermind or did they think they were fighting to preserve peace, order, and the Egyptian way of life?”

It would be a few centuries before the prophets of Israel began to dive deeper into this story and consider that the God who created the heavens and the earth and all that exists also created the Egyptians. They, too, are children of God. It is a shocking proclamation when Isaiah paints a picture of all the world, people of every nation, including Babylon, Egypt, Canaanites, and Assyrians, all of them, streaming toward the mountain of God to praise the One God of Israel.

Such an image was as shocking then as it would be now for an action movie to end, not with a satisfying explosion that destroys all the bad guys, but a council of peace and reconciliation where the villain, like the Joker, sees the error of his ways and decides to join forces with Batman.

One of the reasons action movies are so successful is that they tap into the dark side of a deep human desire for justice. The dark side of justice, of course, is revenge and retaliation. When a storyteller taps into that deep well of emotional reactivity that simmers in our brain stem, it doesn’t take much to boil it over. And when it does, the line between justice and revenge disappears into the fog of white hot anger.

And then, along comes Jesus.

Jesus has a way of spoiling the plot. Take, for example, this parable in Matthew. When Jesus’s audience hears a parable about a slaveowner, their minds would immediately jump to Pharaoh. And what kind of slaveowner would let his slave get into his debt by ten thousand talents, which I have calculated to be equal in today’s currency to be worth about forty-two gazillion dollars? It has to be a trap—and sure enough, this slaveowner hatches an evil plan, just like something Pharaoh would do, to sell the slave, all his possessions, and his wife, and all his children, presumably all to different places so he might never see his family again.

Almost as evil as when Pharaoh ordered the murder of all the Hebrew baby boys.

But, Jesus does not follow the storytellers’ formula. When the slave asks for mercy, the slaveowner doesn’t just give him more time to pay; he wipes the debt of forty-two gazillion dollars off of the books. Gone, forgiven, paid in full, just like that. The guy we thought was the villain becomes a hero.

The second odd twist of Jesus’s parable is when the indebted slave, with whom any Israelite would sympathize and identify with, turns into the villain of the story. The over-the-top absurdity of the one forgiven forty-two gazillion dollars who refuses to extend the payment period to his fellow slave a debt of about 10,400 dollars, or a hundred days of minimum wage in Montgomery County, would have made Jesus’s audience gasp and guffaw. It truly becomes a parable here, that is, it takes the shape of a parabola. It begins by appearing to go after someone else, but then it comes back at the listener in an unexpected way.

It’s not the big bad slaveowner that takes it between the eyes here, but the slave who fails to have his own heart softened by the grace he has received.

It is an unsettling parable, to say the least, especially that part about getting imprisoned and tortured until a debt is paid. The gracious slaveowner reverts to his dark side awfully quickly at the end; not only that, but Jesus concludes with another absurd notion—that if we fail to recognize how gracious and forgiving God is, God will not forgive us.

The only way I can make sense of this is to recognize that Jesus’ sense of humor is dryer than the Sinai sand.

Regardless of how distant our own cultural expectations of humor are from the first century Mediterranean culture, we still get the point—as Anne Lamott wrote, "Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”

Forgiveness, however, is easier to command than it is to do. Carrying a grudge may wear me out, but it’s a burden I can’t bear to lay down if someone refuses to repent, or if laying it down means eliminating any chance of accountability for a powerful person taking advantage of the weak.

If forgiveness erases accountability, what is to keep a family, a community, a nation, or the human race from descending into anarchy? Surely, sin must be met with some requirement for repentance and restitution.

It’s complicated, but God gave us humans the capacity for complicated calculus, for nuance and discernment. Nuance loses its popularity in a time of high anxiety and reactivity, but faith calls us to rise above our brain stem and fire up our cerebral cortex. Jesus makes a distinction between bearing a grudge and requiring accountability. He makes a distinction between resentment and restitution.

Who has done you wrong? Or, perhaps even more troubling, who has done wrong to someone you love? I mean, deep, irreparable harm.

When I think about that, I cannot snap my fingers, or say some formulaic prayer and make my resentment disappear. I can’t instantly rid myself of a desire not only for justice, but for more than a little bit of retaliation, a taste of their own medicine. And, in a case when someone who did grievous wrong to someone I love did in fact get fired from his prestigious job for misconduct, it did not taste like sadness, but schadenfreude.

It didn’t taste like rat poison, but I have to admit—neither was it the cup of salvation.

So, what do we do when we can’t just will ourselves to forgive from our heart as Jesus tells us to do?

I have come to see my own struggle to forgive as something like a struggle with insomnia. Like sleep, forgiveness cannot be willed into existence. The best we can do is create an environment in which we are prepared to receive it as a gift.

In the first church I served as pastor, long ago and far away, in the time before YouTube or email, we recorded sermons on cassette tapes, copied them, and delivered them to our homebound members who wished to receive them. After I had subjected this congregation to my first few months of preaching every week, I visited an elderly member of the congregation and delivered the tape of the previous week’s worship service.

It was a cold morning, but she greeted me warmly and fed me pie and hot coffee. She held the cassette tape close to her, hugged it even, and said, “You just don’t know how much this means to me.”

Aww, shucks, I said, I’m glad you enjoy the tapes.

She continued, “One of the many difficulties I have developed with age is trouble sleeping. But I can put one of these cassettes into the player and before long, I am out like a light. Thank you so much.”

That was humbling. But I’m grateful my sermons could help her.

And perhaps when the gospel is preached with a bit more maturity than I had at the age of twenty-five, and mixed with some prayer, meditation, and the study of scripture, one’s heart, in time, can be prepared to receive not just the gift of a good night’s sleep, but the gift of forgiveness; the ability to let go of resentments, or grudges, or of counting offenses against us that would distract us from the grace we have received.

That grace, Jesus says, feels like a forty-two gazillion-dollar mortgage paid off. It tastes like milk and honey from the promised land. It is sweeter than vengeance, and more satisfying than a sumptuous meal.

It is, Jesus says, the key to living the life for which God made us.